So, tell us, how the heck are you? Oh, wait, we already asked you that while conducting our recent Profile of the Electrical Contractor research study. More than 2,700 of you responded, using snail mail and the Internet, and told us what it’s like to be an electrical contractor (EC) in this day and age.
It’s been a couple years since we last checked in with you, so we figured it was time to ask you these questions again. Actually, the timing is not quite as arbitrary as that; every two years, ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR surveys its readership to develop its Profile of the Electrical Contractor. The survey asks about the previous full year (for example, the 2010 survey asks about 2009). With the last two surveys (in 2010 and 2012), things seemed a bit dicey. It’s good to learn this year that many of you are beginning to do better.
Diversifying their scope of activity and becoming more familiar with green-energy offerings are among the strategies many firms—even smaller companies—are adopting in the face of a still-stagnant, new construction business. With more firms growing and fewer companies shedding employees, it seems those strategies just might be paying off.
In this article, and in a follow-up next month, we break down some of the study findings. However, this research is quite extensive, so if you wish to see the full report, you will be able to check it out on www.ecmag.com/market-research in a few months. That same webpage also contains the past survey results so you can see how they’ve changed over time. Let’s get started with our 2014 Profile, shall we?
Who are you?
To start breaking down the results of the 2014 Profile of the Electrical Contractor, let’s begin with some basic demographics. Based on our sample, most electrical contractors are middle-aged, with an average age of 56.2 years, which is statistically unchanged from the 2012 survey. In fact, this year’s survey is the first since at least 2006 that the average age has held steady. Approximately 36 percent of respondents are between the ages of 35 and 54—unchanged from 2012 but down from 2010’s 47 percent (see Figure 1).
Retirements among the oldest ECs could be helping to slow the overall aging trend in the profession, along with an increase in hiring among firms in a range of sizes. Survey respondents from smaller firms (those with 1–9 employees) are older than those in larger companies, possibly because older ECs may have built up the knowledge necessary to hang their own shingles while spending their earlier career working for a larger company.
These age figures are likely related to the career level of the survey respondents, 78 percent of whom are company owners and top management. Twelve percent of respondents say they are master electricians (or hold an equivalent title), 4 percent are field managers and 5 percent say they have another title.
The majority of electrical contracting firms are smaller rather than larger, both in number of employees and in their revenue. Some 74 percent of firms interviewed have a staff ranging between one and nine employees, and 72 percent have annual revenues of less than $1 million. Both of these figures are statistically unchanged compared to 2010 and 2012 findings; they rose from 63 percent with one to nine employees in 2006 to 72 percent in 2010.
While it may seem a bit of a yawn that company sizes have remained steady in the last two years, there is some reason for hope behind the numbers. Twenty percent of firms added employees in the past 12–18 months (up from only 12 percent in 2012), and 18 percent lost employees (down from 24 percent in 2012 and an alarming 36 percent in 2010). When more companies are adding employees than shedding them, more ECs are taking home paychecks (see Figures 2 and 3).
Our researchers found some interesting facts about smaller firms (1–9 employees) in this most recent survey, which broke this group into the very small (1–4 employees) and the slightly larger (5–9 employees). Among these findings, the slightly larger firms exhibited significantly greater growth, with 34 percent reporting staff growth.
Throughout this report, we touch on some other areas where these not-quite-so-small companies resemble their much-larger counterparts.Figure 1
Comparison of Age Composition Over TimeFigure 2
Change in Number of Employees Among Total SampleFigure 3
Change in Company Size During the Past 12-18 Months
|Total||1–9 Employees||10+ Employees|
|Stayed the Same||61%=||63%>||55%||70%=||72%>||67%||35%=||37%>||23%|
High School Only
What’s your educational background?
Not much has changed in the educational levels of responding ECs in the last two years. Across firm sizes, 56 percent of respondents have at least some college education, and 19 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree. These results are consistent with our last survey. Both college attendance and a bachelor’s degree (or higher) are more common for ECs working in firms of 10 or more employees than for those in smaller companies.
