Finding Your Future Work Force: They Are Already Here

According to the 2002 Economic Census, published last December, there are 62,586 electrical contractors in the United States, employing nearly three-quarters of a million people and performing $82 billion worth of work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its national compensation survey (August 2004), listed “electrician” as one of the highest-paying jobs not requiring a college degree.

In the next five years, electrical contractors face a shortage of 300,000 electricians, yet union and nonunion training programs have enrolled barely one-fifth of that number. How will you find enough electricians when most of them have rejected construction as a career choice by fifth grade?

Age-related attrition creates most of the gap. According to Robert Gasperow of the Construction Labor Research Council, most electricians retire at age 62.

Robotic and assembly technology have not compensated for the brute force physical demands that prevent retired electricians from returning.

Other electricians are promoted to management jobs, transfer to different industries or decide to start their own companies. As long as training programs prioritize job security over long-term personnel needs and use short-term economic predictions to limit capacity, the gap will continue to widen.

All electricians needed before 2010 are already in the pipeline, thanks to the five-year training requirement. Electrical contractors face two options-either pressure training program officials to drastically expand capacity and find enough qualified people to train, or downsize their companies to a sustainable level. Downsizing capacity snowballs into problems such as marketplace needs that are not met and unhappy customers.

Complacency-the new business buzzword-has finally caught up with the industry. It is a tripwire for successful organizations that lose the incentive to maintain continuous improvement and creative problem-solving.

For leading electrical industry organizations such as the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the very factors that contributed to their success are now obstacles to progress. Leadership and policy-making are primarily under the control of middle-aged white males with decades of experience in running profitable, growing organizations.

The downside of that success is a reluctance to create the degree of generic organizational change that will make nontraditional participants (women, minorities and older workers) feel welcome.

The image of construction as a “last-chance” career choice has been perpetuated by the industry. Targeting young adults who could not attend college-as well as prison parolees-reinforced the image industry leaders were desperate to change.

As women and minorities were courted by competing industries, a competitive wage and benefits package were not enough. They wanted respect, safe working conditions and a support structure that did not exist.

Electrical contractors need to expand their reach and alter their recruitment marketing. Changing organizational culture is hard, but necessary to retain these workers.

This means an investment in “soft skill” training, such as team building and communication. For companies struggling to find training resources for traditional subjects-for example estimating, scheduling and claims management-these subjects are not a priority.

Attitude change and creative thinking is modeled from the top down. Lingering beliefs such as “women can't be electricians because they can't carry 4-inch pipe,” and “if we get younger workers to understand the way we do things, they wouldn't keep leaving” must be changed. Grudging approaches to recruitment telegraph clearly to candidates.

For electrical contractors who are willing to make these changes, it is still possible to be known as one of the best places to work.

If you want to attract women, make sure you provide private, clean bathrooms, equipment designed for them (not small men's sizes), protection from hazing and respect for their skills. As we have seen, if women do not feel appreciated, they will start their own companies, become your competitors and successfully acquire clients.

If your current field supervisors are not able to model respect for women on the job, correct the subtle ways your company unknowingly tolerates sexual innuendos. These behaviors turn women off and force them to choose between lucrative careers and self-respect.

For the average woman, who will earn approximately half a million dollars less in her lifetime than the average man, union jobs establish wage parity. In 2002, female union members earned 31 percent more than their nonunion counterparts. Women are the largest growth sector in union membership, but not in the construction trades.

The AFL-CIO 2004 “Ask a Working Woman Survey Report” concludes that the leading concern of working women is finding and keeping a good job with decent benefits. No longer second-tier providers, 62 percent earn at least half of the family income. Women with high school educations recognize the difficulty of finding good jobs. The priorities of all working women include rising healthcare costs, fear of losing their jobs and evaporating overtime pay.

While women struggle with these issues, those who are involved in electrical contracting remain unrecognized. Leading electrical industry organizations have not successfully tapped the potential talent of women or minorities as leaders, trainers and policy- makers. Their Web sites lack proactive commitment to recruiting nontraditional participants into mainstream and leadership positions.

