Preparing for the Best of Times During the Worst of Times

If I were a pessimist, I could bemoan the fact that most economists think 2010 will be another tough year for nonresidential construction and that full recovery may not be realized until 2011 or later. But pessimism is for people who have no hope.

I agree with John C. Maxwell, an internationally known leadership expert, who said, “We choose what attitudes we have right now. And it’s a continuing choice.” I choose optimism because I’ve been in business long enough to know that bad times end, and better times are attained when hope is combined with well-thought-out action.

Besides, I happen to think that these are, in many ways, the best of times to be part of the electrical industry. I can’t remember when we’ve ever had so many opportunities opening up. In particular, the national quest for energy independence and economic conditions that cry out for cost cutting should boost demand for energy efficiency and renewable-energy production.

Now, I know you’ve been hearing a lot about green construction, green jobs and all things green. It’s gotten to the point where we have to beware of “greenwashing,” when products and services are hyped with claims of environmental benefits that don’t actually exist. But qualified electrical contractors can provide real-world, proven solutions to real problems. That’s how we should market our services.

I like how Energy Solutions, NECA’s blog at, puts it: “Perhaps a given building owner won’t really care about CO2 emissions. But an owner will want the other benefits we can deliver—lower energy bills, lower maintenance costs, and happier tenants!”

Helping our customers meet their cost-cutting goals could be as simple as retrofitting their facilities with energy-efficient lighting. According to the Energy Cost Savings Council, lighting upgrades in commercial and institutional buildings generate an average project payback period of a little more than two years, with a 45 percent return on investment. Also, approximately 2.2 million U.S. buildings are candidates for a lighting upgrade, according to the National Lighting Bureau.

On the other hand, efforts to help a customer reduce energy and maintenance costs could range all the way up to providing a comprehensive facility energy audit that takes into account all electrical systems in the building (including individual components and end uses as well as how the processes and systems work together) to determine if there are ways to save. The customer’s plans and goals regarding facility operations, as well as financial perimeters, also must be considered. Therefore, performing energy audits and the follow-up work they prescribe requires the contractor to be a knowledgeable consultant in addition to being a technical services provider.

Consultative skill, as well as technical ability, is also essential to success on LEED projects. All new federal government buildings and federally financed renovations must meet LEED- certification standards, and billions of dollars in stimulus funds have been set aside for this purpose. State and local governments across the country are also requiring LEED certification for their projects, as are an ever-increasing number of private-sector owners. It’s certainly worth investigating.

And, if you are interested in preparing your company for opportunities related to the smart grid, look into such things as energy storage, smart metering, and transmission and distribution monitoring. The Department of Energy has awarded $3.4 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants to modernize the electric power grid, and the federal money will be supplemented by more than $4.7 billion in private-sector funds, making for what President Obama calls “the largest ever investment in a smarter, stronger and more secure electric grid.”

In short, there are opportunities out there and many more on the way. But they won’t just drop into your lap. Your entire company must be prepared to take advantage of them. Obviously, you need to ensure that your electricians’ and technicians’ skills are kept up-to-date, but you also need to have knowledgeable people on staff who can help you market your services and talk to customers, access their needs properly, and help your firm meet those needs.

Management education and skills training are both essential, and any time is the right time to acquire them for your workers. But upgrading employees’ capabilities during the downtimes is the best way to help your company thrive in the better days ahead.

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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