However, it seems overall education may be beginning to trend higher. Significantly fewer respondents reported having vocational, trade school or an apprenticeship as their highest level of education—31 percent in 2014, versus 34 percent in 2012. (By firm size, that figure is 32 percent in companies with one to nine employees and 25 percent in larger organizations.) No other single education level rose to balance out this drop-off. One possible conclusion: ECs who retired in the last few years may have fit into the non-college category. Further, educational levels among those in small firms rose slightly so that a significantly higher percentage now hold a bachelor’s degree or higher (see Figure 4).Figure 5
Average Revenue from Various Building CategoriesFigure 6
The percentage of firms that worked in 12+ project types in previous year increased vs. 2012 among the total sample, firms with 1-9 employees (driven by those with 5-9) and among firms with 10-19 employees.
Types of Work Performed in Previous YearFigure 8
Types of Work Performed in Previous Year by Category
Total Sample 2014 vs. 2012 Profile Studies. (+) and (-) indicate significant change in category versus 2012
What have you been up to?
Where are today’s ECs finding work? The economy might be improving, but it’s been slow progress in the construction industry. It’s possible the economy is the reason maintenance/service and repair projects constitute 41 percent of contractor revenue, while new construction work remains stuck at a statistically unchanged 32 percent of revenue (see Figure 12).
Smaller firms are more likely to get more revenue from residential work and larger firms from commercial/industrial/institutional (CII) (see Figure 5). Nonbuilding projects—assignments such as substation construction and transmission-line maintenance—also are more prevalent for larger companies. Our researchers polled respondents regarding their firms’ participation in any (or all) of a list of 36 different project types and found that ECs were working in more project types than in the past iterations of the survey (see Figure 6). For the first time, these project types were separated into residential and CII construction.
New to this year’s list of project types are daylighting/shading systems, troubleshooting/maintenance of low-voltage systems and microgrids (see Figure 7).
With the exception of traditional power and lighting, most types of electrical work are more likely to be done in a CII setting, but, because this is the first year questions were asked separately, trend information can only be drawn from combined residential/CII work. Some of the data is far from surprising, such as the fact that 92 percent of firms worked on power and lighting projects. Areas seeing growing interest include power quality (70 percent of firms did such work in the past year, up from 62 percent in 2012); communications systems; and the blanket category of green/sustainable technology/alternative energy (the latter categories rose significantly over 2012’s results) (see Figure 8).Figure 9
Types of Work Performed in Previous Year: Lighting and Power
(Total Sample 2014 vs. 2012)
In general, larger firms are involved in a wider range of project types than smaller companies, which is not a big surprise. However, this is one of the areas where splitting smaller companies into categories of 1–4 employees and 5–9 employees complicates such broad generalizations. Our researchers found that firms with 5-plus employees are more likely than smaller companies to work on power quality, communications systems/connectivity, CII automation/controls and the omnibus green-tech category.
In fact, the threshold for many types of work is moving down the company-size spectrum across the board, possibly the result of diversification strategies developed in the face of economic challenges. This tipping point is now 10-plus employees (or even 5-plus), instead of 20–99 employees or 100-plus. Two years ago, only seven project types were on the list for firms with 10+ employees; this year’s list contains 20 project types.
