Electrician Shortage-- It's Too Late to Avoid It

By Joe Salimando | Jun 15, 2003
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There’s a worker shortage coming for all industries in the United States, bringing with it, later in this decade, projections of a spectacular shortage in skilled electricians. Can the industry avoid having too much work for too few trained and skilled people?

As time grinds on, it seems less and less likely. ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR last tackled this question in January 2002. In the 16 months since, the situation has worsened. How?

1. With January’s nonresidential construction dollars at their lowest inflation-adjusted level since January 1996 (see Table E), electrical construction field employment was 31 percent higher than seven years ago. Residential construction’s boom does not explain this.

Bottom line: When it occurs, economic recovery boosts employment from a relatively high level. At 619,000 field employees in January 2003, the decline from the July 2000 all-time peak is less than 13 percent.

2. As of late winter, enrolled electrical apprentices were being laid off. Contractors were planning to induct fewer new apprentices. Reduced project activity drove these decisions.

These decisions will hit the industry in 2006 and thereafter. An estimated 11,500 union and non-union electrical apprentices (out of about 60,000 enrolled) may have been unemployed this winter. How many will stay with the program?

3. One might question whether construction contractors—as local or national groups and in any trade—can “ramp up” to deal with a crisis that seems to be three or more years away.

All trades face the worker shortage; occupations as diverse as nursing and education will struggle. But in construction, it appears that only the electrical construction industry has funded aggressive recruiting efforts (in the nation’s high schools), with few other trades following suit.

By 2010, and perhaps as early as 2006, electrical contractors nationwide will face a crisis that will not be amenable to a “quick fix” or short-term solutions. Yes, there was a skilled electrician shortage in many places in 1999-2000. But it lasted, at most, 18 months. This one will abide with us for many years.

A two-pronged problem

The lack of growth is compounded by attrition.

Worker shortage projections assume steady but not spectacular U.S. economic growth. But the power/IBS (integrated building systems) industry is growing much faster than that. More skilled people are needed. Even without attrition, there would still be a need for more workers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be about 830,000 field workers in 2010. Compare that to 2001, when there were 686,000 electrical construction workers. So the industry will not only need to attract 150,000 people to replace those who retire or move on to other careers over the next several years, but an additional 144,00 for those “new” positions.

Where are those 150,000 going? Electricians don’t have to retire to leave the field. Day-to-day electrical work wears on a body over decades. A skilled electrician may not retire at 60; he or she might leave to take a less-strenuous job (a commercial building maintenance slot, for example).

“The greatest number of electricians leave the work force when they reach 62 years of age,” said Bob Gasperow, executive director the Construction Labor Research Council. Recent CLRC studies examined future work force needs for NECA and the IBEW.

For the IBEW to expand at its recent rates, it must attract as many as 11,700 new apprentices and journeymen annually between now and 2010 (up from just short of 9,000 in 2000), according to CLRC. That takes both growth and replacement into account.

Note that those figures cover just IBEW needs. Separately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that as many as 150,000 field employees (from foreman to journeyman electrician to helper) will leave in 2001-2010.

Suppose the industry pulls of a miracle and attracts the needed number (almost 300,000). Most of them would enter the industry between 2006 and 2010. So in the absolute best case, about 35 percent of electrical field workers in 2010 would have entered the field since 2001... perhaps more than half in the 2006-09 period.

But not only is the industry not prepared for the skilled electrician shortage—it is not even preparing.

Competitive pressures

Union contractors and their IBEW counterparts had roughly 50,000 apprentices in training in 2002, about double the number of eight years earlier. The non-union Independent Electrical Contractors claims 11,000 to 12,000 apprentices.

NECA figures put the union market share at around 44 percent—yet the union side is doing more than 80 percent of the training. Cockshaw’s Construction Labor News+Opinion reported in January that 82 percent of 5,249 construction apprentices registered in Pennsylvania were union. “Just over one out of every three” construction workers there are organized, the newsletter noted.

That serious disconnect shows up in union contractors’ sometimes-decreased willingness to fund further training ... much less ramp up to meet a future shortage.

“The problem is that we are training our future competitors,” said one Mid-Atlantic contractor who owns a large company. “We do both inside and line work. The utilities see one of our line apprentices on a job, and hire him. It’s as if we dangled the apprentice that we trained right out in front of them—and they took him away from us. That’s only after we’ve made the investment in training them!

“And the same thing happens with the non-union on inside apprentices—we train them, they leave for another dollar an hour in wages.

“From my company’s perspective, we [the union] are doing most of the training, and spending the money—and these people leave. We can’t do anything about it. The result is that we’re not getting a return on the tremendous investment we are making in training.”

Add hard times to that situation, and one might sympathize with the union contractors who become less enthusiastic about apprenticeship programs.

Bob Baird, IEC vice president of apprenticeship, training, standards and safety, estimates that total enrollment of apprentices his organization tracks dropped about 17 percent overall this year, predominantly due to an almost 33 percent drop in enrollment of first-year apprentices.

