Making the Circuit
Over the summer, three cohorts of high-school students attended four-day training seminars, two in June and one in August, at Elm Electrical in Westfield.
Monday through Wednesday, the students received instruction and training in the state-of-the-art Elm University multi-media classrooms and hands-on lab. Thursday, the final day, was Challenge Day, when students applied what they learned and completed a project board challenge. Elm project managers evaluated their work, offered feedback, and got to know the students.
It was, no doubt, an enriching experience for many. But First Steps Futures, as Elm calls it, is more than a summer camp. It’s a program, to be repeated each summer, with an eye firmly on the future of the electrical industry.
“This is a great opportunity to showcase and utilize our training facility, expose kids to the electrical field, as well as instruct our current and future workforce,” instructor Paul Asselin said. “At the same time, we can get them excited about the field and see what the kids can do. Do they follow our strict safety protocols? Do they ask questions? Do they work well with others? Is their work accurate? Do they have a positive attitude? This gives us a snapshot of what they’d look like as potential co-op students on the job.”
The students, in grades 10-12, were recommended by their teachers or Elm employees to attend the free training seminar. Some were, indeed, invited back as co-op students, to get a better look at the field, and give Elm a better look at what they can do.
“This program also gives kids who don’t attend a technical school the chance to see if the electrical field is something they may be interested in pursuing,” Asselin added. “Oftentimes, students who go to a traditional high school think it’s too late to go into a trade. We make sure they know there is still an opportunity to pursue a career in the field.”
“Oftentimes, students who go to a traditional high school think it’s too late to go into a trade. We make sure they know there is still an opportunity to pursue a career in the field.”
The Elm University classrooms and lab weren’t created with young people in mind, however; they’re used year-round as Elm’s in-house training facility. Employees who want to become licensed electricians can opt into the company’s four-year apprentice program, working their jobs Monday through Thursday and then, every other Friday, attending school at Elm University for free, as an alternative to night school.
“We started our own training because we weren’t happy with the training we were getting, the conventional way of going two nights a week, three hours a night; most of these night classes are in a classroom setting and don’t have a hands-on component. They get what they need to pass the test, of course, but the hands-on component makes a big difference because that’s what their supervisors see out in the field. That’s what they need out in the field.”
In short, Elm has created a way to cultivate a pipeline of young talent at a time when older electrical workers are leaving the trade faster than they can be replaced. It’s a trend being observed in all construction trades, in fact, and it sometimes requires innovative solutions.
“We can complain like everyone else or do something about it, and we’ve chosen to do something about it,” Asselin said, noting that the effort and financial investment are paying back in the quality of workers the company is putting into the field. “It’s apparent it’s working.”
Jean Pierre Crevier, co-owner of M.L. Schmitt Inc., a 99-year-old electrical contractor based in Springfield, agrees that companies need to stay connected to the potential pipeline of young talent. He does so by participating in the interviewing process of the Joint Apprentice Training Committee of the Local 7 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, bringing new students into apprenticeship programs. “I was pleased with this year’s turnout — we had a lot of great candidates to choose from this year.”
But he also does so with efforts like a recent partnership between M.L. Schmitt, Exposure, and two local electrical manufacturers, Legrand and Fidelux Lighting, to provide donations to the Putnam Electrical Shop at Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield.
The Putnam Electrical Shop works on a fixed budget, and donations like this give them additional supplies and equipment for student lessons, said teacher and master electrician Charley Jackson. “I share my work experience and testimony with my students, and it really helps them with their desire to learn. Our recent visit from M.L. Schmitt and donation of supplies really encouraged our students to keep pushing.”
The materials that the school received include low-voltage and line-voltage training kits, a variety of light fixtures, blueprints, surface raceways, disconnect switches and more. More donations are expected to take place this fall, and M.L. Schmitt has hired many Putnam graduates over the years.
“We’ve been conditioned to think you have to have a college degree to have a successful career after high school,” Crevier said. “But a lot of people struggling with college and looking at alternate solutions can make really good money in the trades. I know borderline geniuses who don’t have a really strong formal education behind them, but they can use their hands, and they’re virtual artists, interpreting visual drawings to see what the designer’s intent is. It’s a great career path.”
Mind the Gap
The workforce issue isn’t unique to electricians. A recent survey by Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA) found that, overall, construction firms are still struggling to recruit employees. Ninety-three percent of respondents say they have open positions that they’re trying to fill, and 91% indicate they are struggling to fill at least some of these roles. This issue is particularly pronounced among craft positions, which make up the bulk of construction work on job sites.
At the same time, AGCA reported, more companies are waking up to the fact that the future of the construction industry lies in youth, which is why firms are increasingly taking steps to engage younger generations. Fifty-one percent of survey respondents say they’ve gotten involved in career-building programs at the high school, college, and technical-school level in order to encourage students to consider a career in construction.
