How we can fix the electrician shortage

Guest Author
Illustration of an electrician with a lightning bolt insignia on his chest.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

Not all superheroes wear capes, as the saying goes, and that’s certainly true of electricians. Rather belatedly, society is realizing this profession is indispensable to energy resilience and saving the planet in the new electrification age. For the energy transition, we need electricians, and lots of them.

Yet early Baby Boomer retirements and a lack of interest in the building trades among young people over the past few decades are contributing to a dwindling electrician labor pool. This workforce challenge poses a big and, I’d argue, under-acknowledged threat to the United States reaching its clean energy goals.

If you’re an electrician, it’s both the best and the worst of times. There’s no shortage of work, yet the demand can be overwhelming. In California, for example, there’s one certified electrician for every 478 households. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act’s (IRA) electric vehicle (EV) tax credit and $9 billion for home electrification technologies, like EV charging, solar panels, battery storage and heat pumps, are generating a tsunami of demand. Meanwhile, automakers are cranking out new EV models coming to market at more affordable prices.

And if you think it’s hard to hire a certified electrician now, just wait.

The electrical workforce could shrink 14% by 2030, while demand could increase by as much as 25% over the same period, according to recent data from Associated Builders and Contractors and the National Electrical Contractors Association.

By no means is this a hopeless situation. There are solutions I believe will help the U.S. develop a new generation of mission-inspired electricians.

Let’s start with the electrical contractors themselves. These businesses are on the frontlines, deploying, hiring and training workers. They need financial support to scale up both hiring and training. There’s certainly been welcome investments through both the Inflation Reduction Act and 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to provide funding for states to train and certify electricians, as well as financial support for collaborations between nonprofits, labor and industry to develop training curriculum.

However, contractors — the people actually hiring and training electricians — do not qualify for support through these new programs. The federal government should provide support for this group in the form of tax credits contingent on hiring new electricians and upskilling new and existing workers. This is a tangible incentive for the businesses dealing with the realities of trying to fill this workforce deficit every day.

We also need to inspire more young people to consider a trade career. Electrical contractors can stimulate the process by reaching out to their local middle and high schools to explore ways to engage students. Contractors could offer to attend career days, present at student assemblies and lead planning sessions to develop trade curriculums. Students could also attend operational sites for open houses that provide hands-on exposure into the world of electrical contracting. Students will be able to see firsthand that these are great, high skill, clean energy jobs.

The electrician profession has many other selling points for younger generations. For good reason, Gen-Z and Millennials are deeply concerned about climate change. As electricians, they could play an instrumental role in decarbonizing homes and businesses and help boost the energy resilience of their communities. They could also contribute significantly to providing equal access to clean energy resources like heat pumps, EV chargers and solar panels, which shouldn’t be limited to wealthy households.

Electrician training and certification is also much more affordable than a typical undergraduate education, with most electricians taking on little to no debt once they’re fully certified.

At the state level, reforming the certification process so it is shorter and less cumbersome could also help boost the electrician workforce. In some states, an apprenticeship can require one thousand hours of classroom work and eight thousand hours of on-the-job training to acquire a journeyman’s certification — a four- to five-year obligation. Considering the enormous demand in the market for electricians for decades to come, we need to develop specialized certification tracks to accelerate this process. These tracks would be established by existing regulatory bodies and licensing boards, in cooperation with unions and training centers.

A would-be apprentice could opt for a new certification specific to EV charging below a certain amperage level, or solar inverter and battery storage installations — industries where there’s already an abundance of installation demand. This specialization would speed up entry into the job market and allow for a high level of competence, since these electricians can focus on solving a narrower set of challenges for their clients.

Industry policies and methods must adapt to ensure we as a society are able to take advantage of the energy innovations happening all around us. Electricians can’t become superheroes tomorrow if we don’t empower them with the requisite skills and tools today.