The Great Electrician Shortage
Two days before Christmas, rain and high winds knocked down power lines on our road, in a small town in northwestern Connecticut, and that night the temperature dropped to the single digits. I worried that the pipes in our baseboard hot-water radiators would freeze and burst, so at four in the morning I left my
Two days before Christmas, rain and high winds knocked down power lines on our road, in a small town in northwestern Connecticut, and that night the temperature dropped to the single digits. I worried that the pipes in our baseboard hot-water radiators would freeze and burst, so at four in the morning I left my wife and our dog shivering in bed, groped my way down to the basement, and, with help from YouTube, attempted to drain the system. Here’s a home-improvement tip: if you think that someday you might need to perform an emergency maintenance chore, study it on a summer afternoon when you’re not wearing pajamas and a headlamp while trying to hold your cell phone and a bucket.
I did succeed in removing many gallons of water, but when the power came back, thirty hours after it had gone out, I couldn’t get the heat going again. I left messages for several plumbers. Pipes had frozen all over the Northeast, so I worried that none would call me back, but then one did: Marc LeMieux, who came over the day after Christmas and showed me what I’d been doing wrong. I was lucky to get him; he told me that in recent years he’d been so overwhelmed by other plumbing work that he’d stopped servicing heating systems. “There aren’t enough plumbers now, Dave,” he said. “What do you think it’s going to be like in ten years?”
Many skilled trades face similar shortages, and those shortages have environmental consequences. The Inflation Reduction Act includes billions in tax credits and direct funding for a long list of climate-friendly projects, but all of them depend on the availability of workers who can execute and maintain them. Last year, on Ezra Klein’s Times podcast, my colleague Bill McKibben said, “If you know a young person who wants to do something that’s going to help the world and wants to make a good living at the same time, tell them to go become an electrician.” This seems logical—you can’t electrify without electricians—but it doesn’t fully describe the need. My daughter and her husband hired an electrician to install an outlet next to their driveway, for their plug-in hybrid minivan, but the car, its network of charging stations, and the electric grid itself wouldn’t exist without welders, machinists, mechanics, carpenters, pipe fitters, and many others. In new construction, electric heat pumps are rapidly becoming the default option, for both heating and cooling, but on most installations the bulk of the work is done not by electricians but by heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) techs. Plumbers are indispensable, too. Changing weather patterns and rising sea levels threaten access to clean water in many parts of the country, and when water infrastructure fails entire communities suffer, as in the ongoing crises in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi. Plumbers also work on many energy-related projects, including the installation of ground-source heating-and-cooling systems. According to a recent report published by Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group, job openings in the construction industry averaged three hundred and ninety thousand a month in 2src22, and the shortfall was made more ominous by the fact that roughly a quarter of existing workers are older than fifty-five.
One reason for the skilled-labor gap is that the work is real work. The electricians who restored power to the houses on our road spent Christmas Eve in bucket trucks, buffeted by winds so strong they made the screens on our porch hum like kazoos. LeMieux told me that he’s had apprentices who quit after a few months because they had decided the job was too wet, too messy, too cold, too dirty, too hot. A more significant factor may be that, for decades, employers, educators, politicians, and parents have argued that the only sure ticket to the good life in America is a college degree. People who graduate from college do earn more, on average, than people who don’t, but the statistics can be misleading. Many young people who start don’t finish, yet still take on tens of thousands in education loans—and those who do graduate often discover that the economic advantage of holding a degree can be negated, for years, by the cost of having acquired it.
Those who skip college frequently do better, and not just at first. “One of my guys came to me from the same trade school I went to,” LeMieux told me. “He had a couple of friends who went to college, and when they got out they were two hundred thousand dollars in debt and didn’t have jobs, and he was already making enough to buy a nice new vehicle and a house. I pay him a good hourly wage, he has health insurance and a 4src1(k), and he gets holidays, vacation time, and personal days. And he will always work—always.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage for plumbers and electricians is about sixty-three thousand dollars, or roughly the same as that for high-school teachers (who typically need not just college but also a master’s degree) and journalists.
At my house, LeMieux was able to restore two baseboard zones but not the one on the ground floor, which had indeed frozen. He told me that, even though I hadn’t drained it properly, I had possibly removed enough water so that the ice, when it did form, had had room to expand inside the pipes, rather than causing the copper to rupture—though we couldn’t be sure until things warmed up. A few days later, when the temperature had risen back to the mid-forties, I tried what I’d watched him do: I attached a hose to the purge valve on the ground-floor return line, next to the boiler, then goosed the manual water feed. Nothing happened at first, but then, suddenly, water and bits of ice were spewing from the far end of the hose. I e-mailed LeMieux to say the heat was on again, and he wrote back to tell me I was hired.
