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The Need to Tinker

July 1, 2007
When high-school graduates can't read a ruler, you know the construction trades have a big problem attracting talent.

Finding, keeping and training good talent has been one of the electrical industry's evergreen issues. The benefits of working for electrical distributors are often lost on graduates of high school or college dreaming of big-dollar jobs with Fortune 500 companies or starting up the next YouTube or Google.

As tough as it is for electrical distributors to attract good employees, their customers have it even harder. Electrical contractors and other end users who require employees to work with their hands are faced with a generation of potential employees who look down on professions that require manual labor.

Today's graduates may be amazingly fast at typing out text messages with their thumbs or maneuvering the joysticks on the controllers for their X-Boxes, but they may not have ever handled a hammer or screwdriver. If they don't learn how to do it at home, they may not be learning it at school, either. High schools offer fewer shop classes, and students are less likely to attend vo-tech schools.

Because of this scenario, finding workers to replace aging baby boomers is a big-time problem for electrical contractors. According to an article in Electrical Construction and Maintenance (EC&M) magazine, a local union shop for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in New Jersey will lose approximately 500 qualified journeymen electricians in the next five to six years, and the business manager there says they will be very tough to replace. Another EC&M article reported that by the year 2014, the national need for electrical workers will increase to more than 734,000 — 78,000 more than are currently employed in the field.

Tony Burr, president of Sonepar's U.S. business, and subject of this month's cover story (page 26), has a unique perspective on the problem his customers are having with finding workers, because he has seen the issue from both sides of the Atlantic, having spent much of his career in the European distribution industry.

“The big issue is the lack of qualified talent,” he says. “The education system has let us down badly. It's not as bad in the States as it is in Europe. There is probably a 30 percent shortage of electricians in Europe.”

One solution to this global problem may come from John Ratzenberger, the actor who played Cliff Claven, the know-it-all mail carrier in the Cheers television series. Ratzenberger is a busy guy. Along with appearing recently on “Dancing With the Stars,” and providing the voices for animated characters on Pixar's stable of computer-generated cartoons, he is executive producer and host of the Travel Channel's “John Ratzenberger's Made in America” and the co-founder of the Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs Foundation (NBTF), a charitable organization dedicated to introducing young people to the pleasures of tinkering.

Said Ratzenberger in a recent radio interview, “Kids aren't tinkering. Without tinkerers there are no inventors, and without inventors, there is no industry and there is no one to operate the lathe. The average factory worker is 52 years old. Once the baby boomers go, that's it.

“High-school students can't even read a ruler. It's an industrial tsunami heading our way. Every industry starts with some invention. Those inventors started out as children tinkering.”

He wants high schools to educate students about the job opportunities in the manufacturing world. Ratzenberger believes media and Hollywood often portray manufacturing in a poor light, denigrating anyone who works with their hands. To help educate students, Ratzenberger and his Nuts, Bolts and Thingamajigs Foundation will sponsor a national Tinkering Day on Nov. 3 to help kids of all ages experience the satisfaction of using their own hands. More information is available at

He hopes Tinkering Day and his foundation will help create the next generation of artisans, inventors, engineers, repairmen and skilled workers. “The manual arts have always taken precedence over the fine arts,” he says, “Somebody had to build a ceiling before Michelangelo could go to work.”

As someone who first learned how to work with tools from his father at his workbench, I think Ratzenberger is onto something.

About the Author

Jim Lucy | Editor-in-Chief of Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing

Jim Lucy has been wandering through the electrical market for more than 40 years, most of the time as an editor for Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing newsletter, and as a contributing writer for EC&M magazine During that time he and the editorial team for the publications have won numerous national awards for their coverage of the electrical business. He showed an early interest in electricity, when as a youth he had an idea for a hot dog cooker. Unfortunately, the first crude prototype malfunctioned and the arc nearly blew him out of his parents' basement.

Before becoming an editor for Electrical Wholesaling  and Electrical Marketing, he earned a BA degree in journalism and a MA in communications from Glassboro State College, Glassboro, NJ., which is formerly best known as the site of the 1967 summit meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and Russian Premier Aleksei Nikolayevich Kosygin, and now best known as the New Jersey state college that changed its name in 1992 to Rowan University because of a generous $100 million donation by N.J. zillionaire industrialist Henry Rowan. Jim is a Brooklyn-born Jersey Guy happily transplanted with his wife and three sons in the fertile plains of Kansas for the past 30 years. 

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