Electrical Contractors and Workers: Enlightenment Must Precede Renaissance

In February’s column, I said that these are, in many ways, the best of times to be part of the electrical industry. Before the month was half over, this thought was validated by a heavy thinker—one among a growing crowd—who thinks we are living through a time leading to “The Coming Renaissance of Electrical Contracting.”

That’s the title of a blog originally published on the Construction Software Advice Web site, reprinted on www.ENR.com, and referenced in the National Electrical Contractors Association’s own blog at energysolutions.necanet.org on Feb. 17, 2010. It starts with the intriguing premise that the term “electrical contractor” will become obsolete in the next 10 to 20 years as we transition ourselves into “energy contractors.”

The Renaissance essay indicates that the green construction market will create unprecedented high demand for electricians. It cites some forward-looking studies to support this assertion.

For example, a 2009 report from strategy and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton says green construction will grow dramatically over the next five years, generating $554 billion in gross domestic product, providing $396 billion in labor earnings and supporting or creating more than 7.9 million jobs from 2009 to 2013. By comparison, from 2000 to 2008, GDP from green construction was just $173 billion, labor earnings was $123 billion, and the number of jobs created was 2.4 million.

Another study, by the American Solar Energy Society, projects renewable-energy jobs for electricians to grow by about 900 percent in the next decade, and that’s just in Colorado! Similar growth is anticipated in other states investing in renewable energy and sustainable construction.

It’s not just speculation. Hard facts and current realities show that the market for green electrical services can be expected to skyrocket and that qualified electrical contractors will benefit accordingly. These realities range from the requirement for all federal buildings to switch to Energy Star lighting products by the end of 2013 to increasing start-ups for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) projects where many of the credits necessary for certification are electric- and energy-related. (Tip: Having a LEED Accredited Professional (AP) on your team could help you significantly when you bid on these type of projects.)

The upshot? “We obviously expect to see electricians working on solar photovoltaic and wind turbine installations, but that’s just the beginning. They’ll work on building retrofits, mass transit and light rail projects, ‘smart’ electrical grid transmission systems and more.”

The blog maintains that the anticipated growth in green construction and brighter prospects for electrical contractors are being driven by federal incentives, lower material costs and savings from reduced energy spending. True enough, but there is an additional element—the growing realization that energy work is rightfully within the domain of the electrical industry and should be performed by qualified electrical contractors.

NECA is working very hard to promote this concept, and it’s catching on, even in the highest circles of government. For instance, as shown in this month’s NECA Notes section, President Obama gets it (pg. 121).

And I am very pleased that the folks who develop and publish the rules on what qualifies as acceptable electrical work get it, too. In addition to having a new article on wind turbine installations that NECA championed, the 2011 edition of the National Electrical Code will include a new requirement in articles on solar photovoltaic systems, fuel cells and interconnected power production—specifically, that all such work be performed only by qualified people.

NECA-member contractors, as well as electrical inspectors and other industry participants, played a major role in gaining those revisions. We see it like this: While roofers, carpenters or other tradesmen may be able to install rooftop solar panels or other alternative-energy systems, it takes a qualified electrical contractor to ensure that the system works safely and meshes effectively with all other building components.

So, the fact that energy work is electrical work has been established and upheld.

But, to claim it as our own, we contractors and our workers must develop sufficient skills and knowledge to compete successfully in green construction. In addition to technical training for our electricians, we and our managers could also benefit from learning new ways to market and promote our new green credentials and by updating our bidding processes.

If yours is an enlightened company that makes the best use of current downtime to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge, you should do very well in the coming renaissance. I hope to see you there!

About the Author

Rex A. Ferry

NECA President
Rex Ferry was president of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) from 2009 through 2011 and contributed the President's Desk column monthly.

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