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Reversing the Trend: the Labor Shortage

Reversing the Trend: the Labor Shortage

Experts from the ICC and electrical training ALLIANCE shed light on the current contractor labor shortage and how they’re working to address it.


With many independent measures all confirming alarming declines in the nation’s pool of qualified electrical tradespeople, distributors have all seen, heard, and/or felt the fallout of the current skilled contractor labor shortage. But what can be done to reverse the trend?

The Magnitude of the Problem

Sara Yerkes, senior vice president of government relations for the International Code Council (www.iccsafe.org) in Washington, D.C., shared the alarming scale of today’s skilled contractor shortage.

“According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the construction industry lost approximately 2.3 million workers – 40% of its workforce – between April 2006 and January 2011, with six in 10 of those workers leaving the industry due to the housing crisis/recession,” Yerkes said, noting that the industry is currently struggling to fill an estimated 500,000 jobs and even more in the future. “As a function of the diminished federal support for technical/vocational schools, there’s a lack of awareness by young people, particularly at the high school level, about the prospects of good-paying jobs in the electrical, plumbing, welding, carpentry, masonry, and other construction-related fields.”

In response, she said that the ICC signed on to support the ‘Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act,’ signed into law this July 31, which reauthorizes the ‘Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act’ (the primary source of federal funding for the improvement of secondary and post-secondary career and technical education (CTE) programs) through 2024.  “This reauthorization gradually increases annual funding from $1.2 to $1.3 billion over six years — a nearly 11% increase over fiscal year 2018 funding levels — and will expand the reach of CTE programs to ensure that more students can participate,” she said.  “Although the U.S. Department of Education provides some national grants, the majority of this funding will flow to states, which will then sub-grant it to schools and localities.” Overall, she stressed, “we need to respect and accept that occupations in the building/technical fields are noble/worthy and ensure that they allow for rewarding, well-paid careers. Germany and other European countries value their craftsmen and industrial/technical workers and many have certifications and credentials that may even surpass a college education.”

As the provider of curriculum, standards development, and training for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Construction Branch and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), the Bowie, MD-based electrical training ALLIANCE (www.electricaltrainingalliance.org) has long been addressing improvements to the selection and retention of quality apprentices entering local IBEW/NECA apprenticeship programs and has seen the fallout of the very trends Yerkes shared.

“The number of applicants has dropped significantly and fewer individuals are coming to the interview table,” confirmed electrical training ALLIANCE director Terry Coleman.  “In addition, not all of those who make it through the interview and are offered an apprentice indenture end up staying.  In exit interviews, the number one reason cited for leaving their apprenticeship is “it wasn’t what I thought it was.”

Industry Impacts

The impact of the skilled labor shortage on the industry has manifested itself in numerous ways.

“What we’ve seen with our ‘Training Partner’ distributors is that they’re performing more services for the electrical contractor that used to be done on the job, including the provision of logistics support, just-in-time material drops, cable and wire prep, prefab, etc.,” Coleman shared. “We’re hearing more now about the impact of tariffs and the effect on the cost of building materials following all of the natural disasters, and all of this has put a squeeze on jobs already bid and under construction.  It’s kind of funny,” he said, “but you’d think that this shortage would have driven up labor rates at the same percentage as growth, but this hasn’t been the case — labor rates across the board have remained fairly flat.”

With LEDs currently penetrating every lighting category and the addition of controls, dimming, IoT, and new codes and standards making lighting more complicated than ever before, Coleman said that the impact of the skilled labor shortage has been especially apparent in the lighting arena, where emerging lighting technologies and Power Over Ethernet (PoE) will eventually impact the entire built environment.

“In my opinion, we’re not quite there yet in terms of the product/solution/customer need equation; we need to prepare today’s workforce to become the ‘solution providers’ for our customers/owners when they decide to move to newer technology,” Coleman said.  “It’s interesting to see what different lighting manufacturers are pursuing with regards to LED lighting and PoE.  We have several Training Partners in the lighting and controls arena and not all of them are embracing or even offering any true PoE products or PoE solutions; we’re seeing more LED lighting controls using a hybrid Ethernet control with proprietary power and drivers or traditional branch circuit wiring that uses Ethernet hubs/gateways and/or wireless for control.”

