Electrical Industry Charges Ahead Amid Shortages

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Billions of dollars in major commercial projects underway and several more on the drawing boards are stoking the workload for electrical contractors in the Mahoning Valley. Add to this stepped-up demand in the residential sector and the market looks brighter than it’s been in decades.

If there’s one challenge – and some say it’s a big challenge – it is that supply costs are soaring, brought on by shortages caused in part by the pandemic and the rapid return to near-normal business activity across the region.

“Getting private work is difficult right now,” says Jack Schell, vice president of Becdel Controls Inc. in Niles.  “The cost of materials is going through the roof.”

Schell says procuring materials is the single greatest impediment in the private building market right now. Rising costs and scarcity of supplies have delayed projects and led to increased costs to jobs that were initially bid months ago.

“Copper wire has tripled in price, PVC conduit has tripled in price,” he says.  “Jobs we bid eight months ago are now three times of what we estimated.”

At the moment, it’s nearly impossible for electrical contractors to secure new generators for homes because of the shortage of microchips, Schell says: 

“The problem with these parts and materials is simple – you have smaller shops that make these components for bigger companies,”he says.

Products such as simple breaker panels and electrical boxes could take weeks before they’re delivered, Schell says. “We can’t buy breakers. And supply houses are warning us everyday.”

Schell says the driving force for Becdel is the public sector, stimulated by an infusion of pandemic assistance money that was awarded to states and municipalities. “A lot of cities and schools are getting COVID money,” he says. “That’s where the business is.”

Becdel, which celebrates 25 years in business this year, is especially busy in western Pennsylvania in and around Pittsburgh, Schell says.  Locally, the company is working on the Warren public library, the Veterans Affairs clinic in Youngstown and has done some work at Ultium Cells LLC’s $2.3 billion battery plant in Lordstown.

“We’ve also done some work at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, Kent State University and Youngstown State University,” Schell says.  “We’re going to work every day. We keep on trying,” he says, despite the shortages.

While shortages and higher prices are affecting the market, they haven’t dampened demand across the commercial and industrial sectors.

“We’re still pretty busy,” says Eric Carlson, president of “Joe” Dickey Electric in North Lima. “We’re finishing up work on the TJX project in Lordstown, winding down on a project at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Youngstown, and still busy in the residential sector.”

Carlson says the business is mindful of price hikes on copper, pipe, wire and steel.  However, the spikes haven’t deterred projects from moving forward. “It doesn’t seem to be slowing people down. We’ve got great vendors,” he says.

This summer looks equally promising, as major projects such as the expansion at the Macy’s distribution center in North Jackson gets underway.

“There’s also some work at Akron Children’s Hospital, Mom’s Meals, and a wastewater project in Steubenville,” Carlson says. 

And there is ongoing work at the Ultium plant and Lordstown Motors Corp., as that company prepares to launch its first electric vehicle, the Endurance pickup.

About 150 of Dickey’s electricians are on various jobs throughout the region, Carlson says. While that’s a strong number, it’s still less than last summer when the company had 175 in the field. Much of that business was fueled by a backlog of projects last year, while this year activity is returning to nearly normal.

 “I expect this summer to still be busy,” he says. “We would normally run about 100 people.”

The residential market is also showing signs of strength, Carlson says, because new housing construction and service work is up. “We have 15 residential electricians working now,” he says. “It’s been busier than it has been in the last couple of years.”

About 75% of the residential work is new construction, Carlson says.  Although new residential development isn’t as strong as it was during the 1990s, the current trend is a response to the low inventory of housing stock in the real estate market. “It’s spread out across the Mahoning Valley,” he says.

Indeed, there’s enough work underway that contractors say they’re facing a labor shortage, says Tom Lipka, executive director of the Mahoning Valley chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association. 

“We use union labor,” Lipka says.  “Any union electrician who wants to work right now can work.”

While major projects such as TJX HomeGoods’ distribution center and Ultium have commanded substantial resources, there are plenty of mid-level projects in health care, manufacturing and other sectors that have kept contractors and journeymen on the job this year, Lipka says. Still, a critical challenge is convincing young people of the benefits of entering the electrical trades so that this labor pool can continue to flourish.

“Certainly, the NECA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are doing everything they can to educate the public,” he says. “Some could make a good living in the skilled trades.”

Traditionally, the skilled trades have found it difficult to attract a steady pipeline of apprentices to fill projected demand. “There is this perception among young people and their parents that a college education is the only way to go,” he says.

Lipka says that he’s observed a recent trend moving in the opposite direction. “I think over the last year or so, more people have become interested in the electrical trades,” he says.

Pictured: Projects like the new VA clinic in Youngstown create plenty of work, but electricians struggle with a labor shortage.