industry demands a new type of
between electrician and engineer
“Go onto Careerbuilder.com and type in ‘electrical estimator’ and see how many jobs pop up,” says Steve Baim, head of Ranken Technical College's Electrical Systems Design Technology (ESDT) program in St. Louis. “Or type ‘electrical designer.’ You'll get a zillion.” In fact, a nationwide search in the engineering and design categories on Careerbuilder.com for “electrical estimator” yielded 135 results, but even more startling were the 1,128 results for “electrical designer.” From these searches, it's obvious that contracting and design firms are demanding mathematically minded men and women with the proper skill sets — familiarity with the Code, electrical and lighting design basics, project management — to provide estimating and design services.
No longer is drawing electrical layouts on blueprints the domain of the master electrician. Nor do firms want to rely solely on product salespeople for price quotes. The education preparing these workers for their new positions is more theoretical than an electrician's apprenticeship, yet it emphasizes more hands-on training than the typical engineering program. Increasingly, firms are looking for this new hybrid electrical worker, most commonly called a “technician,” but sometimes referred to as a “designer,” armed with both theoretical and practical knowledge, who can best be described as part electrician and part junior engineer.
Filling the void. It was by request of the St. Louis Electrical Board that Baim's two-year ESDT program came into being in 2001. “Firms came to the school and said ‘We have this void,’” Baim says. “‘Would you consider starting this type of program?’”
In 2003, there were seven students in the first graduating class. In 2004, Ranken graduated nine students from the ESDT program. Currently, there are 18 students earning associate of technology degrees in the full-time day program. That number is likely to expand with the addition of night-school classes next year.
The program provides instruction in basic electrical theory, design and construction of electrical distribution systems, CAD, commercial lighting design, and electrical estimating. Each theory class, such as solid-state electronics or power distribution, is taken with a hands-on lab in the same semester. After completing an electrical design and layout project, which includes a set of drawings, specs, and other project documents, graduates receive an associate of technology degree. There is also a professional internship component. “It's an excellent degree,” Baim says. “It definitely fills the void between the engineer and the electrician.”
The position also frees up the engineer to work on more complex problems, leaving the more of the busy work to the technicians. “Most companies don't want to invest in the engineer in terms of actually doing AutoCAD drawings and taking the information and putting it into a drawing for an electrician,” Baim says.
However, it's not a case of competition with the engineers, or even the electricians. Most often, the technicians will design a system that will then have to be approved, or “blessed” as Baim puts it, by an engineer. The technician can also quote prices for project bids. In some cases, depending on the job situation, the technician may also do the electrical calculations and get materials together. Then the project can be turned over to the electrician for installation.
This air of cooperation also works at engineering and architectural firms where Ranken graduates have been hired as designers. “It's nice to have someone at a middle-slot level,” Jim Heisserer, P.E., VP/director at St. Louis-based Ross & Baruzzini says. “We're always looking for engineers. But even more importantly now, we're looking for designers to fill what I call a mid-level position. It's a slot between the professional engineer and the draftsperson.”
This position between draftsperson and engineer has many overlapping duties, so over time, some of the task assignations may change. According to Heisserer, drafting is something that may soon be strictly in the domain of the technician. “A trend in the industry is that there are becoming fewer and fewer draftspeople and more and more designers who can draft,” he says. “It's getting more and more that it's the engineer and the designer. But that's not to say we still don't hire [drafters]. We have people here that strictly still do drafting. But there are other competitors where that's not the case.”
The benefit to consulting firms in hiring designers with two-year degrees is the same as in other firms. Engineers are paid at a higher rate, so recruiting qualified professionals who can draft and design at a lower cost saves the firms money without shortchanging the client. “Advantages to a consulting firm like [Ross & Baruzzini] is that, quite honestly, engineers are at a higher pay level,” Heisserer says. “[Hiring technicians] gives the design firm the opportunity to provide a good product to the client, but at a reasonable cost, as long as the technician, or designer, is being overviewed by a professional engineer (P.E.) to insure that the quality level is there. It's a good way to combine job-level skills and salary levels to provide a fair product to the client.”
Heisserer was one of the members of the St. Louis Electrical Board who recommended the formation of the program. He and other board members suggested creating a two-year program that could teach students electrical design and to be versed in the NEC. “The thing with the four-year E.E. degree, or similar degree, is that often it's very theoretical, and a lot of times those programs really don't teach the kind of things that we need in the consulting field,” Heisserer says.
A practical approach. Ranken's mission is to teach its students the information and skills they need to perform in the workplace, according to Baim. Classes are hands-on so that when students graduate, they can hit the ground running at their new jobs. “These students can flat do it when they get out of here,” Baim says.
At Ross & Baruzzini, what they look for in a designer is someone who can produce construction documents used to bid on projects. That can include cost estimating, specification writing, understanding how electrical products are put together, and drafting.
