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Should Your Distributorship Set Up an Apprenticeship Program? (Part I)

Should Your Distributorship Set Up an Apprenticeship Program? (Part I)

The scramble to find skilled, qualified electricians and other tradespeople is on, and no one really seems to be winning the battle at this point. Driven by an aging electrical infrastructure, the emergence of new industries (e.g., alternative energy), the retiring baby boomers, and the adoption of automation and electronics across a wide range of industries, the demand for electricians is expected to continue—and exacerbate—over the next four years.

“The other force contributing to a bright outlook for electrical workers is the shortage of skilled labor,” IBEW-NECA reports, noting that a number of factors on the supply side have created the potential for a serious labor shortage in the near future. One of the main drivers of the skilled labor shortage is that increasing the supply of skilled electricians takes time. And, vocational education programs and long apprenticeship periods mean that it takes time to increase the pool of qualified workers.

The challenge isn’t going away anytime soon. The U.S. Department of Labor is projecting a 20% growth in the employment of electricians by 2022, just at a time when finding skilled, qualified workers is getting increasingly difficult. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are currently 158,000 unfilled construction sector jobs in the U.S. – a number that is expected to increase significantly as tradespeople retire over the next decade.

A Rising Need

According to the BLS, the need for trained electricians is expected to rise in the next 10 years in response to more wiring needs in homes and businesses, as well as an overall growth of the construction industry. In manufacturing plants as well, electricians will be needed to maintain old equipment and install new systems.

As a result, the electrician field is projected to see a much faster-than-average growth rate of 14% in the decade ahead, resulting in 85,900 new jobs by 2024. With a median income of $51,880, higher than construction trades workers and higher than the median for all occupations, electricians make livable wages in a high-growth career.

One strategy that organizations and institutions are using to address the skilled labor gap is apprenticeships, or the combination of on-the-job training with academic instruction for individuals who either are entering the workforce or changing careers. These programs, which can last anywhere from two to five years, are managed under the supervision of a journey-level craft person or trade professional, with workers learning the practical and theoretical aspects of a highly-skilled occupation like electrician.

Distributors and retailers that work with the very contractors that are struggling to find skilled labor can both play important roles in the development of new trade professionals. In fact, both Lowe’s and Home Depot recently rolled out new apprenticeship programs. The former announced that it was rolling out Track to the Trades, a new workforce development initiative that aims to provide innovative career alternatives and financial support for employees to pursue a skilled trade.

Lowe’s is offering employees upfront tuition funding for trade skill certification; academic coaching and support; and placement opportunities for full-time pre-apprenticeships in Lowe’s nationwide contractor network, the company reports in a press release. Participants receive up to $2,500 to gain a certification and serve as a pre-apprentice in carpentry, HVAC, electrical, plumbing, or appliance repair careers.

Not to be outdone, The Home Depot Foundation has committed $50 million to skilled trades training, with the funding going to train 20,000 new tradespeople by 2028. According to a company press release, the foundation trains and places skilled veterans in jobs, and is also establishing an advanced level trades training program in partnership with the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA). And, over the next 10 years, the foundation plans to expand training support to include the broader veteran community as well as underserved high schools across the U.S.

Distributors are in a Prime Position to Help

Grant Shmelzer, executive director at IEC Chesapeake in Laurel, Md., says electrical distributors are in a good position to set up their own apprenticeship programs and/or partner with local institutions to establish such programs. “In the Mid-Atlantic region, most of NAED’s members are already participating on some level in our apprenticeship programs,” says Shmelzer, “whether that’s by donating materials, getting subject matter experts to come in and talk to students, or working with suppliers that can come and do the actual training.”

After all, says Shmelzer, that young tradesperson who goes to work for a contractor (or, that starts his or her own business) is the distributor’s “customer of tomorrow.” Because of this, lending a hand in the training/apprenticeship realm just makes sense. “It’s all about branding your distributorship and showing that commitment to the next generation,” says Shmelzer. “That’s the primary benefit for any distributor that wants to get involved with apprenticeship programs.”

Shmelzer, who says IEC is at an “all-time high” right now in terms of the numbers of students who are presently in school, is graduating its largest-ever apprenticeship class this year (over a total of 35 years running such programs). Both NAED members, Shepherd Electric and Dominion Electric Supply are the sponsors for this year’s graduating class, he adds.

The ancillary benefit, Shmelzer points out, is that when a distributor aligns itself with and/or runs an apprenticeship program, it gets “yet another opportunity to communicate with and garner feedback” from its customer base. “We’re not talking about someone who is working in sales or coming in making a purchase at the counter,” says Shmelzer. “These are going to be the workers who are out in the field every day, using the products/equipment and making the decisions. That’s a pretty vital connection to make early in someone’s career.”


In the second part of this article series, we’ll look at how one company isn’t waiting around for skilled labor to become available, and hear some expert tips on how your distributorship can establish and run an apprenticeship program of its own.



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Bridget McCrea  is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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