Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, California. He writes about health, business, technology and educational issues; and has a master's degree in English from C.S.U. Dominguez Hills.
As a generation of electricians retires & new technologies emerge, ongoing education is required to satisfy NEC Code & win jobs
More than ever, continuous education is the lifeblood of electrical contractors—it is necessary not only for doing business but also for staying on top of industry trends. Technologies—such as LED lighting, lighting controls and whole home automation, as well as advances in generators and transformers—increasingly require ongoing education from electricians to win bids, meet demand and stay competitive. As such, filling any gaps in knowledge is essential to successfully take on jobs, meet code and get referrals.
Complicating matters, veteran electricians are rapidly retiring, leaving many trainees with the challenge of meeting National Electrical Code (NEC), largely without experienced mentors and traditional apprenticeships.
Even when contractors are familiar with electrical codes, this does not mean that they have the expertise or hands-on experience to select a variety of equipment new to the industry or size, install or diagnose specialized industrial/commercial equipment. To meet construction deadlines, electrical contracting firms also often require a team that is cross-trained in various skillsets.
Training in safety techniques can also be a matter of life and death for electricians. For instance, arc ﬂashes are some of the most deadly incidents within the electrical industry, and two-thirds of arc flashes are the result of worker error.
With apprenticeships and on-the-job training increasingly scarce as experienced electricians retire, the gap in qualified instruction is not filled with video instruction alone. Video training and webcasts can be ad hoc, incomplete, and lack the ability of providing hands on instruction, correction and interaction.
As a solution, the best way to be taught remains in-person, hands-on, classroom instruction, taught by the most experienced and qualified instructors in the industry. Optimally, master electricians trained in the code with decades of experience provide needed instruction and practical guidance.
“Technology has changed in recent years so electricians of any age, even experienced ones, have trouble keeping up without ongoing training,” said Matt Stumpf, vice president of operations, Partners Electric Service Inc., a Lanham, Maryland-based electrical contractor for industrial, commercial and government-related projects.
Stumpf points to lighting controls with addressable systems, daylight sensors, occupancy sensors, dimming capabilities, etc.
“Lighting controls and fixture packages are about 30 to 40 percent of any electrical contractor’s business these days and growing. It is also only getting more technical. With smart buildings and intelligent networked systems, every device needs to communicate, as well as be programmed by remote, laptop or smartphone,” he said.
While this market sector is one of the fastest growing for electrical contractors, a lack of ongoing training is a recipe for problems.
“Without competent training, lighting is the No. 1 place that contractors can waste labor, time and money on costly callbacks,” said Stumpf. “Every lighting controls manufacturer does things a bit differently.
To keep up to date, Stumpf’s electricians recently took a class with CapitalTristate (soon to be Capital Electric), an electrical distributor serving the Mid-Atlantic States that is dedicated to a series of in-person training sessions on a variety of subjects. The provider trained 27 of Stumpf’s electricians on-site.
“The instructor went over all the products of a leading lighting controls manufacturer: what they do, how they work together, how they are wired, the signals sent to different areas and more,” said Stumpf.
According to Stumpf, the goal was to train his electricians until working with the products of all the major lighting controls manufacturers becomes second nature to them.
Acquiring Practical Expertise
While electricians may have familiarity with code, without needed technical expertise in sizing, installation and troubleshooting, they can still waste time and labor trying to deal with an issue or diagnose a problem that they do not truly understand.
“When a generator isn’t running, it is usually a different reason for every one because all the brands have their own operational peculiarities in the field, so you really need to brush up on the technical end of it,” said Ed Walsh, owner of Walsh Electric, an Alexandria, Virginia-based electrical contractor that services commercial, industrial, residential and government-related projects.
Walsh had his electricians take a CapitalTristate generator course to enhance their technical expertise. This covers all the basic codes to properly select and install an optional standby system generator, and teaches the accepted methods permitted in the NEC for sizing a permanently installed generator, as well as the proper methods for using each.
“The class puts you in a challenging troubleshooting setting, so you can learn to find and efficiently fix problems,” said Walsh.
Recently, Walsh sought to deepen his understanding of grounding and bonding. This is a key fundamental of professional electricians that is not always fully understood or correctly implemented in the field.
“Grounding and bonding can be a very complicated area, but it is vital to building safety that it is done properly,” he said. “If the grounding and bonding throughout the building is not installed properly and there is a power failure or lightning strike, you can end up with a fire and damaged or destroyed equipment.”
So Walsh took a seminar on the subject instructed by Master Electrician and Retired Chief Electrical Inspector Wayne Robinson, which walks electricians through the often confusing NEC rules for electrical grounding and bonding to ensure long-term safety and reduced maintenance.
“The class took all the mystery out of grounding and bonding, which can be difficult to interpret in the codebook because the code is written as a rulebook and not as an instruction manual,” he said. “This helps when we do a new service installation for a commercial store or office building, so the inspection and construction schedule goes smoothly.”
According to Walsh, he notices significant benefits from training with instructors who have decades of field experience, including from the vantage point of inspectors.
“The seminar instructor has been an electrician his entire life, and brings that experience into the classroom,” said Walsh. “He speaks our language, and provides practical examples that make the subject easy to understand and apply.”
Robinson, who has instructed numerous NEC Code courses over the past 30 years, provides some perspective on the state of the industry and the need for ongoing professional education.
“Today, our industry is severely lacking qualified people to do the work, and there is so much demand,” said Robinson. “Yet, we are losing experienced electricians and foremen to retirement, so they cannot mentor apprentices and journeymen on the job.”
The result, he said, is that ongoing professional education is needed not only to close the shortfall in mentoring, but also to bring electricians up to speed on new technologies.
“For those in the industry that take advantage of ongoing professional education to become good, qualified electricians, the sky is the limit in terms of opportunity,” he said.