Power Management

Integrated Electrical Components: One Solution to the Skilled Construction Labor Shortage

The construction industry is notoriously cyclical in nature, rising and falling along with changes to interest rates, demand and even the weather. That, of course, creates challenges for construction companies that must lay off workers during the down periods and find lots of skilled employees during the boom times.

Right now, we are most definitely in a boom time and it is creating pressure on construction firms to find enough employees to keep up with demand. I have a bit of advice for them: the more you use prefabricated, integrated electrical components, the fewer workers you’ll need in the field.

First, let’s dive into a few numbers. The 2015 Dodge Construction Outlook late last year predicted total U.S. construction starts for 2015 will rise 9% to $612 billion, even greater than the 5% increase to $564 billion estimated for 2014.  The commercial sector that I’m most concerned with is expected to experience even greater growth, Dodge predicts:

Commercial building will increase 15%, slightly faster than the 14% gain estimated for 2014. Office construction has assumed a leading role in the commercial building upturn, aided by expanding private development as well as healthy construction activity related to technology and finance firms. Hotel and warehouse construction should also strengthen, although the pickup for stores is more tenuous..

Manufacturing plant construction will settle back 16%, following the huge increases reported during both 2013 (up 42%) and 2014 (up 57%) that reflected the start of massive chemical and energy-related projects. Next year’s volume remains quite high by recent historical standards.

Institutional building, meaning schools, hospitals and the like, are expected to grow about 9%, Dodge predicts.

While growth is certainly good, such rapid growth can make it challenging for companies to find enough skilled employees fast enough to keep up with demand. The Wall Street Journal addressed the issue in a recent article. It reports:

“Finding experienced people is difficult,” said Tim McNew, a senior vice president at TD Industries, a Dallas-based builder and facilities-management company. “When the economy shrank and the construction industry shrank, there were a lot of people who left and they haven’t returned.”

The WSJ reporter talked to a number of construction industry professionals who are heeding the advice we’ve been giving for some time now about how prefabricated, integrated components can reduce the requirement for skilled labor in the field, while saving time and money.

Here’s one example from the WSJ piece:

“As you’re struggling to find more skilled workers, the more you can do ahead of time that requires fewer skilled workers is a help,” said Rilo Stephens, president of Eckardt Electric, an Atlanta-based contractor.

About 10% of Eckardt Electric’s 130 workers are now on the shop floor at any time, rather than out in the field, up from 2% a year ago. When possible, Eckardt uses a computer-generated model to plan the layout of electrical systems going inside buildings, and then assembles as much as it can in its indoor prefabrication facility. For instance, workers can put together conduit runs and make connectors, label the products and ship them on pallets. At a job site, “a guy in the field puts the puzzle together.” The ultimate goal is to have about a quarter of the workers inside.

From my perspective, Eckardt is on the right track. I’m not sure whether the company has taken the step of using integrated electrical control panel boards, but that is certainly another way to reduce the need for skilled labor in the field.

As I mentioned in a previous post, such integrated panels come with all the required components pre-assembled, including circuit breakers, power panels, transformers and the like. It’s all pre-tested as well, so all the technician in the field has to do is attach it to a wall and make a few wiring connections. Clearly doing that doesn’t take the kind of skill, experience or time required to put a panel board together in the field from scratch. In fact, the job will be done in hours, instead of days.

Prefabricated modules is an idea that fairly permeates Schneider Electric as we seek to find ways to save customers time and money. For example, our Data Center business unit has long been selling prefabricated data center modules that likewise save customers time and money in the construction process. (See this blog post for one example.)

It’s heartening and encouraging to see the likes of The Wall Street Journal essentially validating our approach. If you’d like to learn more about what integrated solutions can do for you, shoot us an email at powersolutions@schneider-electric.com

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