Across the Ages

The industry is changing, which means changes for supervisors. More specifically, the labor resource for the electrical industry is undergoing significant change. Shortages in labor have been persistent for many years, but the shortage is now becoming acute, especially in some areas. The work force is aging and is becoming more diverse, though not rapidly. The work ethic also is changing. So how do all these changes affect the supervisor?

The lack of electrical craft workers at all skill levels and in all skill areas, from low voltage to line work, has been a chronic problem. This is anticipated to get worse over time with retirement of older skilled workers and continued expansion of the electrical industry. The immediate effect on employers is that if skilled labor is not available, contractors are not able to take on new jobs; hence, one of the drives in the industry is to attract more workers. If successful, this will bring in workers who are younger, less trained, less experienced and less skilled. These all present challenges to the supervisor.

To facilitate effective use of as many new workers as possible, supervisors are learning how to assign work and crews that are appropriate to the available labor resource. This means that routine and simple work requiring less skill is broken out and assigned to the less skilled workers. Work that is more challenging and requires more skill is reserved for skilled workers. For complex tasks, crews of mixed skill are created. So lower skilled workers can be assigned the simpler tasks, and higher skilled workers are given the more demanding tasks. One outcome of this arrangement is that all workers tend to be more satisfied because they are able to perform at a level that is both comfortable and challenging.

A second outcome of the influx of less-skilled electrical workers is that journeymen would be required to take on a simple level of supervision, supervising lower-skilled workers within the crew. It also requires first line supervisors to be able to plan work differently, to delegate simple supervisory tasks to journeyman electrical workers, and to mentor journeymen as they take on their new supervisory role.

The influx of workers from different cultures and countries also is having an effect on the supervisor. In the United States, we are accustomed to focusing on such concepts as timeliness, dependability and safety. Other cultures may place importance on other concepts. Therefore, new workers might violate one of those values. This puts the burden on the supervisor to resolve immediate problems by realigning crews, redefining work assignments and being even more vigilant in safety for their workers.

In the same regard, language also can be a barrier on today’s job site. If workers on a crew are not fluent in English, the supervisor must either be bilingual or must depend on a translator within the crew. Language deficiencies might mean safety risks, quality breakdowns or production problems. The supervisor must be able to communicate clear messages, so the supervisor also may want to develop some language skills in key areas such as safety and production.

Even within our own culture, many differences in values and work ethic occur. There are geographical differences that become apparent when travelers come into an area. There also are significant generational differences. Younger folks’ motivations often differ from those of an older generation.

These differences require the supervisor to be more vigilant in looking for or anticipating the possibility of change in the work force that will affect the job. The supervisor may need new training in delegation, in mentoring for emerging supervisors among the journeyman ranks, and in understanding and responding to cultural and language differences.

In the long run, supervisors are educators and must help younger workers understand the importance of timeliness, dependability and strict adherence to safety practices.

This is the first of a three-part series that will focus on the supervisor’s changing role in response to changes in the industry. Next month, we will look at how changes in technology have affected the supervisor’s role.

ROUNDS is the AGC endowed chair and professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico. E-mail him at SEGNER is a professor of construction science at Texas A&M University. Contact him at

About the Author

Bob Segner

Supervision Columnist
Bob Segner is a professor of construction science at Texas A&M University. Contact him at .

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.