Skilled Worker Shortages Reignite Concerns And Motivate NECA Action

I’ve only been NECA’s president since Jan. 1, and I’m already up to my neck in my new role as the association’s chief elected officer. Among many other executive activities, I’ve been meeting with all types of electrical contractors (ECs) and hearing their concerns, expectations of NECA, and recommendations for action.

I’m loving it!

Why? Because, like every successful contractor I’ve ever known, I find nothing more satisfying than tackling a challenge. We ECs are pragmatic problem-solvers who appreciate hard work and straight talk. I personally appreciate the fact that there are numerous parties working together to address industry issues—including my fellow NECA-member contractors who lend support and share their keen insights; the smart, dedicated, hardworking NECA Executive Committee that provides leadership and guidance; and the seasoned and talented association staff that works with us to accomplish things.

A challenge facing us has recently re-emerged in the construction industry’s collective consciousness. But the truth is that Electrical Contractor has been publishing articles with such titles as “Electrician Shortage: It’s Too Late to Avoid It” as early as the year 2000. NECA has been pointing out all along that the graying of the baby boom generation and falling short in apprentice-recruiting goals make worker shortages inevitable.

However, a new factor has accelerated the problem—the economic downturn at the end of the last decade. Although it shifted attention away from skilled workforce shortages for awhile, the Great Recession actually forced tens of thousands of experienced workers out of the industry while dropping new apprenticeship recruitment to record-low levels.

I learned that some ECs are already turning down jobs because they can’t find enough qualified electricians to do the work. All signs point to shortages of skilled electrical workers intensifying in the near future.

It’s happening right now in some areas where mega-projects, such as refineries and chemical plants, are being built and grabbing up all of the available manpower, leaving local contractors struggling to find people to do the “traditional” work. In other locations, pent-up demand for new factories, commercial buildings, hospitals and schools is being released all at once.

Of course, worker shortages are becoming a fact of life among all construction trades, not just electrical. In response to a survey conducted last fall by the Associated General Contractors of America, 83 percent of construction firms reported having trouble finding qualified workers. Results varied by craft and region. The most interesting result, to me, is the strong correlation AGC found between the severity of craftworker shortages and the quality of the local training pipeline.

NECA made the connection decades ago. Working with our labor partners in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), our association has been developing and participating in workforce recruiting, training and retention efforts for nearly 75 years. Our new Electrical Training Alliance will surely be part of the solution. At its heart are new National Guideline Apprenticeship Standards that enable local training centers to develop a workforce to meet local market needs. Expanded employment and training of construction wiremen/construction electricians should help, too.

But we need to do much more, considering that some industry experts say we will need a net increase of nearly 100,000 electricians within the next three years. Union and nonunion apprentice programs combined aren’t equipped to turn out that many trained workers.

For this reason, I’ve assigned NECA’s Workforce Development Committee to look into the situation and create some recommendations. This committee is composed of NECA contractors who have the responsibility to assist, promote and maintain a high level of skill among journeymen and apprentices working for organized electrical contractors. But we’ll also be working on this initiative with the IBEW. In fact, the National Labor-Management Cooperation Committee (LMCC), established jointly by NECA and the union organization, is already implementing workforce development programs this year.

In general, multifaceted problems can best be solved through a multiprong approach. Discussions on these possibilities are just now getting underway, so it’s too early to define precisely what shape our efforts will take.

Be assured, however, that this column will keep you informed about developments. The biggest concern among construction employers right now is the availability and cost of workers for future projects, so the issue of skilled worker shortages is too big to address in a single meeting, initiative or essay.

But, it’s not too big for NECA to tackle. Stay tuned!

About the Author

David A. Hardt

NECA President

David A. Hardt is the current president of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and contributes the President's Desk column monthly. He took office in January 2015 and will serve a three-year term.

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