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If an electrical apprentice wants to break free - what would you do?

Many apprentices, upon completing their course, are going to leave their employer. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, write James Tinslay.

Decades ago, it was not uncommon for apprentices upon completion of their apprenticeship to finish employment with their employer. There was no surprise in this; the apprentice expected this to occur and would head off to find other employment. This mainly occurred in the government sector, which at the time provided training significant services to both the public and private sector with an ongoing supply of qualified tradespeople.

This does not occur today and in fact, the public sector does little training with the responsibility clearly on the private sector. The only parallel to those earlier days are group training companies that exist purely to train – so the job actually finishes on the completion of the apprenticeship.

I know many small employers, electrical contractors and others, who sadly will not take on an apprentice because of the financial impact and poor past experiences. To some extent group training schemes have filled some, but not all, of that void. For employers with a strong culture of training it is usually the last thing that they want after four years of training, for young electricians to up stumps and go elsewhere. Those employers think that they have trained a young person in their business and the culture of their business and want them to stay on to ‘repay’ the business for that commitment.

Many young tradespeople decide to strike out on their own and many have made plans during the time with the employer who trained them. And of course, to the bane of many electrical contractors some these young tradespeople have a business on the side and we have all heard stories about equipment disappearing to other locales unknown.

There is a conundrum in that while all electrical contracting business originated from a person who left an employer to set up a business, where would the industry be if nobody wanted to do that? The entrepreneurial spirit is important and in the electrical and communication contracting industry we have it in spades. So, should an employer close their eyes to this possibility, or try to educate the young person about the business facts of starting out on a business? If you are a small or medium business do you really want opposition opening with no sound concept of overheads, adequate charge out rates and the like?

I often hear comments about apprentices and young tradesmen from some of the major contracting companies that have spent much of their life on construction sites becoming experts at cable trays, temporary wiring and similar activities that are part and parcel of large construction sites. The comments are not complimentary and in some cases, they will be accurate. However, there are many young tradesmen who understand that the traditional role of the electrical contractor that most people associate with the profession, is vastly different than they were even 10 years ago.

Digitalisation, smart homes, and the internet have revolutionised the sector. Now to make the light turn on in your home, an electrical contractor often goes beyond simply sticking two cables together and automates this system by programming computers and connecting lighting systems to other systems through the inter of things [IoT]. If we add an electrical vehicle charger, smart meter and a rooftop solar panel into the mix, turning on a light becomes a highly complex and sophisticated process. As the electricity system embraces digitalisation more and more, the job of an electrical contractor evolves to fit the needs of the digital era.

We need our young tradesmen and aspiring young tradesmen to be prepared to have a go on their own and follow their dream, just as todays successful electrical contractors did in another generation. Enlightened business owners will recognise and make a choice about wishing them well or sizing up the opportunity that may exist for the employee to become part of the ownership equation with their own business.

Author: James Tinslay

NECA Electrical Apprenticeships Director, NECA ex-CEO

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