The United States is losing its spark – literally.
We’ve all heard about the possibility of an electrician shortage in the U.S., but to be fair, we haven’t really done much about it. Unfortunately, we’re gearing up for an even bigger problem down the road as skilled laborers in the electrical industry are in high demand. Meanwhile, the population keeps growing, the green revolution is picking up speed, older electricians are retiring, and low unemployment rates are forming the perfect storm.
Industries across the United States are sitting on unfilled positions, partly due to the pandemic. COVID-19 didn’t do us any favors; in the early months of the pandemic, many Americans over 50 decided to pack it in and retire early.
The average age of an electrician is currently just shy of 41, as male electricians average 40.9 years old – female electricians are slightly younger, at 39.4 years. But as more electricians leave the workforce, it begs the question; how long do we have until we have a real problem?
If you were only looking at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it paints a rosy picture for the future.
Between 2020 and 2030, the industry is expected to grow by 9%, adding thousands of jobs to the workforce. The news gets even better, though – other careers are facing similar growth spurts, including solar PV installers, which are projected to grow by more than 50% by 2030.
The only problem is who will work all these newly necessary jobs? Skilled trades workers are in short supply, and it doesn’t help that Baby Boomers are now reaching retirement age. As experienced workers leave the electrical trades, there needs to be an influx of fresh blood to keep the industry moving. Sadly, that isn’t happening right now.
Millennials recently overtook Boomers as the largest generation in 2019 and are expected to add numbers through immigration for the next few years. Behind them is Gen Z, which is poised to be the largest generation soon after that.
That’s good news, right? Yes and no. As Baby Boomers retire, more jobs open up for young adults fresh out of trade school to come in and start working. The problem is that people are retiring faster than they can be replaced.
The Great Recession likely didn’t help, as thousands of older electricians left the business altogether for greener pastures in other industries. Those skilled workers never returned once the economy improved, leaving gaps to fill and wiping out years of valuable experience.
Retirements and recalibrations are fine if the jobs you lose are filled with new people, but that isn’t happening.
Younger generations, including Millennials and Generation Z, are attending college at the highest rates we’ve seen, eschewing trade schools. There is also the lingering stigma that high schoolers who go to vocational schools in high school aren’t as “smart” as the kids who take traditional classes. As a result, there is less interest in attending vocational schools to maintain some of our most vital infrastructures.
Promoting trade schools early in a child’s education can help break some stigmas. It can also maintain a steady stream of future trades workers who can fill vital roles in the construction industry, including plumbers, electricians, and contractors. Emphasis is placed on attending college, but where is that same energy for alternative careers like military service, trade schools, or other apprenticeship programs?
Another concern stems from the often strenuous and active work electrical contractors and other tradespeople do daily. Let’s face it; the job isn’t for everyone.
Electrical work can be dangerous, but skilled trade jobs are often high-paying once you’ve been there for a little while. Apprenticeship programs can help younger employees learn electrical codes, get comfortable with the job, and develop skills needed for future construction projects.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to solve the current electrician shortage, but we can take steps toward addressing several issues.
First, the industry needs kids excited about the trades in school. One of the first things that should happen is to get shop classes back into the school curriculums.
It’s hard to get kids thinking about the trades when they can’t experience them firsthand. Shop classes make sense because they fit into the new STEM curriculum, combining science, technology, engineering, and math into one course. It also lets kids use their hands, think critically, and receive training using tools they’ll likely use later in life.
Once those students are out of school and ready to join the workforce, it’s worthwhile to hook them up with jobs that pay well and offer them opportunities to grow within those positions. The trucking industry faces similar labor shortages because the job is often lonely, hard, and doesn’t always pay well. By offering more money (along with bonuses) to hire truckers and changing the rules to get younger drivers on the roads, the trucking industry hopes to close a nearly 80,000 driver shortage.
Electricians are facing a similar increase in demand but can employ a similar strategy to fill the pipeline and meet future demand. Increasing pay can make the job more appealing to career changers and new grads. Making resources more readily available to new electricians, including from organizations like NECA (National Electrical Contractors Association), IBEW, and others, also ensures everyone is well trained and ready to do their jobs.
Electricity is crucial for many Americans to live their daily lives, and there is little chance that will change drastically in the next few years.
Roughly 3.93 trillion kWh of electricity was used in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which is 13 times more than what we used in 1950. As more renewable energy projects come online and the population keeps growing, our reliance on the electrical grid will increase. We haven’t even accounted for the electrical grid, which has to be continuously upgraded and protected from natural disasters and other threats.
We’re in a tough spot right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fix it. If we can create excitement about the job early on and promote it to the right people at the right time, we can get more electricians employed and keep the lights on for years.
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