Change is part of the natural evolution of any industry. Technology is enhanced over time, customer needs shift, and industry leaders anticipate what’s next in an effort to stay ahead – and stay relevant. When it comes to the electrical contracting business, an interesting force is at work that is shaping the present and future of the industry. That force is the rapid decline in the number of workers in the electrical field. According to unionfacts.com, IBEW Local 1 in St. Louis, for example, has seen membership decrease by nearly 1,200 workers since 2002. This means there are fewer electrical workers available on jobsites in this region at a time when there is an abundance of construction projects underway.
In this environment, how can electrical contractors be equipped to handle the demand for construction with a shrinking labor force? For the last several years, French Gerleman has been a frontrunner in providing creative solutions for electrical contractors to do more with less. Jim Wojkovich, Vice President of Construction at French Gerleman, recently shared his insight into the state of the industry, and the shifts he is seeing moving into the future.
From your perspective, what is the current state of the electrical contracting industry?
Jim: I recently saw a statistic revealing that nearly 40% of electrical technicians and engineers are over the age of 55. We’ve already experienced a rapid pace of retirement as Baby Boomers come of age, and that trend is going to continue as those electricians over 55 exit the workforce. This poses an urgent challenge to the industry. There simply are not enough electrical workers entering the field to fill the jobs left by those who are retiring. And I don’t mean just a slight gap in available labor, we’re talking about a major shortage of skilled labor to handle the construction projects of today and potentially increasing over time.
This backdrop is creating two primary trends in the industry. First, you have an aging group of owners of electrical contracting companies who will simply choose to close up shop when they’re ready to retire. They may already be scaling back operations or are doing what they can to make it through to the end. But the second piece that I’m seeing is a great deal of creativity happening in the industry. Contractors, manufacturers, and suppliers like French Gerleman are already implementing new ways to minimize labor needed on a jobsite. In the past, these kinds of reductions were cost-saving measures to gain more profit from a job. Today, we’re looking at initiatives that are must-haves, driven by the fact that labor is not as readily available as it has been in years past.
This creativity is showing up in a number of ways on jobsites, from parts and components that require significantly less installation time on the jobsite, to tools and programs that make operations on the jobsite more efficient. We at French Gerleman are in the midst of all this, working with manufacturers to stock these time-saving parts, making them readily available to our customers. In addition, because we have so much experience on jobsites, we’ve led the charge in creating solutions such as our material carts, mobile wire dispensing carts, metal “A” frame wire reels and conduit tilt carts that save time in moving materials around on-site. Finally, the sheer size of our facility allows for us to keep the inventory our customers need, and even stage it for them in advance to reduce labor needs.
What are the biggest shifts in product trends today?
Jim: Manufacturers are focusing more today on modularization and prefabrication of the components they are creating for construction projects. For example, we were recently involved in a project where all of the walls for the interior of the building were shipped prefabricated from the manufacturer. All of the wiring and electrical components were already installed into the walls upon delivery. Installation involved placing the walls, splicing and connecting the wires. No on-site wiring was required.
Another example involves the many products such as the new cable ladder systems that are designed to require fewer supports, conduit trapeze systems which are prefabricated, and 4-dimensional channel. All of these solutions minimize jobsite installation time. We continue to see more of this type of product entering the market each year. Because of our size and history, we’re able to quickly grab onto these solutions and bring them into inventory so they’re readily available to our customers.
How has the design and purchasing process changed to meet this shift?
Jim: Much more of the work today is done on the front of end of the project, and a great deal of coordination to develop a prefabricated solution takes place. We’re seeing that the traditional process of design isn’t happening the way it used to. Now, all the decision makers are in the room in the early phases of the project. We’re reviewing not only what the prefabricated solution could look like, but also calculating how much labor will be saved on the jobsite. Working together in this manner eliminates the bidding wars and typical purchasing process because there is a collaborative partnership on the project from start to finish.
What should electrical contractors prepare for in coming years?
Jim: We’re in an environment in which you must be creative in order to survive. I believe that ultimately, aligning yourself with the right suppliers who can provide you with the modular or pre-fab pieces you need is going to be key. This will drive the way business is done in the future, and this modularization is going to continue to take over this industry.
Why is French Gerleman well positioned to support electrical contractors through this shift?
Jim: French Gerleman is unique in that we have 95+ years of industry experience, partnering with our customers and providing product and service-related solutions to meet their needs. We’ve experienced a great deal of shifts in the industry and can lend that experience to what contractors are facing today. We’re a flat organization by design, allowing us to be flexible and nimble, qualities which foster creativity. Our team has the knowledge and skill to solve whatever challenge our customers may be facing, and they have a passion for serving in this way. We seek ways to add value to the experience to make our customers’ lives easier and can accommodate any style of doing business whether its online, over the phone, in-person or via email.
We also stock a vast $20 million worth of inventory, which means quick and easy access to materials needed on the jobsite via daily deliveries on French Gerleman trucks, or at our local sales counters for pickup. This results in smoother jobsite operation and minimizes delays due to material availability.
It’s clear that Jim has his finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the industry, and what may be coming in the future. He and his team are ready to respond, bringing on the latest time-saving products as they become available, and building custom solutions to increase jobsite efficiency. If you have any questions about the products and trends Jim discussed, please reach out to your French Gerleman Account Manager or contact us today.