As shown in Figure 9, lighting continues to be a strong category for ECs, across the full spectrum of lighting systems. Data from a new lighting subcategory, daylighting/shading systems, adds further evidence that efficiency is becoming more important to their building-owner customers. Though 2014 is the first year our researchers have asked about daylighting and shading system business, already more than 20 percent of respondents reported working on related projects (see Figures 7 and 9).Figure 10
Green Projects Trended (2014-2008)
Work Performed in Pervious YearFigure 11
Types of Work Performed in Previous Year: Low-Voltage/Automation/Controls SystemsFigure 12
Average Percent of Sales/Revenue from Specific Sectors
(Total Sample 2014 vs. 2012)Figure 13
Training -- Main Focus of Course Work
(Next 12 Months)
|Fire/Life Safety Systems||31|
|Automation/Controls: Commercial Automation Systems||29|
|Automation/Controls: Home Automation Systems||22|
|Lighting: Lighting Design||32|
|Lighting: Lamp Technology||33|
|Green: Alternative Energy Systems||31|
|Green: Electric Vehicle Charging Stations||18|
|Green: LEED Certification||16|
|Green: Green/Sustainable Building/Energy Audits||11|
|Green: Energy Use Regulations||13|
|Green: Energy Storage||12|
|Cabling: Cabling (Power)||24|
|Cabling: Data and Telecom (Cable, Conduit, etc.)||23|
|Cabling: Data and Telecom: Testing||19|
|Developing New Business Opportunities||23|
|Electrical System Design or BIM||19|
|Sound and Video (Residential)||15|
|Sound and Video (Commercial)||16|
|Smart Grid Technology||10|
Seeing green in green tech
Included among the fastest growing project types are five of the 11 subcategories of green technology that have grown significantly since 2012. Topping these are LEED projects and non-LEED energy-efficiency upgrades; combined, 44 percent of surveyed ECs said they had performed one or both of these types in the last year. That’s up from 2012’s 34 percent. Non-LEED work, which could include simple lighting upgrades to more-sophisticated sensor and controls implementations, led this category, climbing to 38 percent from 30 percent in 2012. LEED-related projects rose to 22 percent from 15 percent two years ago (see Figure 10).
Energy audits, obviously not a new-construction category, also posted significant gains. Our researchers suggest this growth may be partially due to 2014’s inclusion of thermal imaging.
EC customers also appear to be more interested in accommodating efficiency on the road, with 2014’s survey showing a significant uptick in work with electric vehicle charging equipment. While the 14 percent of respondents who reported working on such projects might seem like a small number, that figure represents a 75 percent increase over 2012’s figure of 8 percent (see Figure 10).
Areas holding steady include wind and geothermal work.
Low voltage buzz
Another area where a number of companies see growth potential is low-voltage projects in systems integration or data/telecom centers. About 40 percent of surveyed contractors work for companies involved in such projects. This figure is unchanged from 2012, but, in a question first asked this year, researchers found that 7 percent of companies (including 20 percent of companies with 10-plus employees) have a separate low-voltage division, and an additional 6 percent (including 9 percent of 5–9-employee companies) plan to set up such a division.
The added interest in low-voltage work also may play a factor in the uptick in power-quality work noted in this year’s survey. This category, which now includes troubleshooting and maintenance of low-voltage systems, provided at least some work for 70 percent of responding firms in this year’s survey, up from 62 percent in 2012 (see Figure 8).
Automation and controls systems—called out in their own category separate from low-voltage—posted declines this year in both residential and CII applications. Interestingly, the fire/life safety subcategory was noted as a growth area in 2012, versus 2010’s results. Residential security business has also declined in the last two years, which might relate to the drop in new-construction work. However, there’s new competition for this business from cable TV companies bundling wireless home-security systems into larger Internet/cable TV packages for residential customers over the last two years.
Despite the small losses, numbers in the 20–35 percentile are still hefty, showing that many ECs are still working in fire, life safety and security capacities (see Figures 7 and 11). In 2012, when there was less electrical distribution work, perhaps more ECs sought out more low-voltage systems work. Now, with the electrical distribution work returning, they have spread their types of work, as the survey showed.
An uptick in total communications and systems/connectivity work provides some evidence against the notion that stagnant new construction is the sole reason for the slight drop-off in fire/life safety and security business. For example, the category of structured wiring/cabling—work most commonly completed for new-construction projects—posted small but statistically significant gains in this year’s survey. Also seeing growth were broadband/wireless/VoIP and fiber optics for communications and security. So ECs are seeing increases in low-voltage and fiber optic networking assignments, just not as strongly in fire/life safety and security projects specifically (see Figures 7, 8 and 11).
