Electrical contractors respond to labor challenges, with implications for OEMs

ABB/EC&M survey shows good workers are hard to find, but OEMs can help.

At the end of 2020, ABB teamed up with EC&M for the magazine’s biannual survey of electrical contractors. Not surprisingly, the results showed a few significant shifts from the 2018 survey, primarily driven by the pandemic and resulting impacts to the construction industry in general.

One area, though, stood out, and it’s only become more important in 2021: finding (and retaining) quality workers.

Let’s start with a few statistics. From 2018 to 2028, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the employment of electricians to increase by 10%, faster than the average of all occupations. Over the course of the decade, BLS expects about 94,600 job openings for electricians per year. More openings with the same or fewer candidates makes for an increasingly competitive labor market.

Electrical contractors cited difficulty finding and retaining quality employees as their #1 growth inhibitor.

The ABB/EC&M survey included responses from 457 electrical professionals. When asked what they see as the greatest inhibitor of growth in their businesses, the most common response by far was “difficulty finding/retaining quality employees,” cited by 63% of individuals surveyed. “General economic conditions” was next at just 31% and that was actually down 11 percentage points from the 2018 results. This is particularly remarkable when you consider what the economic landscape looked like last December.

Factors Negatively Impacting Business Growth

Perhaps not surprisingly, when asked where they are investing, respondents identified field installation personnel (i.e., forepersons, installers) 44% of the time with business development and estimating a distant second and third at 18% and 16% respectively.

Collectively these results send a clear message to OEMs that equipment that is faster and easier to install—especially if it can be done with fewer workers—will get a premium in the market.

Similarly, OEMs that offer training and after-sale support are likely to be favored by contractors. This is notable because 2020 was an update year for the National Electrical Code (NEC), after which there is a predictable rise in the need for training and help interpreting code changes. OEMs remain the most-cited source (49% of respondents) for electrical code interpretation support followed by search engines (42%) and supervisors (32%).

Sources Leveraged for Standards Interpretation

When asked where equipment suppliers should focus their investment, survey respondents identified areas that will save time on their projects. Better availability and quality (43%), online tools for simplifying project management (33%) and expanding market coverage either physically or via online sales (33%) formed the top tier of responses.

Electrical professionals are changing the way they work, too, in the search for greater efficiency in the face of labor shortages. The use of Excel as a project management tool slipped from 51% in the 2018 survey to 42% while mobile apps rose from 30% to 37%. Off-the-shelf project management software came in at 40%. Interestingly, custom-built solutions appear to be on a terminal decline, dropping from 29% of respondents in 2018 to just 20% in the 2020 survey.

Business Management Tools Leveraged by Electrical Professionals

Social media use for work is also on the rise. YouTube was unique among the major platforms in that it appears to cross generational lines and was the most-often identified among all respondents. Use of Facebook and online forums were also up markedly from the 2018 survey. Meanwhile, the share of those indicating they use “none of the above” shrunk from 32% to 22% in the two years between surveys.

Contractors report using more mobile apps and social media platforms like YouTube.

Finding qualified workers is a challenge in almost every industry right now, and certainly there is only so much better tools, faster installations and supportive OEMs can do. By far the greatest challenge in attracting and retaining people, cited by 70% of survey respondents, was competitive wages and compensation. This is likely to remain a top concern given how the labor market has evolved since the 2020 survey was conducted.

Still, if OEMs can leverage the areas where they can make a difference to short staffed electrical contractors, they will position themselves as suppliers of choice.

To learn more about the survey and how the right equipment can make a difference, visit ABB at NECA, October 9-12 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Categories and Tags
About the author

Bob Fesmire

Bob Fesmire is a Content Manager at ABB, based in Cary, North Carolina. He has written more than 150 articles and white papers on a variety of topics including energy efficiency, industrial automation and big data. In addition to his work at ABB, Bob is also the co-author of Energy Explained, a non-technical introduction to all aspects of the energy industry.
Comment on this article