Short-term projections for the electrical market look bleak, but attendees to this year's show can prepare for the turnaround

How fitting that in a time of uncertainty for the nation's economy and its foreign affairs policy the Electric Show 2003 should take place in the nation's capital. Although there's nothing to indicate that members of the electrical industry will congregate in the shadow of the Washington Monument and protest the country's current state of affairs, locating this year's show in Washington, D.C., lends an air of seriousness not afforded by more traditional trade show sites.

And try as he might, Keynote Speaker Kenneth Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), may struggle to find a way to lighten the mood. According to him, the construction market — upon which the health of the electrical construction market depends — will remain a mixed bag in 2003.

Record-low interest rates have continued to buoy the single-family housing market, but the buying frenzy may be drawing to a close. “The thrill is gone,” Simonson says. “Many of those people who wanted to buy a home but didn't think they could until interest rates went down have already gone out and done so.”

Simonson predicts that even with a slowdown, new housing construction and remodeling projects will most likely be the lone bright spot in the market.

Although single-family housing construction has benefitted from economy stimulus initiatives, the opposite has been true for the multi-family housing market. With record-low interest rates making it easier to buy a home, those who might have spent the next several years in apartments have begun putting their money toward mortgages instead of rent. Not only that, college graduates who are finding it difficult to land a job as companies institute hiring freezes may be forced to return home, further reducing the number of potential renters. “The rental housing market is hurting,” Simonson says.

Worse still is the nonresidential market. Public construction for projects like schools and state office buildings has all but dried up. And the current glut of office buildings has brought private nonresidential construction to a virtual standstill. Simonson says that although the collapse of the dotcom market cleaned out a good portion of available office space and created vacancies everywhere, the tendency of larger companies to expand as the economy was beginning its descent has left many with a lot of offices but no one to fill them. Over-ambitious companies that have moved their workforces into new large office complexes only to drastically reduce their headcount shortly thereafter, are stuck with eerily quiet office space.

Although he doesn't expect things to turn around before 2004, Simonson suggests that contractors concerned with tracking the return of the market watch indicators like the rate of building permits, hotel and office occupancy rates, and capacity utilization. He also points to a recent report released by the U.S. Census Bureau that identifies the fastest — and slowest — growing counties in the country, which could offer insight into areas that hold the most potential for future construction.

The market's failure to bounce back shouldn't deter electrical workers from maintaining their technical skills and preparing for the inevitable turnaround. Attendees of Electric Show 2003 have three days' worth of technical sessions to sit in on and gather information from that might make the difference between losing touch with the trade and better positioning themselves for the day when budgets loosen up and the market comes back. Here are a few highlights.

  • How to Use Today's Test & Measuring Instruments, 11 a.m to 12:30 p.m, June 10. As electricity has continued to improve the quality of life, who's improving the quality of electricity? Ted James, professor of engineering and technology at Pasadena City College, offers an explanation of test and measuring instruments for electrical systems.

  • Understanding and Applying the National Electrical Code, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m, June 10. EC&M's NEC guru, Mike Holt, will cover some of the most important rules in the Code. Changes made in the 2002 edition will also be covered.

  • Planning Automatic Transfer Switch Maintenance, 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m, June 10. Automatic transfer switches have unique safety-related hazards, procedures, and issues that electrical maintenance managers and technicians need to understand. Paul Hartman, vice president of Advanced Electrical Testing, will present case histories of maintenance successes and failures.

  • The Role of Premium-Efficiency Motors and Transformers in Energy Efficiency, 3:30 p.m to 5 p.m, June 10. Motors and transformers can last several decades, so their operating costs can dwarf their purchase price. David Brender, national program manager for Copper Development, will review the MotorMaster program and other tools that will help you choose the most efficient motor for your needs.

  • Implementing State-of-the-Art Training for Individuals or Small Groups, 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m, June 10. This program is aimed at the manager who doesn't have access to a training center or school. Michael Walsh, president of VMS, Inc. and J. David Holloway, vice president of American Technical Publishers, will cover needs assessment, instructional design, selecting training materials, and evaluating and rewarding the learner's progress.