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Training the Electrical Workforce of Tomorrow

Latest technology enables trainers to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge taught in the classroom with hands-on application skills needed on the job site

Over the past 10 years, a transformation has occurred in the way projects are designed and built — and in the ways in which we install, maintain, and troubleshoot electrical systems and equipment. During this time, trade publications like EC&M have reported in detail the significant adaptations that designers and manufacturers of electrical equipment and systems have undertaken. The changes and pace of these changes have been breathtaking. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, another transformation accompanied these well-documented electrical industry changes that received far less attention. I am talking about the transformation that occurred in the classroom and on the job site related to the way we are training the next generation of electrical workers (see the Figure).

For those of us in the electrical industry charged with training and skill development, these changes were somewhat more apparent. Nevertheless, in a sense, this has happened even to us right before our very eyes. Seemingly overnight, even the basic core electrical skills that were traditionally taught on the job — skills that every new entrant to the electrical industry must master as he or she learns the craft — were shifted to the classroom. The changes in training and skill development have resulted in a new paradigm that has turned our classrooms upside down. It has altered the way we develop and deliver training — both for those who will comprise the next generation of electrical workers as well as those who seek to improve existing skills and abilities.

In this article, I will discuss the forces that have created this transformation and establish a foundation for a series of subsequent articles that will highlight the intersection of this new model of training on traditional electrical topics. While there are numerous factors that contributed to the transformation of our training methods, there are three forces or drivers that have played the largest role in redefining how training in the electrical industry will proceed in the years ahead. These three forces are: 1) technology; 2) global competitiveness; and 3) electrical market differentiation.


By far, the most significant development in the last 10 years in training and workforce development has been the emergence of transformational technology that has redefined the traditional classroom of yesterday into today’s active learning environment. Instructors in the electrical trade today literally have the world at their fingertips, given their ability to incorporate the Internet and digital media content into their classrooms. In our 300 training centers in the United States and Canada, instructors are using virtual tools; simulations and animations; and game theory or “gamification” technology to teach both theoretical and practical applications of the electrical craft. A recent study by McKinsey & Company, Education to Employment: Designing a System that Works, found that this use of technology is an important strategic component for teaching hands-on skills. “Serious game simulation could become the apprenticeship of the 21st century. In a sense, the future of hands-on learning may well be hands-off.”

Chances are any journey-level electrical worker today that learned his or her craft 20 or even 15 years ago would hardly recognize the classrooms we use today to teach many of the same skills and abilities they learned. Today’s classrooms replicate — and closely resemble in many ways — the actual job site an apprentice works at every day. Interestingly enough, what cannot be physically replicated in the classroom is being replicated virtually. Simulation technology is now being used to develop skills as diverse as conduit fabrication to electrical safe work practices.

Primarily developed by the U.S. military as a form of web-based online training, referred to as Learning Management Systems (LMS), this simulation approach has significantly evolved. LMSs are now commonplace in the educational environment (K-12 and post-secondary) as well as with corporate training. Blending online LMS immersive activities with face-to-face classroom content delivery enhances the learning to a higher level. Couple this approach with physical hands-on lab activities, and craft competency requirements — a vital recipe for training the next generation of electrical workers to greatly increase the ability to meet the customer’s needs — have been achieved.

Global competitiveness

A second driver of change for electrical industry training has been the impact of global competitiveness. For about the last 75 years, the predominant model to train the next generation of electrical workers has been apprenticeship. New entrants into the electrical industry spent four years literally holding the ladder and handing material to a journey-level worker. Their primary responsibility was to observe, to assist the journey-level worker, and to wait for their turn to put their hands on the equipment and install the circuit.

Electrical industry apprentices don’t spend much time standing at the bottom of the ladder these days. One effect of increased global competitiveness has been a dramatic change in the trajectory of the learning curve for new entrants into the electrical industry. These workers must learn increasingly more complex applications and wiring schemes — and do so in a manner that prepares them to be a productive part of the workforce at an earlier point in their careers. The result of this has been the expansion of “boot camps” and “pre-apprenticeship” training that better prepares new entrants into the electrical trade for the challenges they will confront the first day on the job.

Whether we realize it or not, increased global competitiveness has changed our industry. Customers seeking electrical construction services today demand the benefits that global competitiveness has brought to them in the other areas of their lives. Our model must accommodate their demands and focus on producing the safest, most productive, and best trained electrical workers in the world. In the end, we must exceed the customer’s needs — a goal that is only achieved by the continuation of improvements in training.

Electrical market differentiation

Not only has the pace with which new entrants to the electrical industry must learn their trade quickened, but the breadth and scope of what they must know has also increased. Over the past 10 years, there has been an extensive escalation in the knowledge, skills, and abilities that electrical workers must acquire to demonstrate their mastery of the craft.

When I was an apprentice 25 years ago, there was a fairly good chance that — over the course of my apprenticeship — I would have the opportunity to work on, or at least be exposed to, the majority of the types of electrical equipment, systems, and components that were predominately used in most commercial and industrial installations. For today’s new entrant into the electrical industry, that likelihood is far less. And if that were not enough, on top of the ever-increasing list of skills that an electrical worker must master, we have seen a growing pattern of market differentiation for system and equipment in the electrical industry. Apprentices learning their craft in Southern California, for example, will most likely work on systems and equipment that look different from those found in Maine. Our training models have had to accommodate this market differentiation, and permit a greater degree of latitude in training and skill development based on specific electrical market needs and demands. Therefore, curriculum must maintain a core set of training to allow all electrical workers to possess the primary set of skills and the flexibility of selectable advance courses to meet the local needs of the customer base.

Reaching new heights

The challenge of training tomorrow’s electrical worker and upgrading the skills of existing electrical workers faced with the need to improve their current skill levels is one our industry must tackle head on. Our challenge is immense. There is no doubt that the impact of the past four years has not made our task any easier. Fortunately, for those of us responsible to meet this challenge, the technological advances that seemingly change our lives on a daily basis has begun to emerge as tools for us to use in training and skill development in the electrical industry. Our success will depend, to a large extent, on the degree to which we can leverage technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our training and skill development for these groups of electrical workers.

In 2013, members of my staff will be sharing their insights and strategies as part of this monthly “Tech Training” column on how the NJATC is leveraging technology to train electrical workers. Topics ranging from grounding and bonding to security access systems will be addressed.

The bottom line is technology has changed the game. Those of us devoted to preparing the next generation of electrical workers have a choice. We can either lament the good old days when new entrants learned their craft at the foot of the ladder like we did, or we can confront the challenge head on — armed with an impressive array of technological solutions that open up the electrical industry to a new group of skilled workers excited about learning their craft in ways unimaginable to many of us.             

Callanan is the executive director of the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee based (NJATC) in Upper Marlboro, Md. The NJATC is the training arm of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). He can be reached at [email protected].

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