The numbers are shocking and well-publicized. As fewer electricians enter the electrical contracting industry than exit it, a net deficit of skilled labor will potentially leave contracting firms struggling to fill an estimated 85,000-plus positions by 2024.
“Over 40 percent of lineman today are over the age of 50 and are expected to retire or leave over the next decade—vacancies which have not and likely will not necessarily be backfilled by millennials,” said Stephen Hughes, managing director and head of KeyBanc Capital Markets’ Industrial & Business Services Practice, Cleveland.
The drivers behind this trend are multifaceted. In addition to a large baby boomer population approaching retirement age, trade education of younger generations has been less than ideal.
“We lost a lot of vocational education programs in schools since the 1980s, and 10 years ago, we lost numerous industry members when the economy crashed,” said Kevin Tighe, the National Electrical Contractors Association’s executive director of workforce relations and workforce development.
Skip Perley, president and CEO of Thompson Electric Co., Sioux City, Iowa, said the industry has suffered from stigmatization as the United States transitioned to a service economy from a manufacturing one.
“Starting about 30 years ago, it became a negative thing to work with your hands,” Perley said. “Blue-collar opportunities became the ‘leftover’ jobs when you couldn’t make it in the white-collar world, and it became embarrassing for parents if their kids were trade or factory workers. Too often, the implication has been that people in the trades weren’t smart enough for college. But, the truth is that people who think it doesn’t take enormous skill sets to run a $10 million construction project are dead wrong. Schools have increasingly figured out that they’ve made a mistake, but we have 30 years of ingrained negative perceptions to get over.”
With both private and federal investment in construction/expansion projects and resultant job opportunities in the industry expected to grow in the years ahead, the need to fill the gap has never been more pressing.
“Over the next decade, we could be looking at a $1.5 trillion infrastructure fund and a growth in renovation/deconstruction/reconstruction activity the likes of which we haven’t seen in our lifetimes,” Hughes said. “Contracting firms will have to step it up to attract and retain the people necessary to capitalize on all of the revenue opportunities that will be available.”
Reigniting interest in schools
Thompson Electric is among the many electrical contracting firms working to reignite young people’s interest in the trade. The Thompson Electric team recently discussed careers in the field with 100 fifth graders (soon to be an annual event), hosted young people in its shop to demonstrate what the job involves, and allowed a group of fourth graders to tour the company’s vans and bend conduit. The earlier they are introduced, the better.
“We’ve been a success in our community and want to be part of a bigger solution that gets kids interested in technology, and not just for our own firm’s benefit,” Perley said. “If we can help get young people interested in technology and the trades, our country will be better off.”
According to Perley, Thompson Electric team members also participate in hands-on programming at the local middle school, teach classes and sponsor programs at area high school/vocational programs, take part in the acclaimed construction engineering program at Iowa State University, and engage in local career fairs.
“The way we see it, we’ve got to invest in kids today for down the road,” Perley said. “We may not see them for 10 years, but it’s a process.”
Thompson Electric also hosts training events at its own facility.
“We have to realize that most of our new employees don’t know how to use a screwdriver,” Perley said. “So, we bring them into our prefab shop for a few weeks, where they’re highly supervised, and raise their skills significantly before they ever see a job site. While apprentice programs are excellent, they can’t do that quickly enough for us, so we have to do it.”
Repositioning the field
Tighe agreed that the electrical contracting field has struggled to combat a number of negative perceptions over the years. He works to inform high school administrators of the training and career opportunities available to students.
“After a recent discussion during which we enlightened the leadership at one high school about our program, the principal agreed that we’re not serving 25 percent of our kids by pushing college on them,” Tighe said. “The fact is that all kids, thinkers and leaders should be given access to information about our trade.”
Among the many misperceptions Tighe works to debunk is the belief that the field is only manual in nature.