Our Profiles look separately at the kinds of projects in which ECs participate and where these respondents earn their revenue. In the broadest terms, tracked revenue sources and percentages remain unchanged compared to 2012 in the three largest categories we study (see Figure 12):
- Maintenance/service or repair—41 percent
- New construction—32 percent
- Modernization/retrofit—27 percent
A range of project types span these three sectors, with electrical/power distribution responsible for 44.6 percent of ECs’ revenues, on average. This is a step up from the 39 percent total in 2012, and it represents the first uptick in this category since 2004 when it made up 69 percent of revenues. New construction is not the cause—as noted, that sector has remained flat since 2012. However, our researchers suggest it may be tied to the increase our respondents noted in smart grid technology or work in microgrids, which is a new category this year.
Systems integration also took a step up in importance. Losing ground were industrial systems and energy management/power quality in terms of revenue, though it may be because ECs are working in an increased number of categories of electrical work than ever before. Their revenue has spread out from traditional sources into a broader range of work types.
When firm size is looked at, smaller firms consider electrical/power distribution significantly more important, representing 47 percent of revenue, versus 38 percent for larger firms with 10 or more employees. Lighting and backup power are also more important to the smaller companies.
The percentage of revenue derived from residential versus CII work tracks directly with company size. Residential projects dominate the bottom line for ECs in companies with one to four employees. Once firms top five employees, however, CII work takes the top spot and becomes steadily more important as companies reach 100 employees (see Figure 5).
The shift from residential to CII as the dominant revenue contributor at five or more employees was especially notable to our researchers, as it continues a trend seen over the last three surveys.
“In 2010 and 2012, we hypothesized that firms with 10+ employees may now be the critical mass to work on CII projects,” the researchers state in a special note. “In 2008, the critical mass appeared to be 20+ employees. In 2014, however, the critical mass may be firms with 5–9 employees.”
Across the board, the percentage of revenue derived from residential work increased in the last two years, as the percentage from CII declined. Interestingly, and perhaps as a positive sign in the housing market, the residential revenue increase is driven more by single-family than multifamily housing. However, our researchers consider the difference between the categories’ performance to be “directional” rather than “significant.” In fact, single-family housing accounts for the single largest revenue source for all ECs, responsible for 38 percent of that total.
In the CII category, commercial construction, at 27 percent of revenue, beats out both industrial (14.1 percent) and institutional (9.1 percent) sectors. Industrial revenues dropped significantly among the total sample of firms of all sizes, compared to 2012 figures, in large part because of a drop in their contribution to the smallest firms’ bottom lines.
With even smaller firms diversifying into new specialty offerings, it makes sense that training would be a part of many of your plans. Similar to 2012’s survey respondents, 75 percent of this year’s participants say that they, or someone in their firm, have taken training in the last 12 months. A similar percentage also say they or someone in their firm are planning to take training in the next 12 months.
It’s not a surprise that National Electrical Code changes are the No. 1 topic in future training plans, especially given that the updated 2014 edition of this EC bible was released just last October. Not surprising either: safety training is also important to ECs (see Figure 13).
The following are also high on the list of future study topics:
- Lighting (mentioned by 58 percent)
- Automation and/or controls (55 percent)
- Grounding/bonding (48 percent)
- Safety issues (47 percent)
- Green/sustainable issues (47 percent)
A range of high-tech issues ranked significantly higher in ECs’ future plans than they did in the list of topics studied in the previous year. These include a number of green-tech subject areas, including electric vehicle charging equipment, LEED certification, alternative-energy systems and energy storage.
Notably, for building pros aiming to thrive in an economy that’s still slow to bounce back, our EC audience is also looking to brush up on several business topics, including estimating/financial management, business development and methods for increasing productivity.
Organizations and associations are the most popular resource for training, followed closely by manufacturer-sponsored programs. For those organizations developing courses, it’s important to note that hands-on approaches win hands-down as the preferred learning method. Some 58 percent of respondents chose this option over classroom, one-on-one, self-paced videos and webinars.
But wait, there's more!
