KNOWLEDGABLE CONTRACTORS HAVE AN ADVANTAGE: training has given them the leg up for decades. But as technology changes and the needs of end-users evolve with it, ensuring your electricians can provide the best quality work is more difficult. Skilled training requires more effort than it used to. Pulling cable may be at the heart of construction projects, but increasingly, contractors are finding themselves competing with controls companies, voice/data/video (VDV) specialists and telecom firms that are getting more involved in work that electrical contractors used to consider their own.

To stay competitive, contractors need to take a hard look at the skills their apprentices and journeymen are getting at local training sites and determine whether they have a competitive advantage locally. The greatest advantage every contractor has is the skill of its crew.

Most contractors, as well, have at least one eye on the changing technology in their region. A contractor with electricians who know their way around the latest technology—whether in automated buildings, solar power or security—is the contractor that will dominate in that regional market.

Traditional training

One way to get training is through the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC), which is offered in conjunction with National Electrical Contractors Association and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers chapters. These organizations urge journeymen and apprentices to take advantage of all the training they can get to stay up to speed.

The Portland, Ore. JATC Local 36 began a forward-thinking approach two decades ago. Executive Director Ken Fry said its own training program began upgrading when the programmable logic computers (PLC) first hit the manufacturing floors in the early 1980s. From there, as technology evolved, so has the training program. The local constructed a new training center in 1998 but has yet to fully complete the follow-up reconstruction, Fry said, and he doesn’t expect they will ever reach completion. As technology changes, so must their laboratories and classrooms.

He said that just going through the apprenticeship program offers a foundation, but it’s not nearly enough for lifelong learning.

“If you want to sit on the skills you gained at the apprenticeship program, your skill set will diminish over the years,” Fry said.

To keep the education relevant and up-to-date, many local JATCs now include telecommunications labs, fire and security labs, variable speed drive labs and computer labs. The Portland JATC has those as well as solar panels that power the building from the roof where electricians can train on their photovoltaic installation skills. While automated building and Cisco networking is still not the norm in Portland, it is making its appearance, and training programs are offered occasionally in these areas as well. Many of these programs come from the NJATC and the local JATC acts as host to make it available to local contractors.

Changing with the times

Fry said training programs have had to change with new training styles and new technology. In Portland, students come to class in full-day shifts, one day a week for a 10-week term. This eliminates the late night after-work sessions that often find the students and trainers tired and burned out.

“This way the apprentices are fresh, alive, alert. It gives us the opportunity to provide really meaningful classroom instruction,” Fry said.

What is called “dayschool” is becoming a trend nationwide. Full-day programs in a specialized laboratory is a far cry from a generation ago when apprentices met in high school classrooms that were ill equipped for electrical training.

“It’s gotten us out of the public school system,” Fry said.

Fry realizes that generational changes in learning styles can affect how people learn.

“If I offer a program to a roomful of first-year apprentices, it’s going to have to be different than the way I approach a roomful of 40- and 50-year-old journeymen,” he said.

He pointed out that young students require training that provides immediate relevance. For example, he said, teaching mathematics in an applied way is much more effective. Electricians are getting away from book study and are getting their hands on computers and into circuitry in the classroom. 

In Jersey City, N.J., JATC Local 164 apprentices have a training program that includes automated building, VDV training, fiber optics, and the basics of electrical theory and labor, motor controls, and power quality. They also receive 30 hours of OSHA training as part of the coursework. For journeymen, there are further courses in alternative energy, such as photovoltaics, and NICET certification, said electrical instructor Richard Paredes.

For automated building, Paredes said, “There’s a tremendous amount of protocol. What people want is one protocol. LonWorks is pretty good at that.”

And sometimes, getting into the automated building game can be not only a way to gain market share, it can be the way to protect business you already have.

Winning back the business

In Omaha, Neb., Dan Smith, president of the Electrical Co. of Omaha (ECOO), said he was tired of losing business to the control companies. The last straw was when a control company took over lighting control installation on a project in which the ECOO was contractor. The lighting control system was to be integrated with the ECOO’s entire electrical system. Smith decided to be aggressive in his efforts to protect and win back business.

He went out and got a trainer to come to his company and educate him and about 10 other electricians in automated building systems. He and his men learned to get comfortable in front of a computer, and in a year and a half since beginning their first automated building project, they have had four more, one of which was their own office. Now they can use their “smart office” as a training tool and a showpiece for customers and engineers.