Some unemployed apprentices—already representing a significant industry investment—will no doubt leave the field. Should economic times worsen, we could see more apprentice lay-offs.

In 2006 and beyond, we’ll pay the price. Apprentices newly enrolled in IEC’s program graduate in 2006; the five-year NECA-IBEW program’s 2002 inductees would become journeymen in 2007. Some will, at the very least, not graduate on time. Some are gone forever.

If an economic recovery kicks in, journeyman electricians will be in short supply. Contractors may sorely miss those laid-off apprentices—who committed their future to our trade, only to be turned aside.

There is hope however. The next generation of electrical contractors may come from two underutilized demographics.

A growing population

In 1980, native- and foreign-born Hispanics accounted for 4.3 million of the nation’s 79.8 million workers. Of 118.5 million in the labor force two decades later, 11.1 million were Hispanic. Over 20 years, Hispanic worker growth was three times the overall rate.

Projections say Hispanics will comprise 20.7 million of the 137.9 million folks at work in 2020. As of 2001, they were the nation’s largest minority group (passing blacks), composing 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Over this decade and the next, the Hispanic worker total will soar 86 percent, to 16 percent of the nation’s total. Bottom line: Hispanics were 5.4 percent of the work force in 1980; by 2020, they are projected to make up 15 percent of the work force (See Table C).

That equates to one Hispanic worker for every 18.5 employees in 1980; one for every 6.67 in 2020. A “typical” 15-worker crew might not have included any Hispanics in 1980; by 2020, that crew would have at least two.

Obviously, for the industry to grow, it would be helpful to recruit and better accommodate those who speak Spanish at home as either a first or second language.

Jimmy Cleveland Jr., president of Cleveland Electric in Atlanta, one of the nation’s largest electrical contractors, thinks the industry’s best shot is to recruit Spanish-speakers born in the United States. This generation might well be bilingual: “A number of Hispanic people, including Mexicans, have been here for a while. Their children are in high school now.

“We have to go after that generation,” Cleveland said. “I am working with our local (IBEW) union to talk to the Hispanic-American community. We’ll have to, there’s no choice. We’re not yet moving quickly on this, but we’ll get there.”

One option for those who wish to communicate with Hispanic workers is “Command Spanish,” a registered trademark for occupational Spanish-language materials and workshops. Grammar and sentence structure are omitted from this training for non-Spanish speakers. A visit to the Web site turned up no specifics on electrical instruction, but a 64-page manual (with CD) on Spanish For Construction Sites.

Baird agreed that there are a great many people in the minority sector who are being or could be brought into the electrical construction industry.

“IEC is doing everything we can to promote Spanish and other language resources. We are also looking at the viability of Command Spanish programs and hands-on safety training programs,” he said. “Hiring multilingual supervisors to work with non-English speaking workers is another avenue some companies are taking.

“On the other hand, it is difficult to accurately provide highly technical information in other languages,” Baird continued, “especially because of the sheer volume of materials and the frequency in which standards and technologies change. It would be complex enough to translate the National Electrical Code into other languages but we couldn’t just stop there. It has been suggested that because the Code specifies that equipment must be installed in accordance with its listing or labeling, manufacturers and testing laboratories alike would have to translate their materials and labels into other languages. A truly daunting task.

“Instead of changing the industry, we’d prefer to provide support resources for non-English-speaking workers to learn English,” Baird concluded. “In line with this approach, a number of our chapters are providing bilingual instructors to assist apprentices through their first year of training; and/or are referring individuals to English classes at local community colleges.”

As for just translating the National Electrical Code and stopping there?

“There’s a big problem with that,” said Baird, whose expertise includes codes, standards and apprenticeship. “If you read it, the CodeCode. Are all of those manuals going to be translated as well? If not, we will not have done the job of putting all of the electrical safety requirements that are in the Code into Spanish.” references technical manuals from manufacturers in many places. Those manuals are, by incorporation, a part of the

So there are some obstacles to attracting Hispanics to the industry. Perhaps other demographics may be targeted.

Not everybody has a B.A.

Does “everybody” go to college? That’s the conventional wisdom. In many areas, high schools (and guidance counselors) are rated by what percentage of graduating seniors enroll in college.

But wait: Not many graduate from a four-year college. Therein lies an opportunity for construction and, specifically for electrical contracting’s future.

More than 13 percent of those age 25 to 29 did not graduate from high school (See Table D). Further, the percentage isn’t appreciably different among those over 30.

As of last year, 10.45 million high school graduates aged 25 to 29 did not have a B.A. or B.S. Many could brighten their futures in construction.

Government data tells the rest of the story:

o 63 percent of high school graduates enroll in a two- or four-year school.

o Fewer than one-half of them earn a B.A. or B.S.

o More than six of every 10 recent high school graduates could become candidates for an electrical apprenticeship.

Where will these candidates find jobs?

The electrical/IBS industry has part of the answer. EC

SALIMANDO is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at [email protected].


About The Author

Joe Salimando is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at [email protected].





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