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Dale Crawford

Management

How Labor Shortages Affect Construction Quality

Electrical contractors and other skilled trades are losing institutional knowledge

Published: Thursday, May 12, 2022 - 12:03

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of electricians is projected to grow by 9 percent from 2020 to 2030. As in other fields of construction, this is developing into something of an HR crisis. Demand for qualified electricians is outstripping availability, and the consequences aren’t always readily apparent.

The Covid pandemic had a huge negative impact on construction in general. Not widely talked about is how it affected retirement as some contractors, and other skilled laborers, chose early retirement during shutdowns. Ironically, the boom in remote work allowed many workers to move out of high-priced metropolitan areas and pay to have new homes constructed in cheaper areas. Now, economic recovery in construction rests on residential work more than commercial. Savings, new jobs, and low rates prompted homeowners to build, change spaces, and engage in construction.

Why labor-market shifts matter in the electrical contractor industry

As with many skilled trades, electrical contractors possess institutional knowledge that’s hard to replace and takes years to learn as an apprentice. In response to the worsening skills gap—and its attendant knowledge drain—the industry has leveraged technical and software-based services like project management and planning tools. This makes the role appealing to digitally native workers. However, new electricians still need to master strategies and craftsman-level discernment in working with the products of the trade, which requires 8,000 hours of apprenticing and institutional knowledge in the industry.

The case and conflict with steel conduit

Steel conduit and tubing for electrical wiring are often used in construction projects, especially in the commercial sectors, where fire and safety ratings are essential. Being one of the oldest methods of protecting wiring, its best use and design specs have been refined over decades. Understanding the value of this method is an element of institutional knowledge and goes beyond the observable value of the product itself. As new products enter the marketplace—from flex tubing to PVC—engineers make project choices based on how the tubing functions in the design as well as its upfront cost. Having more options in front of new electrical workers means less exposure to the careful craftsmanship that adds value to steel conduit’s use.

Shifts in the labor market through attrition can create gaps in passing down essential institutional knowledge of the value of established products and methods. What’s more, the industry is challenged by demands for increased wages to secure talent. This raises the cost of any project, creating pressure when considering engineering choices in project material.

Finding balance in the industry

One unforeseen consequence of the loss of institutional knowledge is that new electrical engineers may spend more time under the influence of cost restrictions rather than long-term ROI.

The retiring labor force takes with it institutional knowledge that could supplement the education of apprentices in the field. This loss can reduce the overall value of products and solutions in commercial construction, especially electrical contracting.

The good news is that there is a rising demand for engineers (primarily electrical). About 220,000 openings for electrical and electronics engineers are projected during the next decade. Many of those openings are expected to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force. With the recent passing of President Biden’s infrastructure plans, engineers will be required to maintain programs, such as outfitting highways with EV charging stations.

Most employers require electrical engineers to hold a bachelor’s degree from a school accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). However, some colleges still offer associate programs in electrical engineering as a stepping stone to a four-year degree.

Conclusions

The labor shortage will continue to affect decisions by developers, regional growth in construction industries, and hiring practices. As crucial as these post-pandemic imbalances are in our labor and construction markets, maybe it’s also how our talent market learns and preserves time-tested industry standards. There are new education pathways available as Ed2Go and other learning programs supplement apprenticeship hours and union pathways. Industry professionals can continue to share their knowledge and advocate for materials—such as steel conduit—that value lifetime ROI over immediate upfront cost savings.

This type of advocacy affects not only the quality of the industry and the safety of construction but also supports the new labor force by sustaining the legacy of skill and its importance to the value of any project.

Discuss

About The Author

Dale Crawford’s picture

Dale Crawford

Dale L. Crawford is the Executive Director and Director of Conduit of the Steel Tube Institute. Crawford is responsible for the organization’s activities to promote the growth and competitiveness of steel pipe and tubular products throughout North America. In addition to these responsibilities, he is in charge of activities, strategies, and programs of the Steel Tube Institute’s Conduit Section, which consists of North America’s leading steel conduit manufacturers. Crawford graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration from Weber State University, an MBA from Utah State University, and is a Certified LEED Green Associate (LEED GA) by the U.S. Green Building Council.