“The truth is electrical contracting is highly technology-driven today. It’s not just digging dirt and cutting wires, but about working with cutting-edge technology, which appeals to tech-savvy young people today,” he said. “Our field is embracing changes in technology, which is helping to grow the industry and create opportunities for young people, who will help further that trend. The guts of new buildings will still come down to electrical work, and the operations behind this will attract people who use joysticks and mouses.”
Perley said many smart kids would feel right at home in electrical work.
“Work is becoming more complex but easier to install,” he said. “If you’re bright, engaged and strong in school, there are great opportunities in electrical contracting, particularly because the field’s increased use of technology and need for collaboration among teams—situations which the younger demographic often finds very appealing—have raised the skills required to lead a team.”
Closing the gap
These days, a record number of job opportunities stand to get created and potentially go unfilled.
“There are nearly 5 million undereducated, underemployed young adults in this country, many of whom haven’t entered the workforce and/or don’t have good mentoring or guidance,” said Chris Cato, green initiative project manager, YouthBuild USA, a Somerville, Mass.-based global organization celebrating its 40th year creating job, education and entrepreneurship pathways for low-income young people to rebuild their communities and lives. “These kids haven’t secured a path to higher education or a trade, so we revisit their desire to learn by bringing in clear, supportive steps to help them get their academics in order and teach them life, work and leadership skills to help them thrive.”
There are 265 YouthBuild programs nationwide, serving young people ages 16–24 in urban and rural areas.
“We work with local employers who visit with these students and provide an overview of the job opportunities and career paths available,” Cato said. “Many of these programs offer pre-apprenticeship training to prepare YouthBuild graduates for apprenticeships in the building trades. We have students shadow contractors or act as electricians’ helpers or apprentices on a construction site, which is a great way to expose young people to that trade. At the same time, contractors can become mentors, giving young people a new lens to look through that’s full of possibilities.”
More than 50 percent of YouthBuild students go on to higher education or employment, many in the trades.
“Our program offers a great avenue through which contractors can secure and train these ‘opportunity youth’ and help them succeed,” he said.
Tips from the trade
Following, industry experts offer tips for attracting young talent.
Get engaged: “Contractors of every size need to get involved in and creative with the act of recruiting, training and managing. You can’t outsource your HR process to anyone,” Perley said.
Appeal to the demographic: ECs should play to the preferences of the young people they’re trying to attract.
“This involves creating and articulating clearer paths to promotion and emphasizing their firm’s work-life balance opportunities to better compete with other industries,” Hughes said. “To attract higher-educated people, contractors should play up the white-collar and intellectual aspects of the job and should also partner with trade schools and colleges and even consider starting their own trade school with their own certification. […] Many companies are finding great candidates in former military personnel, which is a big trend. Finally, it’s helpful to incorporate technology into the business (for example, building virtual reality headsets into training) and ‘green up’ the trade to make it more attractive to young people.”
Cato agreed that the sustainability angle is a big draw.
“We love to engage our students in contests/challenges or hands-on applications that create a tangible experience and allow them to see and be a part of how things work,” he said, noting that one YouthBuild team is currently helping to build a LEED Platinum home.
Promote security: “Electrical contracting firms are increasingly professionalizing themselves, and wages have increased by 2–3 times over the last 20 years to keep pace with other industries,” Hughes said. “Contractors need to show that what they’re offering isn’t just a job but rather a long-term career for a candidate that proves themselves.”
Commit to an ongoing obligation: “There’s no silver bullet or single conversation that will bring in all of the people we need,” Tighe said. “We need to constantly position our field and grow the base of people in the industry every day and everywhere via a process of continuous recruiting.”
ECs should connect to potential candidates at the high school level and work to get apprentice programs established there during the senior year.
Change the narrative: Perley said all contractors need to help younger generations understand the field is creating great opportunities for bright, motivated people like never before.
“If you’re looking for an exciting career that’s different every day, electrical contracting is that setting,” he said.