What may be most important, however, is knowledge of the Code. “The one thing [Ranken's instructors] do that's very important in our business is they teach about the Code,” Heisserer says. “There's not a lot of that in a four-year program in a college or university — a least when I went there wasn't. If you go to a trade school for contractors, you're going to know more about the NEC than an engineer will get out of a four-year college. Ideally, [you want to be] able to gather all that information, pull it out of your head, and stick it on paper so a contractor can bid it so it makes sense and can provide a good bid to the client. When we do that, we've done our job, or at least part of it.”
Not that Heisserer is recommending forgoing a four-year college. But for those who, for reasons of time and money, can't attend such a program, he heartily recommends the two-year associate degree. “There's still a great place and opportunity for the designer level. It's a more practical-oriented program.”
From electrician to designer to engineer. Matt Bergheger was working as an electrician when he decided to enroll in Ranken's ESDT program. He had field experience — but that wasn't necessary for admittance into the program. “You can just go in right out of high school,” he says. To be exact, the minimum requirement for acceptance is a diploma or GED, SAT scores or the successful completion of a one-hour skills assessment test, or nine hours of transferable credit from another college.
Bergheger recently graduated from the program and is now employed as a designer at Ross & Baruzzini. He feels that the program gave him the hands-on experience he needed to perform his current job. “When they're talking about a motor controller or motor starter, I know what it is. Whereas in the four-year program, they don't teach you that kind of stuff.”
Now Bergheger wants the chance to apply his experience and education to a four-year program. “I had time constraints that wouldn't allow me to get a four-year degree,” he says. “This degree [associate of technology] got me into the field. Now, my company has tuition reimbursement so I can go on and get my four-year.”
For Bergheger and other graduates of the two-year program, the associate of technology degree is a means to an end: a way to work in the business while attending a four-year program in the evenings. It's also a way to try out the position before committing to the time and a hefty tuition bill. “Even if you go get a four-year degree, you still start out as a designer,” explains Bergheger. “So this was a stepping stone and a chance to get my feet wet to see if I actually like what I'm doing without paying the tuition of a four-year university.” Fortunately, Bergheger enjoys his new job, so he plans on taking classes at night and on weekends to eventually get his four-year degree.
Of the graduates Bergheger knows who went into the consulting field, he estimates that 90% of them have gone on to a four-year program. Quite a few do, but some graduates are content as technicians or designers. One reason is that the job market is favorable for someone with the two-year degree. “We seem to find there's less and less [technicians or designers] as time goes on, and we don't know why,” Heisserer says. “It seems like we can find the E.E.s, but we can't find that designer level. The need for them has always been there. It just seems like it's just getting harder to find that mid-slot level.”
However, some associates of technology don't end up in the design field. “It's not strictly design,” Heisserer says. “But a large part of the education is slanted more toward design.” At Ross & Baruzzini, some graduates have gone into contracting, cost estimating, and project management. In some cases, according to Baim, they start or work for design/build firms. At other firms, they have been hired as junior electrical designers, electrical estimators, insurance inspectors, manufacturers' sales representatives, electrical maintenance technicians, and electrical engineering associates.
“We've had a lot of success stories,” Baim says. “We're here because they hire our students. If they didn't hire the students, we wouldn't be here. We'd go away very quickly.”
Sidebar: Two New Exams From the American Society of Professional Estimators Offer Certification
With the shift from master electricians providing estimates on blueprints to technicians providing estimates also comes a change in how estimates are calculated. According to Edward B. Walsh, executive director, American Society of Professional Estimators (ASPE), companies today are using estimating software packages to not only tell them costs and maintain a data source for future projects, but also as a tracking mechanism for how an estimator is performing on his or her job. “It's probably sped things up in the office,” Walsh says.
To regulate the new estimating methods, the ASPE now offers two new estimating proficiency exams, developed by the ASPE certification board. The ASPE standards board oversees the program, and Certified Professional Estimators proctor the exams. Estimating Proficiency 1 (EP1) will test entry-level commercial and residential estimating professionals. Employers may ask for the test in order to confirm basic abilities in their junior estimators. Some universities and other estimating training facilities may use the exam as a benchmark for completion of their courses. Estimating Proficiency Two (EP2) is geared to estimators with a minimum of two years experience. Company owners may require estimating applicants to take the EP2, called the Construction Estimator Recognition exam, to verify abilities before offering employment. Those who pass the EP2 exam will receive a certificate of completion from the ASPE National offices. For more information on the exams, visit the ASPE Web site at www.aspenational.com/1EstimatingExams.html.
According to Walsh, the one frustration that veteran society members have expressed about the new breed of technician responsible for estimating is that they can't go about things the old-fashioned way. “God forbid you're in a situation where you don't have the software available and somebody would have trouble reading blueprints,” he says.