If your employees don't have more degrees than a thermometer, you may soon want to turn up the heat on your training programs. By the time your workers acquire the proper letters behind their names — that come with the knowledge needed to keep up with advancing technology and workflow processes — you may already be feeling the pressure from your competitors. Building a team of multi-disciplined employees may be the key to future success.

Between layoffs in the lean years of the early '00s and early retirement of baby boomers, many electrical contracting and engineering firms — especially facilities and plant management crews — relied on employees trained in more than one discipline or task to carry them through shortened production schedules and ramped-up projects. Ask any of these companies what they most want from new hires today, say electrical industry training experts, and you'll most likely hear the terms “well-rounded” and “cross trained.” Companies want to hire and retain the proverbial jacks of all trades.

A multi-discipline or varied-task approach to electrical work is also what some firms and plants claim will get them through the looming labor shortage many industry experts claim is inevitable. And even if a few lucky companies successfully recruit new employees, they're still going to require more varied knowledge. “They're probably not going to ask the new 22-year-old to do the work of three people,” says Skip Mathews, owner, Resource Acquisition & Management Services (RAMS), Tampa, Fla. “That wouldn't make a lot of sense. But everyone is looking for faster and safer, which can happen when somebody has two or three skill sets — not one.”

Pipe dreams

Mathews is in the unique position of knowing about the business of contracting as well as training. RAMS offers both services. The privately held company runs a pre-apprenticeship program for electricians, pipefitters, and plumbers and, as an electrical contractor, deploys 900 full-time, fully benefited employees for project completion, acting as a subcontractor to a stable of specialty contractors — basically a sub-subcontractor. Now, the company is preparing to roll out a program for its pre-apprenticeship applicants — a post-pre-apprenticeship program — which aims to bring workers with anywhere from four months to a year-and-a-half of experience to higher levels of production faster. Accelerated Competency Programs is a 32-hour program, held in the company's mobile labs on Saturdays, that focuses on hands-on mechanical skills — dexterity lessons not necessarily taught in traditional electrical apprenticeship programs, which can make these pre-apprentices more valuable on the jobsite.

“When you talk to commercial and industrial electrical companies, you hear an awful lot about pipe,” Mathews says “Pipe, pipe, pipe, pipe, pipe. It's mechanical, and it's repetitive. But a lot of these kids can't do the math, so we blast them with highly repetitive mechanical skills that make them more functional on the jobsite.”

The first students who went through the accelerated program were all graduates of RAMS' six-month pre-apprenticeship program, Jumpstart. After completion of the program, they were sent to the jobsites of various RAMS' customers. Approximately 75% of them were working about two skill levels higher than their counterparts, says Mathews. With that success under its belt, RAMS has scheduled the next round of beta classes for mid-February. This time, the class will comprise six current Jumpstart alumni and four students from RAMS' labor pool whose experience ranges from six months to one-and-a-half years on the job.

The ultimate goal of the program is to take workers with one year of experience and have them perform as if they've been on the job for three years. The workers' pay rates will rise, and the specialty contractor will reap the benefit of a more experienced employee for less pay. According to Mathews, however, the program is no substitute for actual electrical apprenticeship programs. “The mechanical side — the repetitive side of construction — can be taught quickly,” he says. “But you still have to learn the electrical theory and practical knowledge. This program merely increases the value of the people in the schools and offers more to the person paying the bills.”

Cross training

Although Mathews believes strongly in strengthening workers' skill set through cross training, students that attend his electrical pre-apprenticeship program have never turned around and signed up for the plumbing program. He attributes this to the difference between cross training those working in electrical construction compared to those working at plants and facilities.

Before RAMS, Mathews spent time in plant maintenance. There, he learned that what a company required from in-house workers varied greatly from the work it wanted from subcontractors. “We were cross training in-house maintenance employees 25 years ago,” Mathews says. “We were cross training electrical, mechanical, and welding people so that they could handle an entire line or an entire building so we could subcontract out less work.”

