After one of the toughest employment years in recent history, with many electricians benched in industry layoffs, it may seem counterintuitive to focus on employment right now. As the economy recovers, the employment situation will become more complicated. Going forward, more members of the largest age group are nearing retirement, while fewer younger workers are being drawn toward opportunities in electrical construction. So what happens when workers are needed again to meet construction demands?

Retooling businesses to navigate a changing marketplace is the new mantra for today’s electrical contractors (ECs). Results from the 2010 Profile of the Electrical Contractor (July 2010, www.ecmag.com) indicated that age had surpassed training as the greatest human resources concern. Almost 80 percent of survey respondents are between the ages of 35 and 64. There has been a consistent, significant decrease in the percentage of ECs age 35–54, down from 58 percent in 2006 to 45 percent in 2010. There’s no secret where these baby boomer losses are going: they’re stepping to the right side of the statistical table, so to speak. As those electrical workers retire, replacing them becomes a concern, especially since it takes a long time for younger workers to become established enough to fill the leadership pipeline.

Despite renewed hopes for economic reengagement in 2011 and cautious optimism that more electricians will be needed to meet the nation’s power demands, industry experts say the time is now to identify trends, develop succession strategies and recruit the next generation of ECs and electricians.

What to expect
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2010–2011 Occupational Outlook, employment of electricians overall is projected to increase 12 percent between 2008 and 2018, i.e., 83,000 workers from 694,000 to 777,900—about as fast as the average for all occupations. Currently, EC firms employ about 65 percent of wage and salary workers. The remainder work as electricians in a variety of other industries, with 9 percent self-employed.

Now, the recession resulted in the loss of approximately 2 million construction jobs since 2007. In the 2010 report, “The Next Big Threat ... And It’s Probably Not What You’re Expecting,” North Carolina-based management consulting firm FMI Corp. forecasts that an extended period of high unemployment could transform an entire generation of workers. According to FMI Research Director Randy Giggard, if the labor situation is not fully anticipated and planned for, there could be a “human recession” for the design and construction industry around 2014, a time when Giggard and others estimate construction will likely rebound.

Applying craft labor intensity factors into the construction mix, FMI projects the construction industry will need to add 1.5 million workers—131,500 new electricians alone—to successfully install the volume of work that is expected in 2014.

“Forward-looking design and construction companies are already preparing for what promises to be one of the most severe labor shortages in the industry,” Giggard said. “Will displaced workers return to the industry, or will they have moved on and retrained for other jobs? Where will the new work force come from?”

Those same questions are continually being addressed within the electrical construction industry, given its symbiotic relationship with construction; however, there’s still a lingering skepticism that demand won’t exceed supply anytime soon.

“Some people are not focused on this demographic issue right now because of the economy and not everyone’s at work. Eventually, the construction industry will get better, and then the shortage is really going to take effect. If we plan now instead of waiting for the economy to get better, we’ll nip it in the bud,” said Greg Mankevich, executive director of the National Electrical Contractors Association Management Education Institute (NECA-MEI).

Who to expect
One of the key skills being promoted for successful recruitment is generational trend identification.

“It’s identifying existing and upcoming issues and keeping ahead of new technologies. It’s also identifying the new type of worker, family issues, and how to operate and navigate in bad economic times,” Mankevich said.

With baby boomers on the verge of retirement, multiple industries are gearing up to hire large numbers of young Millennial employees, but some groups of workers view them with suspicion. A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that a majority of older Americans believe today’s youth is inferior to them in moral values, work ethic and respect for others. Millennials are routinely criticized for poor grammar, low social skills, short attention spans and Facebook addictions.

In his book, “Millennials in the Workplace: Human Resource Strategies for a New Generation,” leading generational expert Neil Howe writes that Millennials (born 1982–2004) bear little resemblance to earlier generations of boomers (born 1943–1960) or Generation Xers (born 1961–1981). Howe describes them as team players who have complete confidence in their future, and they are potentially an enormous asset to employers who leverage their strengths and try to understand the qualities attributed to the generation.

“They are pressured and programmed,” Howe writes. “They are special and sheltered, bonded to their parents and networked to their friends. They want structure and instant feedback. And they expect to be doted on and served.

