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Finding Good People

June 1, 2008
Finding, keeping and motivating employees have become more important than ever.

There's no longer any question about a labor shortage in the electrical construction industry. Now it's time to figure out what to do about it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a growth rate in construction projects of nearly 11.4 percent between 2004 and 2014, creating close to one million new jobs. Despite the increase in work, the industry is looking at a loss of three million employees of primary working age (25 years-old to 54 years-old) alone.

Why? It's a perfect storm in demographics. Baby boomers are retiring from executive positions and the number of young employees filling entry-level positions is shrinking. Social perceptions and incorrect income assumptions also play a part, as does the declining interest in technical trade classes among high school students — down 35 percent in the past 10 years. The bottom line is that the gap continues to increase and electrical contractors feel it first. According to the American Public Power Association, Washington, D.C., the average age of a utility employee is 48 years of age, roughly four years older than the average skilled worker.

Without a sufficient number of qualified employees to meet the growing project demands, the electrical field is at risk for dangerous working conditions and ultimately, unreliable power. The challenge facing the industry becomes accommodating the increasing pace of projects with a decreasing pool of talent. It's going to be difficult to overcome. Talent is going to become harder to hold onto as poaching becomes more prevalent. Once star employees are lost, they will also be more difficult to replace. The jobs themselves are starting to require more education as high-level decisions are passed down the ranks to maximize human resources.

Amidst the doom and gloom of a labor shortage lie several remedies. One approach to a limited labor market is to expand the number of qualified employees. Specialty contractors are joining forces with technical schools and community colleges to provide both financial and technical support for training programs. The National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), St. Louis, has taken a proactive stance by creating an information site aimed at entry-level candidates ( The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Washington, D.C., and National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), Bethesda, Md., also have similar initiatives. Additionally, major manufacturers have created training programs and internships designed to reach high school students prior to making their decisions about further schooling or careers.

The electrical industry must also rely on getting the right message to potential candidates. How can this be done? With a reliable recruitment program. This must include clear and detailed job descriptions to help combat misleading information that leads to quick turnover, and competitive compensation and benefit packages that have flexible spending and retirement plans. Once the elements of recruiting are in place, the key issue is to effectively locate the right people. The basic search tools of newspaper, word of mouth, recruiters, trade schools and online recruitment boards come into play. With a younger and more tech-savvy employee pool, an online presence is of considerable importance and will most likely yield the best results.

The final key in working against a labor shortage is retaining employees. Not only is it difficult to replace a key employee, it's costly to lose human capital investment. Surveys continually reveal that health benefits are of extreme importance, and a challenging and interesting job is moving up in value. Work/life balance has also shown to be a priority, and providing flex hours can allow an employee to meet personal needs without adversely affecting his or her work performance.

A labor shortage in the electrical field is upon us. The impact can be only minimized by locating, motivating and retaining a new generation of skilled trade employees.

John von Harz is the president and chief operating officer of MEP Jobs, Urbandale, Iowa, an online job board and resume bank for professionals in the mechanical, electrical and plumbing industries. Von Harz has overall operational responsibility for MEP Jobs and leads corporate strategy and shareholder governance. He may be contacted at [email protected] or (515) 473-9236.

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