According to Jay Smith, instructor at Linton, Ind.-based Lewellyn Technology, there are some maintenance people who still specialize in specific areas, but more recently the focus has been on a multi-discipline skill set. “There's been a trend toward the multi-skilled,” he says. “You know, the ‘wear every hat-type’ maintenance guy. In the past, there's always been an electrical group, a mechanical group, and an HVAC group, whereas now — over the past several years — it's been more the guy who can do everything.”

This line of thinking isn't confined to those in the field or in the plant. Because of the very nature of some design projects, many electrical engineers, out of necessity, are required to perform work outside of their original field of expertise. According to Paul Kostek, senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), member of the IEEE board of directors, and former president of IEEE-USA, Washington, D.C., many engineers go back for additional degrees or receive less formal on-the-job training from colleagues in other fields. “I've known mechanicals who've become more electrical in background over the years without picking up an electrical engineering degree, just based on the work they do, through seminars or training courses. I've also seen electricals become more mechanical if they're in that type of situation.”

Kostek uses his wife's career as an electrical engineer as an example. She works for a local utility and has become more mechanically adept through her work with the gas industry. “She's worrying about flows and all sorts of things that electricals never worry about,” he says. “She hasn't had formal training. It's been more on-the-job. People do a lot of their learning by sitting down and talking to people who are doing what they're interested in doing.”

On-the-job training isn't the only way to expand your repertoire. Certification is also a route some engineers take for a change in field or specialization. This can be especially helpful to engineers who will be keeping the same type of job in a different industry. “They need to go back and pick up courses and seminars online or face-to-face to get themselves with the right skills,” Kostek says. “It's almost a vocabulary issue. The different industries talk about the same things in different ways, so people need to pick up the vocabularies they need.”

Kostek says, however, that plenty of engineers are going back for formal training and graduate degrees. These engineers are usually changing their focus or specializing in a new area such as software. “Even though their background is hardware-related, they go back because of so much integration between hardware and software,” he explains. “Companies want people to understand software.”

Telecom training

Speaking of software, Paramus, N.J.-based IBEW Local 164's teledata training recently has consisted of new trends in video and security, spurred by the changes made in buildings post-9/11. It is also starting training with residential work — an audiovisual course geared toward the residential market will be introduced this year. But the biggest change will be courses in software. “We're going to start getting into not only training in the hardware to install the infrastructure for the systems, but we're also going to start getting into the software side of the house because software is really where the technology is heading,” says Paul Lagana, assistant training director of IBEW Local 164's telecommunications division. “Obviously, we have computer classes — some basic and some advanced — and that dovetails into the technology with software that we're going to start.”

In fact, some of the classes are so advanced that some technicians come back for updates. “Once they get out of the four years, they come back and are wanting to take different types of training to specifically hone their skills on disciplines that they're not normally doing out in the field,” he says.

Higher-tech learning

Not only is what the workforce in the electrical field is learning changing, but how they're learning it and in what language is also on the verge of a major overhaul. Online and correspondence courses are a growing fit for an industry that spends most of its time out of the office. Many of the electricians' courses are also now available in Spanish.

Since 1979, Tom Henry has been preparing electricians for their contractor's licensing exams through correspondence courses and face-to-face seminars. President of Orlando, Fla.-based Tom Henry's Code Electrical Classes, Inc. & Bookstore, he writes many of the books his company uses to train wannabe contractors. Recently, he hired a translator to make the modules accessible to Spanish speakers. Henry plans to promote the translated materials heavily in California, Florida, and Texas. “More and more Latinos are interested in laboring in the electrical industry,” he says. “We need to be able to train them to do the work.”

With the ubiquitous nature of the Internet, many correspondence courses, regardless of the language, have morphed into online offerings. “There is a lot more education being done online to give people more flexibility,” Kostek says. “A lot of universities are using the CD method where they tape a class and then send a CD off to people for them to watch at their convenience.”

Recently, Bob Baird, national vice president of apprenticeship and training, codes, standards, and safety for the Independent Electrical Contractors Association (IEC), Alexandria, Va., wrote an article for the organization's magazine urging IEC instructors to use computers in the classroom. “At least initially [the use of computers] will be phased in over a period of time. We're just encouraging the instructors to use laptops, PowerPoint, and Web-based resource material in their classrooms to enhance instruction.”