Unfortunately, women can be their own worst enemies. The Web site of the Coalition of Labor Union Women narrowly focuses on women's health issues and Social Security. Tradeswomen's advocacy organizations are fragmented and localized, with no central leadership or unified political voice. Associations restricted to women-only memberships either struggle for credibility as industry players or focus on single political issues such as WBE certification. All of these approaches make it easier for mainstream industry powers to compartmentalize and ignore women as real players.

Minorities fare somewhat better. The Electrical Workers Minority Caucus, formed by black and Hispanic delegates, operates as an advocate for equal rights, opportunities and greater minority representation in IBEW. Its mission targets “all levels of the IBEW structure.”

It includes leadership development, assistance with discrimination complaints, support and encouragement of community and political activism, and an overarching attention to human, civil and women's rights. Percentages for black tradesmen have exceeded those for women, then stabilized. Other ethnic minority levels lag behind.

Given that both the native-born and immigrant Hispanic population sectors will make up one-fifth of the U.S. work force in 15 years, recruiting from this sector should be a priority. Electrical contractors in Florida, Texas and California already know this. These workers are known for their strong work ethics, family values, respect for authority and a reluctance to complain.

These traits make this demographic worth the additional cost of expanding corporate communication to include Spanish when necessary, the regulatory pitfalls of verifying I-9 information and paying the penalty for unwittingly accepting falsified documents.

For electrical contractors who despaired over the pessimism and “slacker” attitude of Generation X, hope returns with the new Millennial Generation (born 1982-2002), labeled “the next great generation” by authors Neil Howe and William Strauss.

According to their theory, each new generation has three functions: Solving a problem from the most recent generation, correcting behavioral excesses of the current “midlife” generation and filling the social role of the “departing” generation.

For Millennials, this translates to community service, model citizenship (Generation X shirked its duty to society), action instead of talk (reversing the Boomer emphasis) and filling the team-player role left by the disappearing World War II generation.

They are confident, optimistic, trusting, team-oriented, overachievers. They are possibly the most well-behaved and best-educated generation in our country's history. They feel pressure to excel and pride themselves on following rules, although they are willing to question unfair laws and systems.

If Generation X was represented by the raucous Courtney Love, employers will sigh with relief at Hilary Duff, a poster child of the Millennial generation.

Reaching these positive, technically savvy, overachievers means changing the “college vs. trades” marketing of the past. As college construction management curricula and journey-level training programs hybridize and interweave, they are no longer clearly divergent paths. Journey-level craft training is often a precursor to supervision and management jobs, rather than a terminal career. Lifelong education and training will be an accepted part of both.

Also, recruiting must be moved forward. Career options are already being eliminated by fifth grade, and opportunities exist for industry partners to build relationships with students at all levels.

Charter schools such as ACE (Architecture, Construction, Engineering) Tech in Chicago are established with a specific career orientation in place, to provide high school students with targeted industry information and courses that include vocational and professional applications in all subjects. These schools welcome participation and mentorship by industry partners as well as contributions and financial support.

Along with pressure on training programs to expand capacity, expanding diversity-oriented recruiting and forming direct local relationships with students, companies must retain their electricians.

In a study of Construction Industry Institute member employees, Roger Liska of Clemson University, found a 10 percent turnover rate drove up total project labor costs by 2.5 percent. This has a serious impact on potential profitability. Companies with successful recruitment programs focused on referrals, intensive assessment and screening, and relationship-based outreach.

In addition to compensation, critical retention factors included financial and nonfinancial incentives, continuous training, accessible sites and safe equipment. These companies also prioritized fairness, ethics, inclusiveness and employee participation, as well as supervisory training in human relations and companywide codes of conduct.

Tradespeople cared least about formal communications and participation in trade associations and community activities; union workers valued safety over benefits.

Creating a more inclusive culture and trying new recruitment methods is not as hard as it might seem. The reward is a qualified work force and a profitable future. The work force is are already here--you just have to recruit them. EC

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at 


About the Author

Denise Norberg-Johnson

Financial Columnist
Denise Norberg-Johnson is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at .

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