“They fear risk and dread failure, and they have pretty conventional life goals. Above all, they want the system to work!” Howe writes.

An employer that understands these qualities will be better equipped to bring out the best in the worker. The employer can create a healthy workplace environment that will be suited to the Millennial perspective, creating a positive relationship for both parties.

Recruiting the best and the brightest
According to Gil Bindewald, deputy assistant secretary for permitting, siting and analysis for the Department of Energy, part of the recruitment equation is capturing institutional knowledge from an aging work force.

“The other part of it is looking at opportunities for public-private partnerships to look at the curriculum and find ways to enhance the pipeline of people,” Bindewald said.

Industry efforts are being conducted by the Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD), a nonprofit consortium of electric, natural gas and nuclear utilities and their associations: the Edison Electric Institute, American Gas Association, Nuclear Energy Institute and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

In addition to establishing a partnership with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Utility Workers Union of America, CEWD conducts an annual survey. The 2009 survey examined trends in hiring and training since work force gaps reflected difficulties in finding qualified applicants to fill skilled craft positions. Utilities reported that between 30 to 50 percent of applicants meeting minimum requirements didn’t pass the pre-employment aptitude tests, and others failed background and drug screening.

The survey also said that companies averaged 30 interviews to every hire. That ratio jumped to 50:1 for every successful lineworker hire. Survey findings also showed that companies who work with secondary and postsecondary institutions to develop programs tailored to the industry—such as energy career academies at the high-school level, “boot camps” prior to apprenticeships, and community college programs aligned to the specific skill requirements—report significant increases in the pass rate for preemployment tests.

Other successful programming partnerships in the industry include more than 20 universities and colleges operating NECA student chapters. These groups are facilitated with the Talent Initiative developed by NECA’s research affiliate, ELECTRI International.

“Our charge has always been to attract the best and the brightest to our industry. Now, if students don’t even know we exist, how are we going to get them? They’ve told us, if we want to attract them, they need to know about us,” Mankevich said.

The key to success is to methodically address student awareness with a multipronged approach, which will increase interest in the electrical industry.

In recent years, NECA partnered with IBEW to reach out to 30,000 high school and vocational guidance counselors with the creation and distribution of Career Action Kits detailing the jobs and training opportunities available through the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (NJATC) apprenticeships in electrical construction.

Recruiting to hedge a shortfall also means smart management of existing human capital, Giggard said.

“Much in the same way as a smart grid diverts electricity to areas of greatest need, firms must be able to adapt to fluctuating demand through smart positioning of employees skilled in more than one discipline and sensitive development of unique strengths amongst up-and-comers,” Giggard said.
Regardless of family ownership, preparing a succession plan that maps out an exit strategy and timetable, selects and engages a leadership successor, and implements strategies for transferring business control is a critical internal recruitment operative.

From never-changing to ever-changing
The growing demand for communications, data, energy-efficient power systems, alternative energies, sustainable construction and smart grid development puts ECs on the cutting-edge of a national energy agenda. Recruiting efforts will be buoyed by millions invested in new DOE grants for new-age grid work force training centers and the $43 billion in energy-related funding.

“How many industries can project an impending labor shortage that will make future recruits as valuable and in demand as electrical contractors? Of those, how many offer a career as challenging and rewarding as being an electrician?” said Steven Horst, Graybar national market manager.
The next generation of students who choose an electrical profession will find an industry with opportunities their parents never knew.

“When I got in the business 16 years ago, little had changed in the electrical industry over the last few generations. Now, change is happening rapidly, with opportunities in such diverse areas as energy management, emerging technologies and intelligent systems, any of which have the potential to revolutionize the industry,” Horst said.

NECA President Rex Ferry said, “We can no longer think of ourselves as ‘just’ electrical contractors. We need to be energy managers. We need to offer our customers a total, integrated solution to their power, lighting and system needs.”

And, new generation energy managers will need to stay focused on the core essentials of installation. In his new book, “Agile Construction for the Electrical Contractor,” Perry Daneshgari found that 40 percent of labor on a job site is spent on nonproductive activities not required for installation.
“Let distributors manage your material and function as your logistics provider, so that your current work force and future recruits can focus on productive tasks in the field, such as installation,” Graybar’s Horst said.


MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached at mcclung@iowatelecom.net.