American public high schools began offering vocational training in a serious way a little more than a century ago. The main goal, usually, wasn’t to broaden the abilities of all students but to sequester certain unwelcome newcomers: kids who had grown up on farms, kids whose parents were immigrants, kids who weren’t white. Jeannie Oakes, a professor emerita at U.C.L.A., in her book “Keeping Track,” which was first published in 1985, describes trade-oriented high-school courses as “usually taught to fairly homogeneous groups of students seen as low achieving or low ability.” This is often still true, although the issue is moot in many school districts, in which budget cuts and a focus on college preparation have reduced or eliminated traditional vocational offerings.
A significant trend in recent years, at all levels of education, has been a growing emphasis on so-called STEM instruction. The acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—disciplines that, in the words of the U.S. Department of Education, impart “21st century career readiness and global competitiveness” (unlike the useless old humanities). I live about a hundred miles north of New York City. The STEM curriculum at the regional public high school that serves my town includes career-oriented classes in agricultural sciences—this area is largely rural—but only a smattering in traditional trades. Leah Stokes, a professor of environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who was heavily involved in the creation and passage of the I.R.A., told me, “I don’t feel we got enough about workforce development in the bill. We have to change the culture around the importance of these jobs, which are going to be linchpins in the clean-energy transition.”
My state has a network of dedicated public vocational schools, called the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System (CTECS), which might serve as a national model. It consists of seventeen diploma-granting high schools, two aviation-maintenance schools for adults, an after-school program for juniors and seniors enrolled at conventional high schools, and night classes for people of all ages who already work in trades. “Between eighty-five and ninety per cent of all apprentices in the state come from our district,” Pat Ciarleglio, who holds three trade licenses and is the head of apprenticeship education at CTECS, told me. “We even get electrical engineers who have done all their formalized university education but decide, Hey, I don’t want to sit behind a desk.” No other state has anything quite like the Connecticut system. It’s overseen not by local school boards but by a single, independent state agency, whose director is appointed by the governor. Funding for the schools comes directly from the state—there are no local budget meetings at which angry parents complain about Judy Blume books in the libraries.
I visited three of the schools in early March, beginning with Eli Whitney Technical High School, in Hamden. I crossed the campus with Brent McCartney—who worked as a union carpenter before he joined the system, first as an instructor and now as a consultant—to see a project financed by Connecticut’s electric utilities: the construction of a small house on an elevated site next to the school’s athletic fields. All the work was being done by students. The windows weren’t in yet, but most of the roof had been framed and the walls sheathed with panels that had integrated moisture and air barriers. “When they insulate, they’re going to do a really good job on some parts and a really bad job on others, using a variety of materials,” McCartney said. “Then they’ll use thermal-imaging equipment to do an energy audit, and they’ll come up with solutions for the problems they find.” Because the house is a teaching project, one class often disassembles something that another class recently assembled, then assembles it again.
Stanley Black & Decker, the country’s largest tool manufacturer, is based in New Britain, less than twenty miles from the Cheney campus. The president of the company’s power-tool group is Allison Nicolaidis, who, like Hadley Gonzalez, was introduced to amateur tinkering by her grandfather. I asked her whether the country had enough skilled workers to fully implement the I.R.A. She said, “If you asked any of our folks who are running the kinds of large companies that tend to win those contracts, they would say no.” Last year, Stanley Black & Decker published a report, called the Makers Index, which estimated that there were six hundred and fifty thousand unfilled jobs in construction-related trades in the United States, and ten million worldwide.
Many formerly daunting jobs have been made more accessible by changes in technology. Some types of commercial construction now employ a form of prefabrication, called “manufacturization,” in which tasks that used to be done exclusively on-site are performed inside huge, climate-controlled spaces that are equipped like factories. “When you do that, you can use equipment that you could never have on a job site,” she said. “You can build a twenty-foot run of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing, all on one big rack, then send it to the site on the back of a flatbed, with a tag that tells the installing crew where to plug it in.” Tools are evolving, too. “Think of something like an impact wrench, which is a high-powered fastening tool that you use to drive big bolts,” she said. “Twenty-five years ago, when I started, it was absolutely a corded tool, and it was as heavy as a bowling ball. Now it’s cordless, and it weighs a third as much.” These and other changes have been good for both men and women: lighter tools and less exposure to the elements make for fewer injuries and longer careers.