“But a lot of people struggling with college and looking at alternate solutions can make really good money in the trades. I know borderline geniuses who don’t have a really strong formal education behind them.”
It’s a task facing serious headwinds. Tallo, an employment and scholarship platform geared toward younger workers, issued a report in the spring analyzing survey responses from more than 29,000 high-school and college students about the brands, industries, and career paths they desire. In a ranking of 22 industries, construction attracted the interest of just 16.7% of respondents; only forestry ranked lower. In contrast, 76.5% want to work in technology.
What those who are looking at the trades are finding, however, is opportunity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, electrician jobs are expected to grow by 9.1% from 2020 to 2030, higher than the 7.7% growth rate projected for all occupations. The increase in demand is largely driven by an increase in devices, buildings, and vehicles that rely on electricity; from 2021 to 2022 alone, total electricity consumption in the U.S. is expected to grow by 1.4%. Meanwhile, as noted earlier, Baby Boomers are retiring at a faster rate than members of Gen Z are choosing careers in the trades.
“I was one of those people who went to a private high school, four-year college, got a bachelor’s degree in marketing, sat behind a desk every day, and decided it wasn’t for me and turned to the trades,” Crevier told BusinessWest. “I decided I was one of those visual people; I like to work with my hands, see my accomplishments at the end of the day, and be proud of what I did.”
One of his pitches to young people is that, particularly for those who enter a union apprentice program, they’ll get paid to learn a career path, rather than go into debt. “Instead of investing tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, into an education, you’re actually getting paid to learn, paid in the field, as you go to night school, at least on the union side.”
Bobby Williams, a purchasing officer at M.L. Schmitt, graduated from Putnam and is gratified to see more of its students become the future of his field. “Without our young, upcoming electricians, we won’t have a future workforce of skilled tradesmen and women.”
Which is why Jackson is gratified by the continued connection betweeen Putnam and area businesses. “These donations and visits from M.L. Schmitt let our students know they’re included,” he said. “It certainly motivates and keeps them encouraged about entering the trade.”
Michael Poole, who chairs the Electrical Department at Putnam, added that the donation gives students an opportunity to see and work with specialty items that they would otherwise not be able to afford. “It also shows them that the community cares about their future success in the electrical trade. I am grateful, and I know that our students are as well.”
First Steps on a Rewarding Path
Still, Asselin noted, with the manpower shortage, vocational schools can only put out so many students, which is why programs like Elm’s First Steps Futures, is so important, as the company brings in young talent who might otherwise have never thought electrical work was something for them.
“I’ve got them for four days, so I get a pretty good idea what kind of student and what kind of employee they may be. It was really eye-opening for us to see the quality of some of the students out there,” he said. “Some kids who go to a traditional high school or some other alternative school think they can’t go into a trade because they didn’t go to trade school. That’s not the case. Companies like ours will train them both in the classroom and hands-on. We have that ability to get them up to the same level as, say, a vocational student that went through a three-year vocational program.”
Moving forward, Asselin said Elm might open the week-long program to veterans looking to get into a trade. “It’s a different way to approach the problem.”
But Elm University itself, where current employees skill up for better career opportunities, has been a crucial element, he added. “This is what we should have done a long time ago. We kind of had our hand forced because certain jobs require traveling, guys are out of town for a week, and it’s hard to be in school during the week and also be at work. Now, they can travel during the week and get back for class.
“This is a great option for those who don’t want to have to go to night school,” he added. “In four years, students will be ready to sit for their exam to be licensed electricians. Adding our First Steps Futures program to our Elm U program really allows us to groom our future workforce from the very beginning.”
Offering young people pathways into a career is important, but so is showing them how much satisfaction can be found in the work.
“Really, it’s a tangible thing. I tell students, there is a tangible output from what you do,” Crevier said, adding that he tells students about area jobs his company has worked on, from Union Station to the light and visual displays at Thunderbirds games to hospitals, which rely on electrical networks to save lives. “These things might last decades or hundreds of years, and people will always see the product of what you did. Kids today have never thought about that aspect before.
“We can all find people,” he added. “It’s a matter of finding qualified candidates who have the initiative, the drive, and the desire to differentiate themselves and be leaders. Too many people in the workforce today are complacent to show up and participate and don’t want to do more.”
But Schmitt, a company that’s been around for 99 years and doesn’t plan on going anywhere, won’t always have Crevier and his team at the helm, so a job there, as at many companies, is a chance to grow into higher roles.
“We’re not going to be here for 30 years, but we’re looking at the next 30, 40, 50 years, and even beyond that,” he said. “There’s always an opportunity for the right individual.”
At a time when electrical and all other building trades are scrambling to find talent and restock an aging workforce, it’s just one more factor that might draw a Gen-Z student to a career he or she might never have considered before.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]