The use of computers will also allow the IEC to increase its use of simulation software for training. “As time goes by and the simulation techniques become more sophisticated, I'm sure that many more things will be able to be computerized, but you can't very easily demonstrate to somebody how to torque down a connection and have them practice it or wire up a circuit physically over the computer,” Baird says. “You can simulate it, certainly, but those things take time. So for a good while, classroom instruction is going to stick with us, but there are cases where we are forced to use some sort of correspondence mechanism.”

Tuition reimbursement

A change in training that has happened more slowly over the last 15 years is that many employers who were more than willing to pay for their employees' continuing education classes have pulled back their budgets for non-credit courses. “Companies tend to not have a budget for continuing education in the subject area in which their employees are working,” says Greg Vaughn, junior member at large of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-United States of America (IEEE-USA) board of directors, Washington, D.C. “Instead, they tend to rely on the employee benefits, such as the educational benefit that offers to pay 80% of your tuition if you take a course for credit as part of a degree or some other higher education program.”

This trend seems to encourage engineers to seek degree programs outside of their main field instead of keeping themselves up to date through continuing education-type courses. It also cuts down on company-requested courses. “There's no budget for keeping the engineers in a department up to date in their own subject area, but there's money in the personnel budget for educational benefits,” says Vaughn, who has been involved in higher education for the last 30 years. “We're getting hardly any contracts to go to a company and give them a course in what's new in a certain area. Instead, the individuals in the company are coming to take classes for credit. That's changed the way many universities are dealing with the continuing education market.”

According to Vaughn, the way the majority of universities are handling the change in the market is by offering fewer non-credit continuing education courses. “There may be a few particularly niche areas of engineering where there are a few non-credit courses taught, but in general there's not as many as there were 10 years ago by a long shot,” he says. “Some universities offer online courses, but I think the fact that they're online is incidental. The main difference is whether they're for credit hours or not. ”

The only remaining market for non-credit credit courses may be in the area of certification exam preparation. Because only 10% to 20% of engineers are licensed, the profit margin for credit hours to ensure licensure is low. Add to that the lack of continuity among states for what constitutes acceptable hours, and that brings it even lower. “Many states that require continuing education for licensure will accept a wide variety of educational activities, such as attending conferences, going to technical meetings, or going to credit classes,” Vaughn says. “Some of them even accept in-house technical seminars companies run for themselves. There are some states, like Florida, where the provider has to be pre-approved, but even with that, I haven't noticed an increase in demand for non-credit continuing education courses.”

Safety training

The latest big-budget item for companies is safety training. Recently, Smith noticed a decline in the overall number of requests for general training. This seems contrary to all the reports of the retirement of baby boomers requiring companies to train new employees. Smith attributes the decline to companies pouring training budgets into safety-related programs versus general training. Not only are employees required to know the skill set for their particular field, but they're also required to know all aspects of safety on the job.

“Safety has been the biggest trend within the past three years,” Smith says. “It's become our No. 1 request, which used to be general electrical training or other types of general training. Out of all the requests we get, probably three or four out of five requests are for a safety class.”

Safety is now a built-in component of the pre-apprenticeship program run by RAMS. Jumpstart, the company's six-month pre-apprenticeship program, offers participants a paid mentoring program, which includes simulator training, a basic electrician's tool set, and OSHA 10 training. The company also mandates that the 900 employees of its electrical contracting arm are safety trained. Every new RAMS employee must sit through a safety training component upon being hired, and then is required to participate in another one within 90 days.

Whether employees are adept in one, two, or three skills seems insignificant in comparison to the increased demand for safety training. Across the board — maintenance worker, contractor, or engineer — companies want their employees to work faster and safer, something that can only come with advanced safety training. “We've seen an increase in contractors wanting workers with safety training,” says Mathews. “We've seen a significant increase in general contractors demanding that subs have the training and to prove it. We love it when general contractors demand the project superintendent be OSHA 30 trained and that all foremen be minimally OSHA 10 trained. Besides being the right thing to do, it saves lives and money.”