YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Electrical contractors in the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys report there’s plenty of work for them, but face two main challenges: supply chain issues and a tight labor market.
In some cases, contractors have contracts booked for a year or more, but find that the supplies they need to complete their projects are out of stock for weeks or even months.
Finding enough help is also a problem.
“We could probably use more workers,” says Eric Carlson, president of Joe Dickey Electric Inc., North Lima.
The company is “still pretty busy” with projects, Carlson says.
Dickey Electric’s current workload includes expansion of the Boardman campus of Akron Mahoning Valley Children’s Hospital, work on the fire alarm system at the Ultium Cells plant in Lordstown, the new Ohio Turnpike Gate under construction west of Warren and the Macy’s Regional Distribution Center in North Jackson, which is being renovated to accommodate a new distribution center.
“Small projects also keep a lot of guys busy,” says Carlson.
“All of our employees are busy now, which is good,” says Dominic Donofrio, business development manager at Enertech Electrical Inc., Lowellville. Enertech has personnel on some major industrial projects locally and in Cleveland as well as some upcoming school projects.
Many smaller projects are also being tendered. Service work on the industrial and commercial side “is really taking off,” says Donofrio.
Customers have cash in store and are willing to spend it, says Justin Bruce, executive vice president of Bruce & Merrilees Electric Co. in New Castle, Pennsylvania.
“There’s a lot of money being spent in the different markets we work in,” he says.
Bruce & Merrilees does transportation-related projects in multiple states — work primarily funded by the state and federal government, Bruce explains.
Projects funded by the federal infrastructure bill are expected to kick into high gear. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has already increased its spending for 2022 by about 20%, he says. On top of that, Bruce is seeing an increase in utility spending on infrastructure upgrades such as building and maintaining substations.
Heavy-duty manufacturers are also spending a lot of money now and communications companies are investing in upgrades, the entrepreneurs said.
“The area’s electrical contractors are acting like gangbusters,” says Tom Lipka, executive director of the Mahoning Valley chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association, an industry trade body.
Much of the activity — ongoing and planned — is centered in Lordstown, where the Ultium Cells plant is being built and another natural gas-fired power station is expected, Lipka said.
“Then it’s expected that Lordstown Motors will really start to grow, once Foxconn is there,” he adds.
There are another dozen small projects he has heard of.
Potential big projects include a proposed Mercy Health campus near Kent State University in Trumbull.
While finding work is not a problem for contractors at the moment, finding materials to do the job and electricians to do the job is.
Stock items like household generators that could normally be easily found on a shelf now have a lead time, Dickey’s Carlson says.
Even meter sockets are sometimes hard to find.
“We had to put some inventory on the shelves just to make sure we had it every time our customers called,” says Carlson.
Enertech tries to communicate regularly with suppliers and customers to ensure it has what it needs for projects, says Donofrio.
Previously, there was no need to purchase items in advance and leave them on the shelf until needed for a job. But now Enertech is buying items they might need later.
“We are not distributors. We are installers, so we tried to get out of that market. Now we have to come back just to be able to make sure we are serving our customers,” says Donofrio.
Enertech also tries to work with customers to “think a little bit about the future” and get them to “make some of the tougher decisions in terms of what they’re going to need” for a given job.
Donofrio points out that the shortage puts pressure on prices and affects delivery times.
“Prices just kept going up,” says Bruce. Customers “don’t like it but… understand it”.
James DeRosa, general manager of YESCO Electrical Supply Inc. in Youngstown, understands the situation contractors face. It provides for 20-week lead times, according to the article.
YESCO, a wholesale electricity supplier, primarily serves local contractors, but recently won a contract with the General Services Administration and is already receiving requests for quotes and orders from the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and of the Ministry of Agriculture.
“We’re basically a government hardware superstore,” says DeRosa.
Part of the supply chain problem is a backlog of raw materials, he explains.
“A circuit breaker is not just a part. It is made up of many different parts – springs, levers, rivets – that come from all over the world,” he says. Some manufacturers expect the “pinch” to continue until the end of 2022 or the first quarter of 2023.
“All the other distributors are in the same boat, so the question is, how do you serve the customer?” DeRosa said. “It gets creative. That’s buying from more than one manufacturer.
Then there is competition for the available labor pool, especially in the skilled trades.
“If we had 500 other guys, we’d put them to work,” NECA’s Lipka says. “That’s our big problem right now. It’s not a lack of work. »
Enertech could use more people, but wants to hire the right people and not “just throw bodies at problems,” says Donofrio.
“We’re taking on a lot of high-quality young men as apprentices right now,” he says. “We hired some of them right out of high school.”
Enertech has also hired “really good electricians” whose companies went out of business during the pandemic or simply decided to join Enertech. Over the next year, he would like to recruit five more electricians and five apprentices,
Bruce & Merrilees has no trouble finding electricians, but has “constant needs” in engineering, project management and estimating, says Bruce.
“We’re trying to educate some of the kids coming out of high school” about trades, Carlson says. “Generally we’ve had kids who may have tried college first but then entered the apprenticeship program.”
Part of the problem is fighting the mindset of parents who view college as the only path to success for their children, Lipka says. An 18-year-old can enroll in an apprenticeship program, graduate in five years debt-free, and soon be earning over $100,000 a year with overtime.
“There aren’t many professions where you can find a 20-22 year old with just a high school diploma earning $100,000 plus good benefits,” he says.
Pictured: Curtis Brown works on the Dickey Electric battery charger installed at Macy’s distribution center.