As electrical systems get more complex and the workforce nears retirement, current electricians should consider going back to school

The production process of a large-market newspaper doesn't allow for a lot of downtime — news happens everyday, regardless of whether the presses are operational or not. When you factor in the problems inherent in modern electrical systems that are being called upon to support an increasing number of nonlinear loads like computers, printers, and fax machines, the task of maintaining that system becomes more troublesome for the onsite maintenance staff.


Yet no longer is it enough for maintenance electricians to be just competent. They have to be adept at tackling complex problems, and more importantly, experienced. But experience is a function of age, and the older an electrician gets, the closer he comes to retiring. That's exactly the problem Bill Weindorf, foreman of the electric shop at The San Francisco Chronicle is facing. A large percentage of his electricians are reaching retirement age, reducing his maintenance staff to a troupe of capable, but green, electricians.

“The demographics are such that we've lost a lot of our old-timers in the last three years. In fact, my right-hand man just retired, and he's got twenty years of experience,” Weindorf says. “You just can't manufacture someone with 20 years of experience. The analogy I like to use is if you were to have heart surgery, would you want the guy who's done two open-heart surgeries, or the guy who's done 250?”

Identifying the problem.

The system in Weindorf's charge isn't exactly what you'd call “cutting edge” — he'll go so far as to call some of the PLCs on site “dinosaurs.” But that system, some parts of which are more than 13 years old, still finds new ways to challenge him on a daily basis. PLCs that are particularly susceptible to spikes and brownouts, microprocessors in AC drives that will confuse the keying of a walkie-talkie for the command to run, and unreliable power from the California grid conspire against him and his team on a regular basis. And in most cases the technical information necessary to troubleshoot the problematic motors and drives is proprietary — even if his electricians had studied night and day in vocational school or applied themselves completely in apprenticeship training, they couldn't be ready for every problem these devices can cause. As a result, the knowledge needed to fix them must be passed down or gained through on-the-job training — something management is less likely to pay for. This erosion of experienced workers shows no sign of letting up, and it's not just confined to the Chronicle.

“We're having the knowledge base go out the door, but yet we're not bringing in new blood to train them,” Weindorf explains. “It could reach critical mass if we keep losing all these old-timers with all the experience. [The situation] is somewhere between ‘on the horizon’ and ‘in the midst of.’ We see it as a continuing problem, and I think what I see here is symptomatic across the industry in general.”

Making the problem even scarier is the fear among some in the industry that young electricians are receiving inadequate training in the classroom, leaving them poorly prepared for a profession that constantly evolves and affords little time for going back and picking up skills that may have missed the first time around. Glen Mazur, electrical instructor at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill., and an electrical systems textbook author, believes a lack of hands-on training and emphasis on lecture-style teaching can hurt young electricians.

“[Hands-on training] is what education doesn't do a good job at,” he says. “Education more or less preaches to people based on these concepts. We all teach the way we were taught, and I think in the long run we forget why we were told some of this stuff.”

To be fair, the tech schools themselves, not the educators, may bear the majority of the responsibility. In many cases, schools lack the funding to properly implement highly technical programs. To adequately educate young electrical workers, schools must make a sizeable investment in equipment used in the classroom for hands-on training, and as a result, some are forced to use less-expensive models or “toys.”

Although it isn't a problem for them, Duff Stroumbos, head of the fire protection technology department at Red Rocks Community College in Morrison, Colo., and Bill Franken, an instructor in the industrial electrical technology program at the Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Mo., have both encountered programs at other schools that use such teaching devices — and they can empathize.

“This isn't English or history. You have to have equipment,” Stroumbos says. “We probably have $30,000 in fire alarm equipment and $100,000 in fiber optic equipment for our fiber optic program, so it's very expensive, and a lot of colleges aren't willing to make that investment. It comes down to money.”

Franken agrees.“I've visited a lot of other colleges and proprietary schools, and one of the things that I see is not many of them have the financial support that is needed to give students real-world experiences,” he says. “[The use of models] has been an issue, so you have to do the best with what you've got.”