“We include lighting design and controls in our apprenticeship training program, as well as courses for journeymen training and, are adding networking technology to the training because in the end, all of these building systems will need to talk to the network and the internet (TCP/IP),” Coleman explained.  “But even with all of this plus training programs such as the California Advanced Lighting Controls Program (CALCTP) or its national version (NALCTP), the commissioning of these control systems remains daunting and isn’t an easy task — yet.  The other problem is that once the lighting is installed and even commissioned correctly, the customer/end user doesn’t fully understand how to operate it correctly, and this problem could only get worse for the customer as more building systems go onto an IP network.  I would argue that offering a maintenance and customer training program could be a continuing source of revenue for electrical contractors,” he said.

Taking the Initiative

Both the ICC and the electrical training ALLIANCE have taken proactive steps to help stem the tide of contractor shortages.

Among those measures, “ICC created Safety 2.0, our signature initiative designed to attract new members to the building and safety professions,” Yerkes shared.  “Safety 2.0 (www.iccsafe.org/about-icc/safety2/) is the umbrella organization for a program we created at ICC five years ago to teach students in technical high schools how to navigate the building codes and give them a leg up as they transition into the building trades, code professions, etc.”  The ICC has also created a “Military Families Career Path” to help veterans and their families find rewarding public service positions in code administration, “as we believe that military folks share many of the same characteristics and qualities we need in code professionals, including integrity, an understanding of laws and regulations, ethics, technical savvy, and a commitment to serve,” Yerkes said.  “ICC is committed to supporting our community and to finding the next generation of code professionals and skilled workers in technical schools, military, the female workforce – e.g., wherever they may be.”

At the electrical training ALLIANCE, “we’ve been teaching the basics of lighting design and control in our apprenticeship programs since 2008 and added LED lighting and controls in 2011,” Coleman said.  “In an effort to improve selection, diversity, and retention, we’ve implemented a pre-apprenticeship program that can be used by our Local Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees (JATCs) to prep individuals who may be interested in an electrical career; we also work on their math and reading skills and give them exposure to what electrical work really involves and the tools they’ll need to succeed.  In addition,” he said, “we’re introducing a new ‘computer-mediated’ training program (called “Interim Credential”) that can be used in high schools or community colleges to prep students for a career in the electrical trades; completion of this course allows students to enter into the second academic year of an apprenticeship.”

The ALLIANCE has additionally taken to social media to reach and inform younger generations about opportunities in the field (www.constructyourfuture.com/), “and we also work with the ‘Helmets to Hardhats’ program to recruit military veterans and even developed our own military veteran-to-apprenticeship program,” Coleman said.  “However,” he noted, “all of this outreach still leaves our JATCs and contractors searching for qualified workers.”

Dynamics for Distributors

In terms of activities distributors can undertake to help address contractor labor shortages, particularly in the lighting arena, Coleman offered some advice.

“It’s been my experience that electrical distributors have always provided great service for the electrical contractor when it comes to lighting, including basic lighting design assistance for smaller or more general lighting applications,” Coleman said. “Architects and lighting designers aren’t the only ones doing lighting design, which is why we added Lighting Design Basics to our training program. Looking ahead, an area where I see distributors assisting contractors is in providing networking solutions for the built environment. In the future, when more of the building systems will be powered by and controlled over Ethernet networks, contractors will need access to routers and switches for building control,” he explained. “For the most part, the contractor installs the ‘physical layer’ (raceway, category cabling, etc.) but not the ‘active’ hardware (e.g., switches and routers), which is usually done after the customer/owner takes occupancy.  That’s fine for the customer’s IT ‘data’ network, but in a building where all of the systems are attached to a PoE network, those routers and switches need to be in place before occupancy can be given.”

According to Coleman, the current model excluded most contractors from access to these routers and switches as part of a bid package.  In response, “the distributor could help the contractor by making available networking components that would be installed during building construction and before turnover,” he said.  “Occupancy can’t be given until all of these systems are up and running and all of the active hardware is in place and commissioned.”

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Susan Bloomis a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.

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