For the electrical contracting industry to remain strong, the next generation of leaders needs to be educated and cross-trained. Each firm, though, is unique and must develop cross-training and educational programs that meet its specific needs. Smaller firms, for example, may not require as extensive or formal a program as a much larger company.

What Cross-Training Means

To Cogburn Brothers Electric Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., the term “cross-training” means teaching employees to perform the various functions in the company and step in during another employee's absence or during a crisis.

“Most of our corporate cross-training is done in the clerical and bookkeeping departments, while potential project managers are fully trained in estimating, budgeting and in the technical aspects of electrical construction before being promoted to that position,” said Ron Cogburn, CEO.

Although the company has no written criteria, when an employee has demonstrated a full grasp of each function within a specific department, he or she is moved on to the next. Employees who are chosen to participate in the training Cogburn's offers include those who demonstrate an ability to perform the specific duties in which they will be trained, and those who demonstrate a willingness to perform, an interest in advancement and the desire to create a career path within the organization.

“The goal is to ensure that all of the company's positions and functions can be immediately filled in case of the primary employee's unavailability and that no disruption to company operations or project progress occurs,” said Cogburn.

Rex Ferry, president of Valley Electrical Consolidated Inc. in Girard, Ohio, defines cross-training as developing communication between everyone in the organization and ensuring that all employees are aware of what is going on.

“That knowledge enables all our employees to be aware of coworkers' needs and also ensures that everyone knows what is required to complete their jobs,” Ferry said.

Each function in the company, whether it's accounting, estimating or project management, has a written job description and procedures. “We hired a consultant to analyze the organization and write the job description for each position, allowing us to more easily cross-train or fill positions when they open,” said Ferry.

Employees who are willing to attend the various classes and seminars that the company arranges are targeted for advancement. In addition, field electricians willing to step forward and take a leadership role are offered the opportunity to attend classes and get the training that will enable them to advance to project management and beyond.

“To retain good employees, a company needs to provide security and the sense that there is room for advancement. In addition, extensive training is required in our ever-changing industry-with its evolving markets and technologies-to remain successful and stay ahead of changing customer needs,” Ferry said.

Capital Electric Construction Co. in Kansas City, Mo., believes that cross-training is essential for business survival. “You must have employees that are able to take over functions in various departments in case of a crisis of personnel or projects,” said Robert Doran III, president. All new employees at Capital Electric work in several departments, including estimating, project management, accounting and in the field. How long they stay in each department depends on how quickly they learn. “The goal is to provide a rapid overview of the breadth of the company and to help new employees understand other people's jobs,” Doran said.

The company also provides cross-training opportunities for existing employees who have been identified as potential future project managers and general foreman. The employees must demonstrate a willingness to learn, seek out educational opportunities and display a desire for upward mobility within the company.

“Extensive training in all aspects of the business provides the company with future leaders and provides employees with a long-term career plan and path,” Doran said.

Ron Autrey, president of Miller Electric Co., Jacksonville, Fla., views cross-training as a vertical progression from field positions, through the junior and then senior management levels of the company. At Miller Electric, both estimators and field supervisors train to become project managers, but are not typically cross-trained in the support and administrative functions of the company.

“A typical track is four years as an apprentice, four years as a journeyman, two to four years as a field supervisor, two to four years as an assistant project manager and four to eight years as a project manager,” Autrey said. The next levels are senior project manager and divisional vice president.

Employees who demonstrate a balanced skill set, technical competence, interpersonal skills and who will perform well in multiple roles are those identified and targeted for advancement. “Successful managers and leaders are continually training to adapt to the fast-paced changes within the electrical industry,” added Autrey. Miller Electric's goal is to create a diversified company with diversified resources and experienced people.

Educational Benefits

The benefits of training and educating future leaders are realized by the individual, the company and by the electrical contracting industry as a whole. The individual receives job security and career enhancement, skills upgrades, greater opportunity for advancement, and personal and professional satisfaction, according to Cogburn. “Employee value is greatly increased because trained people are capable of assuming a wider range of duties,” he said.

Training and education also teaches people that they are able to accomplish their goals. “Training builds character and provides the employee with an opportunity to grow, to achieve and to make more money,” said Ferry.

According to Autrey, executives and managers in the electrical contracting industry are well paid, though salaries depend on company revenues and profitibility. “Well-trained, balanced executives and managers are better able to succeed with the clear career path provided through training and education,” he added.

The electrical contracting firm that makes training investments receives increased customer satisfaction through consistent service levels and no disruption to customer operations or processes. According to Ferry, “When people take advantage of the growth opportunities offered by training, the customer receives increased quality service levels.”

And finally, according to Doran, having a skilled work force in the field and the office helps create growth and profitability and will allow the company to distinguish itself from its competition.

The industry also gains from cross-training of electrical contracting firm employees since they will go onto assume leadership roles.

“Since we are a service-oriented industry, we need to continuously groom future leaders to improve the customer's perception of the ability of electrical contractors to perform the necessary work and deliver high-quality traditional electrical and high-tech voice/data/video (VDV) projects,” said Cogburn. Ferry agreed and pointed out that training enables the industry to be more often seen by customers and end-users as an excellent source of high-quality work that will fulfill their needs.

There is also a more noble purpose to training, however. “A dedicated, skilled work force is better able to give back to the industry and provide it with long-term leadership and guidance,” Doran said.

Outside Resources

Wanting to groom future leaders and provide training is all well and good, but where can an electrical contractor go for the resources needed to do it successfully? The answer is that resources to build better leadership come from many sources.

Cogburn Brothers hosts in-house seminars for those employees who are the primary performer of any specific function.

“We average 130 employees in the office and in the field, making it more imperative to cross-train to ensure complete coverage and a seamless presentation to the customer,” he said.

In addition, four to six company electricians attend industry-sponsored technical training every year, and then share what they learned with others. The company also provides its craftsmen with specific foreman, supervision and technical courses in an effort to ensure that its electricians can provide the highest possible quality of service to customers.

“We use industry training seminars, publications and the training offered at industry conventions as outside resources,” said Ferry.

In addition, the company uses consultants to develop training programs, trade magazines to find training opportunities, software and electrical manufacturers' training programs, and takes advantage of OSHA. Once every quarter, Valley Electrical brings in a different supplier to teach project managers, field electricians and purchasing personnel about the latest products and technologies and how to correctly apply them.

“For our VDV division, we bring in vendors to train technicians to comply with various certification requirements, and we also send our technicians to various manufacturers' sites for training,” Ferry said.

Capital Electric has created its own executive management training program, which includes courses in leadership, contract law, financial analysis and project management; 40 people attended the first course held this past September. The company also uses consultants to facilitate other internal programs such as a crash course in Total Quality Management.

“Although mandatory for management personnel, the course is voluntary for field employees who wish to advance their careers. Over the past 10 years, 96 percent of Capital's field electricians and linemen have successfully taken and passed it,” Doran said. Other courses developed by Capital Electric with outside consultants include one that teaches job-site management and another that provides training in all aspects of the company.

Continuously monitoring and advancing capable workers and managers and grooming them for future leadership roles helps ensure a company's success, provides the customer with the best possible service and quality, satisfies the individual's personal and career goals and helps the electrical industry to flourish. EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.