The obvious alternative sure to provide all the hands-on, dirt-under-the-fingernails experience a prospective electrical worker can handle is an apprenticeship. Jim Boyd, senior director of curriculum and training for NJATC, the national apprenticeship program overseen jointly by NECA and the IBEW, sees the workplace as a classroom, with the apprentices' lunch pails serving as desks, a real-life DC motor taking the place of the chalkboard, and an established journeyman electrician playing the part of the schoolmarm. As far as the NJATC is concerned, the only way to learn is by doing.

“Many [apprentices] are doing the hands-on work before they ever attend a class,” Boyd says. “Our apprentices are all under the watchful eye of a skilled journeyman wireman, and they will be given tasks of increased complexity as they develop skills. It's a whole learning process from day one.”

Making matters more complicated is the fact that more is expected of today's electrician. It's no longer enough to know how to wire a room or troubleshoot a motor. The evolution of electrical systems to include more and more computer technology is blurring the distinction between electrician and IT technician, forcing today's electrical worker to become familiar with the world of ones and zeros. Growing up in the age of the computer may make this transition easier for younger electricians, but what of the longtime electrical worker who thinks “analog meter” when he hears the word Simpsons, unlike his less-experienced counterpart who thinks of Homer and Bart?

“Things are changing in the respect that most of the equipment we have now has a keyboard or someplace to plug a laptop into,” Weindorf says of the technology at the Chronicle. “Things are starting to look similar. Variable-frequency drives are starting to come out that have PLC functions imbedded in them, so the drive is starting to look like a PLC. So you definitely must have computer skills to do the job effectively, whereas when I came here 14 years ago, you didn't need those computer skills.”

The convergence of electrical and computer technologies would be easier to cope with if on-site IT technicians were willing to help, but in Weindorf's experience they're less than excited about conforming to the electrician's work schedule and job requirements.

“The IT guys want to control [the maintenance] because they see it as an IT function,” he says. “But they don't want to get dirt under their fingernails and they want to work nine to five. We're 24/7, and if something breaks at 2:00 in the morning, it's gotta go. So there is conflict between the groups, but I think it will work itself out.”

So what does the electrician faced with rapidly changing electrical systems and possibly armed with a less-than stellar education do to stay afloat? He hits the books.

School's in session.

Instructors and experienced electricians alike agree that today's electrical worker can never become satisfied with his knowledge of electrical systems if he hopes to survive. Forget studying revisions to the Code every three years — that goes without saying. Taking classes, attending seminars, and taking part in local journeyman training programs is vital to the electrical worker, but in many cases two problems stand in the way: Continued education isn't cheap and some electricians refuse to believe they need more training.

Just as it costs money to institute an electrical training program at a local vocational school, it costs money to attend one. Seminars at a trade show may be free (with the cost of admission to the show itself, of course), but specialty classes — whether at a community college or through an apprenticeship program — can run several hundreds of dollars per day, and that's money an electrical worker may not have or want to spend. Getting employers to foot the bill isn't easy, either. In the post-Sept. 11 world where a struggling economy has weakened further, manufacturers are looking for a concrete return on investment (ROI) they can quantify in dollars and cents for every expenditure they make, and that isn't always easy to do in the case of educating electrical workers.

“I think it's in a company's best interest to pay for the training of its people, because downtime is such a killer,” Weindorf says. “We can't say ‘Well, we'll just put out Wednesday's paper on Thursday.’ I think it's hard for companies to justify [training] strictly on a return-on-investment basis, but in the long term they will see the ROI in terms of less downtime — when there's a problem, people can be more effective.”

There are signs of progress on this front, though. In fact, Franken has seen evidence that some companies are becoming much more supportive of their maintenance staffs' decision to upgrade their skills.

“They may be cutting back on new installations or deferring them for a few months, but in terms of withholding training of the mainstream industrial maintenance workforce, we're not seeing that,” he says. “This particular semester we have close to 500 individuals taking technical courses in our skilled trades program, and the vast majority of them are company sponsored. Companies know that training equals improved maintenance and improved production.”

