It’s no news that electrical contracting firms across the country have been struggling with skilled labor shortages for some years—a condition that’s been highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic. But electrical contractors aren’t taking this reality sitting down. Instead, many are proactively engaging in creative strategies to appeal to and attract younger talent and a range of other qualified candidates to help fill their ranks.
A perennial challenge
“Our industry’s labor shortage is a very challenging and multifaceted situation,” said Shane Snyder, president of Phoenix-based Cannon & Wendt Electric Co. Inc., a contracting firm founded in 1945 that now comprises more than 400 employees and specializes in the healthcare and data center sectors.
“There are fewer young people in the industry due to the societal pressure to attend a four-year college or university. At the same time, recent federal restrictions on immigration have hurt our construction industry, which relies heavily on immigrant labor, and COVID issues aren’t helping either. There are just fewer people available to do the work all around,” he said. “To make matters worse, electrical contracting firms like ours have to get in line behind general contracting firms when it comes to competing for the young talent available, because GCs pay slightly higher wages than we subcontractors do.”
“Attracting new recruits has been challenging for a long time,” said Greg Padalecki, president and CEO of San Antonio-based Alterman Inc., a nearly century-old firm with roughly 1,500 employees. Alterman specializes in C&I services and low-voltage applications such as telecom, access control, audio/visual and sound, and instrumentation and controls. “There’s not enough focus in school systems on the attractiveness of a career in the trades, so finding and recruiting those young, talented people is a responsibility we must embrace. No one is going to do it for us.”
In response, the Alterman team creatively approaches that responsibility from a number of angles, including strong representation at electrical vocational programs and career days in many area high schools.
“Those are great places to recruit young talent, but there’s an investment of time needed to make those efforts successful,” said Leonard De Braska, Alterman’s director of field recruiting and labor relations. “What really makes a difference is stepping into the classroom to add that personal touch and not stopping there—you’ve got to strap on your tools and work with the students to provide some hands-on lessons in the labs. Giving them an outside, real-world perspective to build on and supplementing what our teachers are showing them helps generate loyalty in the student when it comes to giving us a first shot at hiring them. Any contractor can donate tools and funding to our local schools, but the strongest investment we can make is the time spent working with the young men and women of our future.”
At Cannon & Wendt, “we try to make sure that we use our recently recruited employees when we go out to recruit others because we find that it means more to younger individuals to hear from someone with similar experiences than to hear from older managers dictating how it will be, so we have our young folks out there recruiting and going to career and trade fairs,” Snyder said. “College kids don’t want to listen to ‘old, pale and stale’ guys tell them how a firm is going to change their lives; they relate better to people their own age.”
“We recruit at Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, both of which have construction management programs that we sponsor, and throughout the year they also have several days and functions that we can attend as sponsors,” Snyder said. “Cannon & Wendt is seeing reasonable growth, and our needs are greater than they usually are due to an increasing number of projects, but if we can hire 3–5 project engineer interns from those programs each year, we consider that success.”
In addition to school-sponsored career fairs, Snyder noted that his firm also meets some of its workforce needs by promoting from within by “bringing our field folks onto the management side into safety positions and roles like project manager and project engineer.”
What young people want
“Electricians value safety, job security, top-notch tools, great supervision and ultimately efficient internal processes that allow them to do what they do best—electrical installations,” Padalecki said. “When we have a reputation for providing all of those things and are known for being the best place for an electrician to work, we become the employer of choice for the limited number of electrical craftspeople in the market.”
Snyder added that being hands-on with technology is also very appealing.
“When it comes to their involvement with technology, young people are light years ahead of where my generation was when we came into the industry, and things are changing so rapidly,” he said.
“Young people want to belong, work for a company that cares for them, be productive and feel they can contribute,” Snyder said. “They like to work on a variety of tasks in different settings so that they don’t stagnate, and they enjoy working with their hands and creating a tangible product that they can be proud of. They also want room for creativity, and they need to be recognized and reassured.”
“We need to change the way we lead in the construction industry,” Snyder said.
“There are many young men and women wondering what their next step in life will be, and I believe that our ability to communicate on a personal level what our trade and company have to offer will help attract new talent,” De Braska said. “If you put on your recruiting hat, put boots to the ground and open your mind to what others may have missed, you can find that next young man or woman who’s looking for an opportunity and who will add value to your firm.”
“The key is to show the candidate that your company will be better because of them, not the other way around,” Snyder said. “It’s not ‘come with us—we’re awesome, and just by joining us you’ll be awesome too.‘ Instead, the mindset should be, ‘We’ll be that much better by having you on our team.’”