By Bridget McCrea
A series of articles that explores the current labor environment and how electrical distributors are dealing with—and in some cases, suffering from—a dearth of skilled and available labor.
The shortage of skilled workers, the retiring Baby Boomer generation, and a slow return to post-recession “normalcy” on the business front are all putting pressure on electrical distributors that need to scale up while also maintaining a lean-and-mean approach to recruiting and hiring. But rather than working short-staffed—and suffering the potential consequences of this strategy—at least one NAED member is putting time and effort into the training and grooming of millennial workers for both current and future positions.
“We pretty much represent the opposite of ‘short staffed’ right now; that’s helped us buck the trend when it comes to the labor shortage,” says Jim Dunn, executive vice president at Warshauer Electric Supply Company in Tinton Falls, N.J. With 135 employees, the company has actually been in the middle of a “major hiring trend,” according to Dunn. “We’re expanding and we’re growing, and we have our expanding workforce to thank for that.”
When asked about the “secret sauce” that keeps Warshauer Electric’s employee pipeline brimming with candidates, Dunn says the recipe is simple: focus on attracting and keeping younger talent. For example, the company works closely with local colleges and with universities in New Jersey that offer engineering degrees (i.e., electrical, mechanical, and industrial). Most offer co-op programs for students, many of whom are enrolled in 5-year degree programs.
At Rutgers University School of Engineering in Piscataway, N.J., for instance, students who have completed required major courses through the first semester of the junior year and have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.5 are eligible to participate in the co-op program. Through this program, students complete a 6-month, full-time work experience in a corporate engineering position.
“We have at least five different schools in our state that offer these degrees,” says Dunn, “and we’ve become an approved co-op provider for several of these institutions.” What does it take to participate in this type of program? According to Rutgers’ website, the school recognizes the following as internships/co-ops:
- Carefully monitored and structured work experience in which a student has intentional learning goals and reflects actively on what he/she is learning throughout the experience
- Positions that promote academic, career, and/or personal development
- Positions that may be paid or unpaid (must comply with Fair Labor Standards Act)
- Positions supervised by a full-time professional staff member
Not Just Making Coffee
Dunn says the co-op approval process for the first university Warshauer Electric applied to was “a bit arduous,” but notes that the subsequent applications went more smoothly. “The students get college credit for the experience, so the schools want to make sure you’re legit and providing a good experience for those co-op participants,” says Dunn. “They want to make sure your program is structured, and that students aren’t just making coffee and sweeping the floors in your warehouse.”
In most cases, Dunn says the schools require students to complete anywhere from one to three co-op rotations with an employer. During that time, students get real-world work experience, practical/hands-on knowledge, and professional contacts and networking opportunities. “Once we went through this process, the rest of the schools kind of followed suit,” says Dunn, whose distributorship now has a potential pool of up-and-coming technical employees from five different colleges at its avail.
Through a similar approach, the company also works with area vocational-technical schools to help get more high school students interested in electrical distribution. Those enrolled in electrical contractor programs, for example, can complete work-study programs through Warshauer Electric (which is accredited for such programs through the local voc-tech institutions). “We talk to them about doing something other than crawling through attics and crawl spaces for a living,” remarks Dunn, “and coming to work for us instead.”
Indoctrinating Young Candidates
Getting college students up to speed and indoctrinated into the world of electrical distribution takes time, patience, and an on-boarding process that’s both structured and organized. Knowing that the co-op route could serve as a great recruitment tool for Warshauer Electric’s five locations, Dunn says the company has put both time and effort into the process. “Our program is extremely structured and very organized,” he says. For starters, new co-op participants are paired with a mentor (usually someone who has already been through the same process) who facilitates the onboarding.
“When someone else can say, ‘Hey, I’ve been through this and here’s how it works’ or, ‘You may be a bit overwhelmed in the beginning, but that will pass,’ the odds that the person will stay onboard are much higher,” says Dunn, who at any given time has between one and three co-op students in his building, handling various jobs in different departments. Each works from a detailed daily or weekly “to do” list (with detailed descriptions) and rotates through various company departments. “They absolutely love the program.”
So much so, in fact, that more than one of those co-op participants have come back post-graduation to apply for a job at Warshauer Electric. In many cases, those graduates have completed 5-year engineering programs and, as such, have technical mindsets, knowledge bases, and capabilities. Dunn says the company is usually more than happy to welcome their former co-op employees back into the fold on a full-time, permanent basis—a strategy that’s helped the distributor buck the labor shortage trend and infuse more millennials into its workforce.
“We’re of the mindset that whether we need them at this moment or not, good young talent is so hard to attract,” says Dunn. “More often than not, the fact that we were able to ‘test drive’ them during the co-op phase translates into a full-time job.” Once hired, those new recruits go through a year-long program that helps each candidate figure out what he or she truly loves about electrical distribution. Once that year is up, the company figures out the best placement for a permanent position.
“We have a constant rotation of candidates going from co-op to graduate engineer to full-time employee,” says Dunn, “and we’re thrilled because it completely fills our [hiring] pipeline every year.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.
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