Chapter Corner

Rebuilding and Expanding the Electrical Contractor Workforce for the Green, Digital Age

Posted in: Features

Insights_NovDec_Blueprints.gifElectrical contractors, like many industries, were impacted by the economic conditions of the past few years and had to evolve their businesses to remain competitive. As the economy gradually recovers, contractors are preparing for an increase in work after years of operating lean. As the industry continues to rebuild, contractors are finding that not only is there more demand from customers, but there is a wide range of new services that customers are considering. In order to meet this evolving demand, the industry needs to expand their skill sets and begin recruiting and preparing the new workforce with the necessary skills.

The role of the electrical contractor has changed dramatically over the past 20 years as new technologies have become prevalent and  people and businesses rely more on a wide range of electrical devices than ever before. Additionally, customers want integrated systems, rather than disparate products installed. Electrical contractors now install systems for power, control, communications, security, and safety and are responsible for integrating all of these systems to maximize the efficiency and return on investment of these combined systems.

Learning to leverage new technologies, such as building information modeling (BIM) will be critical for electrical contractors to stay competitive in the marketplace. BIM has enabled electrical contractors to become an integral part of the design phase of construction.  Through BIM technology, contractors can create computer simulations to virtually design, analyze, build, and operate buildings. Their role is a critical step in helping to eliminate problems  and obstacles before construction. Electrical contractors should develop the  necessary knowledge to take advantage of today’s market opportunity, particularly in the areas of viable solutions and consultancy skills to provide customers with recommendations on more strategic energy management. There is strong interest among electrical contractors to participate in these types of training around BIM.

Advancements in smart grid technologies and renewable energy sources have further diversified the wide range of skills that electrical contractors need to have in order to take advantage of growing opportunities in the current marketplace. The electrical infrastructure in the U.S. bears an increasingly heavy burden as the use of electronic devices skyrockets and new pressures, such as electric vehicles and renewable energy are added to the grid. As the economy gradually recovers, the Federal Government has placed a strong focus on Smart Grid technology in order to improve energy efficiency and create a more reliable electrical infrastructure to enable larger scale use of renewable energy and electric vehicles.

Electrical contractors stand to play a key role in revitalizing  the aging infrastructure, making the Smart Grid a reality and improving energy efficiency in the U.S. However, the Smart Grid’s infusion of IT with the traditional power sector will require new efforts in workforce development. The right training will be necessary in preparing contractors  to recommend and install the best overall solutions to minimize energy use, maximize energy efficiency, and in some cases, create energy from solar, wind, or other renewable sources.

In order to take on these new opportunities, contractors need to expand their skill sets through training programs. There are many training programs available to help electrical contractors develop skill sets in order to tap into new market opportunities. For instance, many local IEC chapters offer training programs to help contractors prepare for new markets. Schneider Electric also offers training through our Energy University education program, as well as through our EcoXpert training and certification program, which  prepares contractors  to advise, sell, and install a broad range of energy solutions across commercial, industry, and high-end residential applications.

As the industry continues to evolve, we must also address its growing labor shortage. With the unem- ployment rate hovering just above eight percent in the U.S., it seems counterintuitive that there is a growing labor shortage problem in the contractor industry. However, that is indeed the case.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the industry is expected to rise 33 percent by 2020, adding about 1.8 million jobs. Meanwhile, the average age of construction workers continues to rise – 73 percent of people working in the industry are between the ages of 35 and 64. As more of these people head toward retirement, the number of new entrants to apprenticeship programs has simultaneously continued to fall. The numbers have slipped so much that there are not enough newly trained contractors to replace those who have left the industry over the last few years.

As a high percentage of the industry heads toward retirement  age, in  addition  to  focusing  on recruitment, succession planning will be a key factor in the success of electrical contractor firms and in attracting  and  retaining  bright  new talent  for  the industry. Succession planning will allow companies to look beyond just the current work they’re doing to really  build  and  grow the business for  the  future. Succession planning  will  also  create  long  term advancement opportunities for new electrical contractors – whether its developing talent from within the company or looking to find outside talent to own and run the business. It takes many years to train and prepare someone for a leadership role in an electrical contracting firm, but it’s this preparation and for- ward-looking thinking that creates long  term advancement opportunities to help attract and retain the best and the brightest workforce who will lead the business in the future.

The role of the electrical contractor is dynamic and constantly evolving as a result of technology advancements  and  changing  market  conditions. Electrical contractors will play a pivotal role in creating a sustainable future for the U.S. Continued investment in on-the-job training and education for new workers entering the workforce will be critical to prepare the industry to fulfill this role.

Melissa Golden is the market segment manager for Schneider Electric, an IEC Platinum Industry Partner.