'Numbers Game' Is Putting the Industry in a Vise

(For referenced charts, graphs and tables, please refer to the January issue of Electrical Contractor). Unless the industry can wave a magic wand and create tens of thousands of experienced journeymen by the end of this decade, there will be a serious shortage of skilled workers by 2010 or earlier. The alternative is to make the industry more attractive to younger people and to the older workers who are set to walk away or retire. It’s not a problem unique to electrical construction. According to chief Dan Goldin, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has more engineers over age 60 than under age 30. Many other fields experience similar problems, including the electrical contracting industry. What’s the problem? Our industry’s workforce simply can’t handle increasing workloads. Opportunities are already passing by electrical contractors (ECs)—and more are likely to come...and go. • Example: If the national energy policy is adjusted to place more emphasis on energy conservation, from where will electrical contractors obtain the thousands upon thousands of skilled field workers and project managers needed to complete the deluge of resulting retrofit work? • Example: If hardwired home networking booms—and ECs are among those chosen to do the work—how could the industry “gear up” and man the work when the worker shortage has already delayed and stalled projects during the 1998-2001 period? • Example: While many believe that ECs are the logical people to perform sophisticated control systems installations—such as those involving LonWorks systems—it’s impossible to do that without a dedicated, trained workforce. From where will these new workers come? Further examples could be detailed here, in specialty areas such as voice/data/video (vdv) and power plant construction. In essence, ECs are, collectively, in jeopardy of letting the recent good times blind them to the potential for a great deal more. Attrition For perspective, see Table 1. Our industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 40 years. Growth in manpower consumption has been especially pronounced in the past decade—during which, according to this magazine’s estimates, total revenues in electrical contracting skyrocketed from about $40 billion in 1992 to perhaps $95 billion in 2001. Here’s the bad news: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a unit of the U.S. Department of Labor, has estimated that 15 percent of skilled electricians are age 50 and over. After a lifetime of manual labor—and relatively good earnings in recent years—many in this group might well consider retiring, long before age 65. According to research, retirement peaks as electricians reach age 62. What’s more, this field takes a toll on the body. Retirement might not be a viable option for some, but they might well “step back” to less-demanding work as they pass age 52 or 55 or 60. Work with less daily wear-and-tear, such as that of a building superintendent, might seem more enticing, even if it is less lucrative. A reasonable estimate of the number of electricians who are set to leave this field (through retirement or job replacement) by 2010 would be roughly 75,000... to perhaps more than 100,000. There were 583,000 electricians employed on average in 1998. Add it up—the industry is set to lose as much as one-sixth of its experienced hands by the end of this decade. Replacement A study done for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) by the Construction Labor Research Council (CLRC) (as printed in April 2001 issue of The Quality Connection, the IBEW-NECA magazine) provides a startling assessment. The figure above, which is reprinted from that story, assumes only that the goal is to maintain the IBEW’s current employment share in electrical construction against the 1.4 percent Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual growth projection through to 2008. CLRC’s projections, as shown, are that in 2004, the IBEW will need to add 7,100 members to maintain current employment share, 3,550 to replace those who are leaving and 3,550 to cope with the expected industry growth.” Just to maintain the same share of the overall electrical construction market as it had in 1998, the IBEW could have to add 18,000 new skilled electricians in the 1999 to 2001 period, 20,400 in 2002-04, and 31,500 in 2005-08. In other words, to cope with retirement, attrition, and increased workloads—just to stay in place—NECA and the IBEW needed to add 69,900 journeymen and apprentices during 1999-2008. Note that CLRC pegged the IBEW market share in 1998 at 35.2 percent. While that figure might be on the low side (NECA’s figures show IBEW-NECA’s market share as being above the 40 percent level), let’s use it. To figure out what the nonunion side might need, let’s assume the figures CLRC used for retirement are similar for individuals working in that segment, and that the nonunion side must replace enough people to maintain a 64.8 percent market share. In doing that, one comes up with a total of more than 128,000 new electricians needed on the nonunion side of the ledger. If CLRC’s calculations and the above assumptions are correct, the electrical construction industry must come up with 195,600 new electricians between 1999 and 2008—to cope with losses to attrition and retirement, and handle increasing workloads. What’s more, as can be seen from Table 2, the industry’s peak workload in recent years has foreshadowed—on the low side—the average field employment achieved in the following year. Of course, there was an economic boom in the latter years of the 1990s and in 2000. It’s possible that an economic setback will change that experience, and the industry employment average for 2001 will not exceed the year-2000 peak of 715,000. Also, it might be impossible for the electrical construction industry to grow beyond the 715,000 peak level of 2000, because there simply might not be any more persons who want to work in this industry as helpers or apprentices, which is where some of the growth must have come from. Apprenticeship According to figures from the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC)—the NECA-IBEW training arm—there were more than 48,000 union apprentices in training during 2000. This is about double the 24,133 in training in 1990 (See Table 3). Figures from the nonunion side are not necessarily as reliable as the NJATC’s. However, let’s peg the number for the nonunion side at about 10,000 to 12,000. Apprentices, of course, do not equate to skilled field electricians. The NJATC’s historical records show that local NECA-IBEW training programs graduate about 85 percent of their apprentices. Figures for the nonunion are somewhat lower. Let’s estimate that the 58,000 electrical construction workers now in training will pare down to 44,000 “real” electrical journeymen, residential electricians, and VDV technicians within the next three to five years. Let’s further estimate that the numbers of apprentices in training are “ramped up” by both union and nonunion, and increase another 150 percent. That would mean 67,500 graduating journeymen over the second half of the decade—perhaps. When you add the two figures above, you get 111,500 skilled journeymen graduating over the next six to 10 years. If retirement and attrition do, actually, create 198,600 slots to fill, our industry will have come up way short. The sheer weight of the numbers, and the fact that it takes time to “produce” a skilled electrician via an apprenticeship program, is starting to show. Together, these facts of life are applying a vise to the electrical construction industry—a vise whose grip could well become tighter, and much more apparent, as we get deeper into the current decade. What is to be done? On the union side of the equation, NECA and the IBEW, through their jointly funded National Labor-Management Cooperation Committee (NLMCC), have been working to replenish the worker shortage. In 2000, IBEW and NECA collaborated to produce and fund a $600,000-plus program to send a “Career Action Kit” to each of more than 29,000 high school guidance counselors. The “Kits” arrived at high schools in March 2001. A follow-up mailing—to more than 39,000 guidance counselors and schools—was done last fall. “This is something that we and the IBEW will probably do on an annual basis in the years to come,” said Geary Higgins, NECA’s Director of Labor Relations, and one of four NLMCC trustees. Further, the two national organizations have funded production of television commercials for use by local apprenticeship and training organizations, as well as IBEW Local Unions and NECA Chapters. These commercials stress the interesting nature of electrical construction work. Are these efforts necessary? Most definitely! A recent survey of high-school students found “construction” ranks second to last out of more than 280 possible future careers. While most electrical contactors are proud to be a vital part of the construction industry, in this case it works against them. Additionally, many NECA-IBEW-run local Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees (JATCs) have moved or are moving to “day school” for apprentices. Shifting to “day school” will entice more and better applicants, it is said. The belief is that the requirement to work five full days a week and attend school several nights over a multi-year apprenticeship can make pursuit of a career in electrical construction seem less attractive. SALIMANDO (jsali@cris.com) is a Vienna, Va.-based writer. See his monthly columns on electrical contracting, voice/data/video, and e-commerce at www.tedmag.com.

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