Electricians are facing a perfect storm. Demand for electricians is at an all-time high, spurred in large part by rising electrical consumption, an aging infrastructure, extreme weather conditions that require an immediate response, and rising demand for installation of a broad range of energy-saving devices within the residential and light commercial sphere, in addition to other in-demand installations, such as solar panels and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.
Unfortunately, this record-setting demand is far outstripping the nation’s supply of electricians. At present, there are about 750,000 electrician jobs nationwide. Employment of electricians is expected to grow about 9% from 2020 to 2030, according to forecasts by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with nearly 85,000 openings for electricians projected each year, on average, over the decade.
Despite those estimates, the one-two punch of an increasing number of experienced electricians leaving the industry and a lack of interest among younger workers in entering the profession have combined to create an unprecedented shortage of electricians.
The exodus of electricians from the profession began in earnest on the heels of the 2008 recession, from which the construction industry — by far the largest employer of electricians — has yet to completely recover. Then COVID-19 hit, accelerating the retirement rate of baby boomers among electricians.
A 2021 analysis by the St. Louis Fed indicates that the pandemic pushed more than three million baby boomers into early retirement. While some of these older workers faced layoffs, electricians in their 50s and 60s were much more likely to walk away from the job.
All of this means that any anticipated growth among electricians over the next decade will largely be devoted to replacing jobs lost due to baby boomer retirements. But given unprecedented demand, can those jobs realistically be replaced when fewer young people are interested in becoming electricians?
Attracting young talent
Like it or not, millennials and Gen Zers are much more likely to enroll in a four-year or two-year college than to attend trade school with the mindset of pursuing a career in the field service professions. Recent surveys show that 40% of millennials and Gen Zers are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than to pursue a career in skilled labor. Only 17% of high school and college students say they want to work in construction, while nearly 77% indicate they want to work in technology.
These young adults also show a marked preference for the various perks that working in what used to be called a “white collar” environment provides. These include everything from career development opportunities, student loan repayments, and flexible work schedules to Fitbits, gym memberships, and off-site social events.
Given this, what (if anything) can electrical contractors do to counter these prevailing trends? While companies can certainly try to entice individual workers out of retirement, the bigger issue confronting the industry as a whole is how can the profession get younger — and do so as fast as possible to meet current market demand and sustain it into the future.
The answer may be for electrical contractors to take a page out of the playbook that has proven to be so successful for colleges and countless brands targeting young adults and begin marketing effectively to students while they are still in high school. Rather than waiting for young people to stumble into considering a career as an electrician on their own, the industry needs to take proactive steps to generate awareness of the kind of work electricians do, the tools they use (which increasingly depend on technology), the challenges they solve, and the benefits the profession provides teens and young adults.
To that end, many companies are now participating in high school career days and partnering with local high schools (and, in some cases, elementary schools) to make electrical training programs available as a STEM elective — both of which have provided opportunities to showcase the profession and recruit the next generation of electricians. Exposing students to the work electricians do at an early age creates an opportunity for young people to see if they enjoy electrical work while learning a few things in the process.
In addition to direct outreach, some companies are now using social media — a tool numerous surveys have shown young people use as much as nine hours daily. Placing very brief but informative videos on apps such as TikTok, the most downloaded app in the world with almost 60% of its users between the ages of 16 and 24, can serve to generate interest in the profession and recruit new workers, while simultaneously marketing a company to potential customers.
Getting in front of prospective workers, however, is only part of the problem. Regardless of whether electricians are talking directly to students or posting social media videos, they need to use messaging that will connect with their young audience. For students considering career choices, that translates into promoting the benefits the profession offers, including steady, challenging work; ample overtime opportunities; highly competitive salaries; and job satisfaction.
Consider the cost
The rapidly escalating price of higher education also suggests using messaging that focuses on the attractive scholarships and apprenticeships offered by many trade and vocational schools. According to BestColleges and the National Center for Education Statistics, the average trade school education costs about $33,000. For context, that is roughly equivalent to the average total costs for a year of college at a four-year school in 2021 ($35,551), including tuition and fees, on-campus room and board, books, supplies, and other expenses. Over the course of four years, that comes to $142,000, or roughly 40% of an average family’s income.
It is further worth noting that college degrees don’t represent the ticket to success they once did. High school seniors and their parents are often shocked to learn that less than half of college graduates under the age of 25 are working at a job that requires a college degree. Moreover, with an increasing number of people graduating from college, most jobs that once required a bachelor’s degree now demand a master’s degree for entry-level positions.
That’s not to say students shouldn’t consider college. It simply means they should investigate all career options. And for those who are good problem solvers, enjoy flexibility and working independently, and like working with technology, a career as an electrician represents a very viable option.
The role of technology in attracting talent
The use of technology by electricians seems to be one of the primary factors responsible for drawing young people into the profession. Unless they are exposed to the work peformed by electricians, younger adults seldom realize the kinds of technology routinely used by electricians today. This includes:
- Robotics, which increasingly are being deployed by electricians in places with potential electrical hazards;
- Drones, which are being used to capture images in hard-to-reach locales and as part of the monitoring process;
- Wearable devices equipped with sensors designed to alert electricians if they are too close to high-voltage electricity or other potential hazards;
- Augmented reality devices, such as smart helmets, which enable electricians to know exact locations of electrical cables, ductwork, and other building systems without repeatedly consulting blueprints; and
- Smartphone and tablet apps to mange work assignments, perform electrical calculations, view product specifications, check code requirements, and view installation guidelines.
Beyond these tools, electricians are routinely dealing with technology such as BIM modeling (which generates and manages digital representations of physical infrastructures).
While generating awareness of how these various technologies has become an integral part of the electrician’s toolbox ultimately can attract more young people to the profession, electrical contractors still must deal with a near-term in which demand far outstrips their ability to provide needed services. To cope with this shortage of electricians, electrical contractors are focusing on working smart, rather than simply working hard. Equipping electricians with mobile devices or tablets so that they can visually explain potential problems and how they plan to address those issues, for example, speeds up the time spent on a particular job.
Similarly, many businesses have turned to electronic communications to send messages to customers and employees, schedule appointments, deliver invoices, and receive payments. Some electrical contractors are even employing video conferencing to consult with customers before dispatching an electrician to the scene. Some companies are also outsourcing tasks that take up too much of their electricians’ time. Hiring staffing agencies, meanwhile, can help to shift the burden of finding skilled electricians off of the company and onto the recruitment pros who typically have a roster of potential workers whom they can contact for a specific job.
Bottom line: The profession is rapidly changing, but by taking advantage of existing technology and innovations on the horizon, electricians can position themselves and their companies to better meet current demand and draw the kinds of workers who represent the future of the industry.
Garrett Wilson is the president and co-founder FieldBin. He has been a serial entrepreneur and expert at building and branding startups for more than 20 years. His experience includes multiple high-growth startups, SaaS products, M&A, fundraising, and agencies that leveraged his deep knowledge in both B2B and consumer markets. For more information, visit https://www.fieldbin.com/.