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The Residential Circuit: Residential training programs attract younger apprentices

By Susan DeGrane | Feb 15, 2024
workers on the job site
While many contractors focus on commercial work, plenty take on residential construction and maintenance.

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While many contractors focus on commercial work, plenty take on residential construction and maintenance. Although high mortgage rates may be slowing home construction in some places, plenty of regions in the United States are showing robust activity and myriad reasons for maintaining residential apprentice training programs.

Ann Arbor program grows

“In Ann Arbor, there’s a market that allows NECA member contractors to be competitive with residential work,” said Neil Parish, executive director of the NECA Michigan Chapter, Lansing, Mich. “In the western part of Michigan, competing can be harder due to the labor rates.”

“There’s a demand for technology in Ann Arbor, which is pretty green and pushing for electrification of everything, including cars,” said John Salyer, training director for the Ann Arbor Electrical JATC (AAEJATC). “By the time apprentices finish our residential program, they’re certified to install EV charging stations. They’re also acquainted with smart technology and more recent NEC code requiring ground fault interrupters and surge protectors.”

With 26 apprentices and 11 first-year class members, AAEJATC’s residential program is going strong and continues to change with the times. The lion’s share of AAEJATC’s enrollment is 160 inside wire apprentices and nine limited energy voice/data/video apprentices, but the value of its residential apprentice program should not be underestimated, Salyer said.

“We just had an energy storage and photovoltaic presentation,” Salyer said. The school also recently invested in craft certification booths to simulate working in crawl spaces. 

Unlike inside wire programs that have waiting lists and require more experience, residential programs are more likely to attract younger applicants.

“Most of the people doing the residential program are younger,” Salyer said. “This offers them a good way to get experience. And the majority do end up becoming inside wiremen.”

“A residential apprentice may have been in high school two weeks before the first class,” said Chris Parks, AAEJATC instructor. “It’s a young crowd, which is good because the work is very fast-paced. Residential construction tends to be the same blueprint setup over and over. You might have 99 or 100 models in three different designs. Once you get through the first three or six, it goes really fast.”

AAEJATC’s residential program includes 3,500 hours of classroom and on-the-job instruction. With 8,000 hours of work experience, apprentices can take the state journey licensing exam. Those wanting to earn higher inside wire wages can continue with training.

Jonathon Ho, 29, is a third-year residential apprentice with AAEJATC. Unlike many of his classmates who started with no experience, he worked for a family member’s restaurant business and for two years (4,000 hours) for a home builder.

Ho graduates in March. Having logged 8,000 hours four months before, however, he qualified early to take the state journeyman certification test and passed it.

“I can’t say enough about how much of a resource this instruction has been to pass the journeyman’s test,” he said. “I believe I have more technical knowledge now. I understand much better how electricity works. Now it’s easier to understand what’s going on when something’s not working.” 

Ho said he may eventually enter the inside wire program. Meanwhile, he’s one of 11 residential electricians and apprentices working for Harper Electric Inc. in Ann Arbor.

“Our residential team is a lot of younger guys,” said Bill Engel, project manager/estimator at Harper Electric. “Some see it as a stepping stone to the inside wire program.”

Every year, one or two transfer over, which is not a problem because most of Harper’s work is commercial. Engel started in AAEJATC’s residential program in 1987 and served on Ann Arbor’s Residential Apprenticeship Committee from 1996 until February 2022.

“The program has always been stable in this area, and ours is one of the few consistently maintained residential programs,” said Engel, who also is chair of the NECA Michigan Chapter’s SouthCentral Division. “We’ve kept it going all the way through, though we did slow down during the pandemic.”

Harper Electric serves Ann Arbor and Washtenaw and Jackson counties. Its residential business takes the form of multifamily residential buildings, multifamily low-income townhouses and rewiring jobs for high-end homes.

“Home automation came in with a big roar,” Engel said, “but right now it seems to be something taken up by just a few people because for many it’s been cost-prohibitive. Things seemed to settle down to a few basic things like occupancy sensors, thermostats and timers.”

Harper Electric also installs home generators. 

“We have a lot of trees here and storms bring a lot of them down,” Engel said. “It’s hard for the utility company to get around to everybody. Generators are a big thing here, and they offer a great avenue of business.”

Additionally, the company preps homes to support solar installation done by other installers, Engel said.

“As home to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor has a deep commitment to going green and changing over to electric. So, we do a lot of EV charging work. We’re currently working on a church, which needs six [EV chargers], based on their number of parking spots,” he said.

Some EV charging install information is proprietary, but manufacturers provide straightforward training, also by video.

“The EVs also create residential work because there’s usually a need for other service changes on the house,” Engel said.

IBEW 252’s labor agreement allows electrical contractors to pair residential apprentices with journeymen doing EV charger installations on commercial properties of 16,000 square feet or less, so Harper Electric can use residential apprentices and electricians to supplement its inside wire commercial workforce of 14 when needed.

“16,000 square feet or less would be something like a hair salon or a storefront,” Engel said. “We may be installing underground conduit for Detroit Edison, doing the prep work. We usually pair new residential apprentices with a journeyman or senior residential guy. They can do underground work for wire and fiber, but they don’t install the fiber. Or we might do feeders for an electric utility from a house to a barn.”

Residential programs in Oregon

West Side Electric Co. in Portland, Ore., employs eight residential journeymen and five apprentices. 

“The residential market is a big source of work and opportunity for us,” said Aaron Watzig, president and owner of West Side Electric. “I think our residential electricians are a good team and they enjoy doing what they do.”

Responding to the demands of the local market, the residential program offered by the NECA-IBEW Electrical Training Center (NIETC) in Portland is growing.

“We have 32 apprentices in the program today,” said Bridget Quinn, NIETC workforce development coordinator. “In 2015 we had 12. In 2011 we had two. The advantages of the program are shorter duration, and after working as a journey for 4,000 hours, graduates become master residential electricians with a much higher wage.”

NIETC journey residential electricians in the Portland area also can upgrade to an inside wire license if they meet the application requirements for the inside program and pass an aptitude test and interview. Once in, they receive 4,000 hours of credit.

Besides doing commercial work, West Side Electric specializes in new construction of single-family homes and duplexes and operates a custom homes division that wires residences up to 20,000 square feet. Many of the home properties feature pool houses, hot tubs, access buildings, outdoor spas and ponds—all requiring electricity.

“I do believe today’s new construction homes are a lot different than the homes of the past,” Watzig said. “They have different size circuits serving different locations and systems.”

West Side Electric also serves modest, high-quality spec home developments where the owners can pick different options. Work for these developments tends to be more repetitive and faster paced, which some residential apprentices and electricians prefer over custom installations that can take more time, Watzig said.

West Side Electric also operates a service van that makes house calls. 

“We really need the residential electricians and want to keep them happy, so we try to pair them with the work they like,” he said, observing that while residential apprentices tend to regard the training as a way to move to the inside wire track, he isn’t too ruffled by this. 

“That’s because we also have a strong commercial presence in the Portland/southwest Washington areas,” he said.

Crossover in Ohio

That may very well be the case for electrical contractors in Ohio as well.

“There’s plenty of crossover here, where residential work dovetails with commercial—like in high-rise apartment living, assisted living, hotels, government housing and college dorms,” said Ed Emerick, training director for the Youngstown Area Electrical JATC. 

The school’s 15 residential apprentices make up 8% of its enrollment. Emerick also started as a residential apprentice and then became an inside wire journeyman.

 

stock.adobe.com / Iryna Petrenko / Good Studio

About The Author

DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at [email protected].

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