If having an effective staff isn't motivation enough, having a safe staff should be. Dealing with thousands of volts of electricity is dangerous and potentially lethal work, so knowing what you're doing at all times is crucial to avoid injury or death. And many companies are learning through lawsuits and litigation that making sure their electrical workers are properly educated is one way to save money.

“Because we have so many lawyers in this country, a lot of companies say, ‘We have to test our people and find out where they're at, and then we have to send them through digital multimeter certification for no other reason than to cover our own butts if a lawsuit comes up,’” says Mazur. “I think if you don't test your people, you start opening yourself up to liability. There's nothing wrong with trying to help them, as opposed to waiting until the accident happens and then figure out that these people weren't qualified to do what they've been doing.”

Although this may make it sound as if companies are testing their maintenance staffs and paying to have them trained for all the wrong reasons, Mazur believes getting them into the classroom is the most important thing — he'll sort out the reasons for training later.

“A lot of these guys come in crankier than hell, so it's my job to still show them they need to know this stuff,” he says. “I tell the people that are in my classes, ‘You're not in here for your company, you're in here for yourselves.’ I think we have a challenge as educators to do things like that.”

Issues of money aside, getting established electrical workers to attend training classes can be difficult — regardless of whether they think they're doing it for their employer or themselves. It's natural for someone who has been maintaining industrial electrical systems for 15 years to think he knows everything there is to know about his chosen field, so convincing him he's wrong is a difficult job. And unless a mandatory skills test uncovers a weakness, an electrician comfortable in his work may never realize he's missing out.

“The average electrician is out there saying to himself ‘I know I can do a good job. I've done a good job for 10 or 15 years, so why do I have to change?’,” Mazur says. “Some of these electricians feel that they go through their four years of training, and hell, they're good for the next 40 years. And they're in the wrong field if they think that. And I'll tell you why they think that: Because you can get by by seeking your own level and doing the stuff that doesn't challenge you.”

It's human nature to do things because “that's the way they've always been done,” but that old way may not be very effective anymore. When faced with a class of electricians with that mindset, Mazur believes the most important thing an instructor can do is show them how lacking their skills may be. Telling an electrical worker he needs to learn something new is one thing, but showing him through demonstration is a much better way to make the point. And to illustrate the fact that the way it's always done isn't always the best, Mazur is fond of explaining that the standard for the distance between rails on a modern U.S. train track can be traced back to Roman times when early engineers designed chariot axle lengths based on the width of two horses standing side-by-side. And the punch line?

“If you tell me you've always done it that way, I'm going to say ‘Watch out, you might be going back and specifying two horses asses,’” he laughs.

But what if you've got the financial support of your company and you've overcome the fear of change but you're unsure of the ability of an instructor to properly educate you on recent advances in electrical systems maintenance? After all, you considered yourself to be well educated, so who's to say he will be? Local JATC programs taught over 120,000 apprentices and journeymen in 2001, and Boyd is confident the instructors of those programs know what they're talking about. Drawing on feedback from the IBEW and NECA, the NJATC develops classes that electrical workers are showing an interest in or a need for, and then uses its chain of information to train the instructors on everything that needs to be passed on to the student.

“We have around 3,000 instructors out there, and a lot of them are full-time journeymen wiremen or estimators or other people working in the electrical industry, so they will let us know where there are areas for development,” Boyd says.

There is a sizable number of problems facing the industrial electrical maintenance industry at present and few solutions available. With a large number of electricians reaching retirement age, the responsibility of coping with a technology that evolves constantly is falling to an increasing number of young electrical workers and 15- to 20-yr veterans either too inexperienced to grasp the complexity of the problem or, in some cases, too stubborn to try. For both groups, accepting the new face of electrical maintenance and getting the training necessary to upgrade their skills is one way to ensure a productive career.

“Electrical work is a rapidly changing area,” Mazur says. “There's a lot to know, so learn as much as you possibly can and be flexible in the sense that you're in it for the rest of your life — you're going to have to learn new things.”

As for Bill Weindorf and The San Francisco Chronicle, a reliance on time-tested troubleshooting techniques and the passing of knowledge from one generation of electrical workers to the next will keep the newspaper's presses running for years to come.