We found out a lot more about how electrical contractors are working today, including the project arrangements they’re most likely to participate in—such as design/build, design/build/assist and more traditional bid arrangements—and how much flexibility they have in specifying and substituting products. But that information is more than we can fit into a single article, so our August issue will contain more coverage of the 2014 Profile of the Electrical Contractor. Look for it next month—there’s a lot more to learn.
Part 2: Digging Deeper into the State of our Industry
Last month, We began our exploration of how—and how much—today’s electrical contractors (ECs) are working, with Part 1 of our coverage of the 2014 Profile of the Electrical Contractor. We focused on the kind of work ECs are doing and the types of projects most important to their bottom lines. This month, we wrap up the profile with a look at how well ECs are playing with others—in other words, we will cover how often (and how early) they are involved in project teams, the roles they play, their level of influence, and how various collaborative building processes, including building information modeling (BIM), have become a part of their projects.
Questions on building-team structure are a regular part of our biennial Profile surveys, and this year’s results stuck very close to those from 2012. Design/build (DB) and design/assist (DA) have become common project delivery methods for all electrical contractors, whether small or large, though larger firms see them more frequently. Across the entire sample, about 70 percent of firms participated in DB and/or DA projects in 2013, including 63 percent of firms with nine or fewer employees and 84 percent of firms with 10 or more employees. These figures are not statistically different from those in the 2012 results (see Figure 14).Figure 14
Any Design/Build or Design/Assist Work in Previous Year
Almost 20 percent of survey respondents reported they now get involved earlier in design collaborations than was the case three to five years earlier. However, the vast majority—60 percent—say there has been no change in when they join a team. These percentages also are similar to 2012.Figure 15
Average Revenue from DB and DA Projects
What has changed since 2012, however, is the relative importance of DB and DA projects to firms’ bottom lines, as the percentage of revenue attributable to such projects has fallen a bit in the last two years. Our 2014 survey credits DB and DA projects with an average of 39 percent of electrical contractors’ revenues across all firm sizes, down from 43 percent in 2012. Traditional bid/build projects account for almost half (49 percent) of all revenues, with other, unidentified arrangements making up the remaining 12 percent. Note “other” is much higher for firms with 1–9 employees (driven by firms with 1–4 employees) (see Figure 15). (Editor’s note: “Other” has been increasing since at least 2006, when it was 7 percent; we will conduct additional research to better understand what makes up this “other” category.)
It’s possible that some of these other arrangements are now projects using integrated project delivery or building information modeling (BIM) as those collaborative building processes have been on the rise over the past few years.
Regardless of a project’s structure, it seems one thing electrical contractors can count on is incomplete plans and specifications—in fact, about 80 percent of surveyed firms had received some incomplete documents in the past year. On average, respondents also said that 43 percent of all plans and specs were incomplete. Apparently, this is nothing new—the figures are statistically unchanged from those in the 2012 Profile.Figure 16
Ability to Influence Overall Design or Specs with Building Owner or Design Team
With incomplete documentation being such a common occurrence, it’s good to know that approximately 76 percent of surveyed ECs report either a medium or high ability to influence a project’s overall electrical design or electrical specifications (see Figure 16). While most say they are entering into projects at around the same time in the development process as in the past, about 20 percent of these electrical pros report they’re now getting involved earlier.
All of this confirms a trend toward greater influence for the electrical contractor in preparing plans and specs.
An interesting thing about this perceived level of influence is that those in the smallest firms report having more than those in larger companies. Thirty-nine percent of respondents from companies with one to nine employees report a “high” ability to influence the design or specifications, versus 28 percent in companies with 10 or more employees. Those from larger firms also are more likely to report having a “low” level of influence—at 21 percent, versus 12 percent overall. They are, however, twice as likely as smaller firms to say that they get involved earlier in the design process (25 percent versus 13 percent). One possible explanation: larger firms may be participating in large-scale, more complex projects, with separate electrical engineering consultants in charge of design issues or product decisions may be made as a team.
Power over product choiceFigure 17
Average Percentage of Specifications That Were...
