The Electrical Worker online
July 2013

'The Perfect Storm?'
Skilled Worker Shortage Looms for
Construction Branch
index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to

National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee Director Michael Callanan has news that many IBEW members might find hard to believe.

"Six or seven years ago, I was warning that because of the graying of the baby boom generation and not enough recruits to the apprenticeship program, construction was facing a perfect storm," Callanan said. "The recession may have delayed it, but the problem is still out there."

With construction unemployment still running upward of 14 percent, the idea that there will be a shortage of skilled labor seems almost implausible. But many industry analysts and IBEW leaders say that is exactly what we are facing unless major changes are made.

In fact, says Callanan, the Great Recession, which forced tens of thousands of experienced workers out of the industry while dropping new apprenticeship recruitment to record-low levels, has intensified the coming labor crunch.

It's a problem that threatens not only the nascent economic recovery but the future of the IBEW, said International President Edwin D. Hill.

"If we can't provide contractors with a steady stream of skilled labor, we won't get the jobs and our market share plummets," he said. "Unless we replenish our ranks with the next generation of workers, our future is limited."

Energy, Data Driving Boom

Eleventh District International Representative John Bourne, who's charged with helping supply contractors with IBEW workers for upcoming projects, said he sees billions of dollars in new work coming down the pike.

"In Iowa we've got three multi-million dollar fertilizer plants coming, and on the Gulf Coast, we're looking at some huge projects," he says.

Government data bears him out. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of electrician jobs will grow by 23 percent between now and 2020; McGraw-Hill Construction found that nearly half of all general contractors say they are worried about recruiting enough skilled tradesmen to meet the coming demand.

Bourne says that the dramatic increase in natural gas and oil drilling — from the shale regions in the Midwest and the Great Plains to offshore — are driving billions of dollars in new investments.

The Gulf Coast is expected to get more than $150 billion in oil- and gas-related projects between 2014 and 2018.

And increased demand for data storage — driven by the growth of online giants Google and Facebook — means new data centers throughout the country.

Facebook has plans for a new center in Des Moines, Iowa, while Google plans to build a second facility in Council Bluffs. A Facebook data center started in North Carolina last year put hundreds of IBEW members to work for more than two years.

Indiana, like many industrial midwestern states, was particularly hard-hit by the recession, but Terre Haute Local 725 Business Manager Joe Kerr says he sees the potential for the local job market to return to pre-recession conditions, when nearly everyone was off the books.

"If all these projects they say are going to get off the ground happen, then we will definitely be tight on manpower," he says.

McGraw-Hill Construction predicts that by 2015, nonresidential construction starts will be 73 percent higher than 2011 levels.

While good news for workers on the bench, if even half these projects become a reality, the work force might not be there.

The Construction Users Roundtable has projected that there will be a shortage of 2 million commercial construction workers by 2017, making manpower one of the industry's top concerns.

Construction Crunch

The coming crunch is the result of two factors.

First, the existing construction work force is growing grayer by the year. The average age of a construction worker went from mid-30s in 2006 to mid-40s in 2011. At the same time, the number of workers over 55 will go from 20 percent of the work force to 25 percent by 2020.

The second is the major drop-off in apprenticeship training — more than 25 percent in some areas — that occurred during the 2008-09 recession.

"We're down anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 apprentices — the lowest I've seen in my career," says Callanan.

While not an immediate crisis in many areas, particularly in those regions still stuck with double-digit unemployment, the signs are there. And it is an issue the IBEW must tackle if it wants to remain relevant in the industry.

Construction already had an image problem, derided by many career counselors, education officials and parents as a dead-end.

"The schools have been stuck with this no-child-left-behind mindset that says everyone must go to a four-year college," says Callanan. "Well, college isn't for everyone and construction can be a lucrative career path."

And despite some positive words from President Obama about apprenticeship programs, federal policy is still overwhelmingly focused on supporting four-year universities.

As former White House policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat and American University economics professor Robert Lerman pointed out in a May 3 Washington Post column, government spending on colleges and universities tops $300 billion a year. Apprenticeship programs get less than $40 million.

The rise of nonunion construction, which has driven down wages and benefits, has also hurt the industry's reputation, tarnishing it as low-paid and dangerous.

Where decent pay and benefits remain the norm, construction should be an attractive career option.

In union-dense New York City, for example, as reported by both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times recently, young workers camped out on the sidewalks for days for a chance at a union apprenticeship.