In ECOO’s smart office, every office has its own thermostat and lighting controls. The systems interact, which allows the occupancy sensor in any room to automatically instruct the system to turn the lights and air conditioner on or off. Smith has become a fan of automated building systems and a effective marketer. He marvels at how an automated system allows an employee to use his or her identification card or key fob to access the locked front door, which then identifies the employee, turns on the necessary lighting and HVAC systems in that person’s office, and lights his or her way through the halls.

“We keep training and getting more jobs and getting more efficient at it. Soon we will start bidding on the open market,” Smith said.

“There is some start up time, and you have to do continual training. There’s definitely a learning curve,” Smith said. “The first job you’re not going to make money.”

By beginning automated building installation with LonWorks, installing the lighting system, which the electricians were already familiar with, the company was able to start with something small and work their way further in as they became more comfortable with the technology.

“In a year and a half we went from doing labor [for controls companies] to being primary,” Smith said.

Recently, the ECOO has been primary contractor on temperature controls, taking work from the same controls company that two years ago drew business from them.

Addressing the needs of contractors, such as the ECOO, the JATC Local 22, Omaha, Neb. is bringing building automation to its contractors and their electricians. As building automation grew in scope over the past decade, training director Jim Paladino said, “We decided we would put it in our building and try to get our contractors on board.”

Local 22 does more than just train its electricians in LonWorks, which is one prominent automated building system. It reaches out to the building community as well, bringing architects and engineers into their training facility to see what automated building systems offer and what electricians could accomplish.

“When they see the lab, see that it’s non-proprietary, they like what they see,” Paladino said.

The JATC has the automation system installed in their own building, mostly to demonstrate to customers and electricians.

“It’s just a matter of getting architects and engineers on board,” Paladino said.

While he said the technology is still too new in the Omaha area, a growing number of facilities are beginning to install it, so the training center is ensuring its men are comfortable with it.

Miller Electric Co., Omaha, has joined the growing number of contractors starting their own low-voltage division, allowing the company to become a one-stop-shop for security, telecom, paging and any VDV cabling in new construction and renovation.

According to Miller Electric president Don Fitzpatrick, by launching Miller Integrated Systems, the nearly 100-year-old company was able to be better positioned to its customer base.

“Our reputation was good,” Fitzpatrick said, “so people were willing to try us right away with their low-voltage work.”

Miller Electric quickly evolved from just VDV cabling to paging and security. Because low-voltage training was not offered locally, Miller Electric established its own training programs, bringing vendors in to work with apprentices and journeymen. Even now, as electricians can get low-voltage training at the JATC, Miller offers his own training for the specifics.

“We’re still dabbling at low-voltage,” he said, adding that security system installation is the largest area of major growth. While low-voltage work may only be a small percentage of the company’s revenue, it helps lock in customers seeking one-stop solutions.

NICET training

Fire alarm work is changing as well and the new technology requires new training. Daniel John (DJ) Solleder, a Jersey City instructor, teaches National Institute for Certification of Engineering Technologies (NICET), a requirement in 22 states. Although it is not required in New Jersey, he has earned the certification and teaches it to others.

“We know NICET is petitioning in New Jersey, and it’s better to be prepared than play catch up,” Solleder said.

Keeping safety front and center

Safety is another aspect that may be evolving, because OSHA rules change. The way to bring safety training to your electricians is not cut and dry. Although there are now online safety training courses available, that doesn’t come close to the kind of training electricians gain from putting on their own mask and checking the seal for themselves. While contractors can rely on local solutions for basic training, the specialty projects, such as wiring installations at a chemical plant or oil manufacturer, require more safety training. In this case, a meeting before the job begins may not be enough.

Joe O’Connor, safety industry expert and vice president of Intec, a safety consulting company, recommended contacting OSHA for safety programs that may be available locally. To keep electricians fresh and mindful of safety, an hourlong meeting before work several days on a regular basis may be the best way to stay current, O’Connor said.

“The talks themselves are a great way to keep safety at the top of their minds,” he said.

Focus on training

The bottom line is that the training is there, but in many cases, contractors need to seek it out.

“If we’re going to be competitive, we can’t rest on our laurels,” Fry said.

Contractors should always keep looking for applicable training programs, which can be found online; through manufacturers; various organizations, such as The Fiber Optic Association; and other sources.

Fry said he expects contractors nationwide to be dealing with more types of technology.

“Obviously, if you’re going to be competitive, you’ve got to have computer literacy,” he said. “Security is another one that’s growing.”

He predicted that more interest in electric-powered vehicles will impact contractors as well as the trend toward power line carrier communications.

Contractors need to be ahead of the curve, Fry said.

“Rather than ignore changing technology, you have to jump on technology,” he said. “When our customers see emerging technology, they like to see our contractors jump on them.”      EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.