Among the areas where an EC’s influence is most important is in deciding which products will be used in their projects. To begin our investigation into how important ECs are in the specification process, we asked survey participants what percentage of the initial specifications they received fell into each of four categories: a single brand, multiple brands, an “or equal to” qualification, or a performance-based target. “Multiple brands” took the top spot, with an average of about 35 percent of specifications, regardless of firm size, which means ECs have greater latitude in final product selection. Similarly, performance-based specs take up about 15 percent of the total, across the firm-size spectrum (see Figure 17).
However, whether a firm was more likely to see single-brand or “or equal to” specifications was entirely related to size, with single-brand specs making up close to 30 percent of the total for small companies and only about 15 percent of the total for those with more than 10 employees. On the reverse, larger firms see “or equal to” specs just about 35 percent of the time, while those with nine or fewer employees receive them approximately 25 percent of the time. This difference could be the result of larger firms being more likely to work on larger projects, with greater involvement of a specifying electrical engineer, with the final product decision falling to the EC.Figure 18
Average Extent of Electrical Contractor Influence in Brand Selection
Of course, what is actually used in a project is more important than what’s initially specified, so an understanding of a contractor’s ability to make substitutions is critical in any discussion of purchasing influence. Averaging responses from all firm sizes, ECs are able to influence final product selection slightly less than 70 percent of the time (see Figure 18). Once again, there’s an interesting split when looking at smaller versus larger firms, with smaller firms allowed somewhat more discretion than their larger counterparts to make changes where single-brand or proprietary specs have been issued.
BIM importance growing
BIM is slowly becoming a more prevalent part of electrical contractors’ work. Currently, 23.7 percent now see at least some use of BIM in their projects, for an average of 7.1 percent of the time. Not surprisingly, given the investment required for BIM-related software and workstations, the technology is most prevalent in the largest firms. The average climbs to well over 20 percent in firms with 100 employees or more, with 70 percent of respondents in those firms reporting at least some use of BIM (see Figure 19).Figure 19
Any Use of Building Information Modeling
Respondents see the growth in BIM continuing into the future. Those surveyed expect to see usage grow in the next two to three years, anticipating those figures to climb to 28 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively.
Why you buy
What factors are driving your purchasing decisions? Well, not surprisingly, availability and price rank first and second for both original product selections and product substitutions, when ECs were asked to choose the three most important purchase-decision factors. However, a category just added to the 2014 questionnaire—compatibility with existing systems—has leapt directly into the top three, drawing interest from 34 percent of responding ECs, when asked about original brand selection. The interest jumped to 38 percent when respondents were asked about reasons for brand substitution—meaning these ECs might be switching brands because an originally specified product was incompatible with other systems. It makes sense when looking at lighting; for example, with a raft of new LED fixtures hitting the market, each with specific dimming-controls requirements, it becomes easy to see why compatibility has become so important to specifiers (see Figure 20).Figure 20
Top 3 Reasons for Originally Selecting a Brand Versus Making a Substitution
Following close behind these three reasons were factors that all captured about 30 percent of respondents’ interest, including whether or not a product was made in the United States, prior experience with a product, the reputation of its manufacturer, durability and ease of installation. In a third tier, with each drawing about 20 percent of surveyed ECs, were energy efficiency, specific features and manufacturer support and training.
Our researchers found an important difference in top-three rankings based on firm size—those from smaller companies are much more likely to look for ease of installation, durability, specific features, word-of-mouth recommendations and the availability of real-time mobile information. When considered as a group, what these factors have in common is an ability to provide reassurance to a specifier (who is likely also the hands-on installer). Price is less important to this group—in fact, price is the only characteristic more important to larger firms than their smaller counterparts.
Until next time
We had some heartening news with this year’s survey data. More firms have been hiring, fewer firms have been losing staff and, in general, ECs seem to be diversifying their businesses by branching out into new areas. This willingness to step out of long-time comfort zones will likely only grow in importance, as DB and DA project structures become more important to many firms’ revenues and BIM experience becomes a more important project qualification. We don’t know yet how significant these changes will become as the economy (one hopes) continues to recover and expand. Check back in a couple years for our 2016 Profile of the Electrical Contractor.