"They're offering a career, benefits and a chance to make everyone around me proud," one 19-year-old applicant told Wall Street Journal reporter Justin Rocket Silverman. "If you know how to save your money, you'd be rich at the end of your career."

The nonunion sector invests substantially less in training. In 2011, the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors only invested $28 million in apprenticeship programs, compared to the building trades' $750 million.

Growing the Work Force

While many business managers are hesitant to recruit without being able to guarantee steady employment, Callanan says the IBEW's weakness in the 18-29-year-old demographic means that putting off the future is no longer an option. That reluctance could start costing the IBEW work.

"Our focus has to be on putting people back to work, but we must have the manpower available to get jobs in the first place," he says.

Terra Haute Local 725 has developed a successful track record when it comes to attracting new apprentices — even during some of the recession's toughest days — graduating its largest class ever this spring.

The secret, says Business Manager Kerr: outreach.

"We keep up our visability in the community," he says. The local is active in community affairs, playing a prominent role in many local charities. Their members are engaged with the media, getting positive coverage for the IBEW in the newspapers and on TV.

"People know who the IBEW is, and what we do," Kerr says. Local 725 is present at high school career fairs and works with local National Guard units to find quality recruits.

"Younger people coming into the work force need to know that we are an option," he says.

More aggressive bottom-up organizing efforts, including the use of alternative classifications like construction wiremen and construction electricians, are also helping to bring in younger workers to the IBEW and boost their skills.

"Almost 20 percent of this year's graduating class came in through organizing," says Kerr.

More than 30 percent of the apprentices at Santa Anna, Calif., Local 441 come out of the CW/CE program.

In Michigan, Detroit Local 58 works with city and state officials to help prepare workers for the often rigorous training that comes with an apprenticeship.

Access for All and the Detroit Registered Apprenticeship Pilot Program are pre-apprenticeship readiness programs that put applicants through a drug testing and basic skills assessment to prepare them for the five-year trade's curriculum.

The program also provides financial assistance, including help with books, tools and transportation.

It's a win-win, says Gary Polulak, training director of the Detroit Electrical Industry Training Center.

"It brings us a higher level of apprentice while it helps the city put residents to work," he says.

Renewable Futures

A major component of the coming skills shortage is the green worker shortage. According to McGraw-Hill, more than 90 percent of general contractors say they are worried about a shortage of workers trained in renewable technologies and green building techniques.

And the deficit is growing fast. By 2015, green building will account for nearly half of the commercial construction market.

"In Michigan, the main thing we are seeing is an increased need for specialized skills," says Jennifer Mefford, director of business development for the Southeastern Michigan Labor Management Cooperation Committee. "And green skills are continuing to increase in demand."

The center has beefed up its renewable and energy efficiency training programs, offering courses in building automation and advanced lighting controls. It also offers certification in photovoltaic and electric vehicle charging station installation.

With manufacturing leaner and more cost-conscious than ever, Michigan industry is looking to cut costs by making its plants more energy efficient. And companies are reaching out to the IBEW for help.

"Several large manufacturing facilities have called me directly asking if we had any contractors which specialized in lighting retrofits, advanced control systems and additional energy efficiency measures," Mefford says.

Polulak says that the IBEW has to diversify its training programs to meet industry demand. "Today's members have to know a lot more and handle much more sophisticated technology than those from previous generations."

Callanan says that promoting green energy may be one of the best ways to connect with the millennial generation entering the work force. "A lot of them want to feel like they are doing something to make this planet better, so the sustainability aspect of the trade might be our best sell."

"But we also must let the industry know that you don't need a new renewable work force to do this," he says. "The IBEW and the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee are equipped to do this work now and in the future.

"No matter what the future may bring, we are committed to working with the IBEW and our signatory contractors to meet the needs of our customers in the ever-changing and dynamic electrical industry."


The coming construction recovery means a potential shortage of skilled electrical workers — a gap IBEW-NECA training facilities like Sacramento, Calif., Local 340's training center is working to fill.


Total Active IBEW/NECA Apprentices
(2007 - 2012) – All Programs


The number of registered IBEW apprentices took a big hit during the Great Recession, but IBEW training centers like Local 26's in Washington, D.C. — which was toured by President Obama in 2010 — are boosting their training offerings to recruit the next generation of electricians.


Promoting high-tech, renewables training is one of the best ways to attract the millennial generation to the IBEW, says the NJATC's Callanan.