Banding together also helped contractors gain a greater say in the development of local business ordinances. One of the first local associations of electrical contractors was founded in New York City in 1892. Despite their progress, local electrical contracting associations lacked the strength and unified voice necessary to deal with some big issues, including:
1. Lack of uniformity in manufacturing specifications for equipment and components hampered progress, as did the absence of consistent installation procedures. Assembly-line production techniques had not yet been developed for many items used in interior construction, so often a project would halt for weeks or months because the electrical contractor had to order a one-of-a-kind junction box or bushing specially made to fit one particular job.
Also, when a contractor was called upon to retrofit or redo an installation originally done by another company, often it was more expedient to tear out most of the previous wiring work and start over from scratch because the new electrical contractor was unable to duplicate the unfamiliar methods used in the initial installation. The fact that contractors often traveled across state borders to work on large projects compounded this problem. Adding to the confusion was the fact that there was no standard protocol, so contractors were often in dispute with architects and draftsmen over drawings that failed to specify procedures in any consistent manner.
2. Inconsistency was also a problem in the laws and regulations governing electrical construction. In those early years, very few laws actually addressed the trade at all. While the National Electrical Code had come into existence in 1897 as a single document unifying five different codes used in different regions of the country, contractors were not satisfied with this set of regulations that they had no voice in developing. Many felt that the code reflected merely the desire of insurance companies to reduce losses for damaged property, rather than stressing practical installation methods that would ensure workers’ safety.
At the same time, many electrical contractors saw the need to establish state laws on licensing the trade. By 1900, Minnesota was the only state to have enacted such regulations, and local electrical contractors associations were beginning to look to it as a model that should be replicated. They perceived that requiring everyone in the business to meet basic standards of competency would benefit the industry’s reputation and protect the public.
3. The lack of standards for competency aggravated another problem threatening the growing electrical contracting industry: bluntly, not all of these entrepreneurs were honest or skilled. The poor performance of just one electrical contractor could have tarnished the image of all his counterparts and prejudiced potential customers against “electrifying.” Also, in the face of increasingly stiff competition, many contractors suffered from the less-than-ethical practices of some of their rivals. Many early industry leaders saw the need to develop a basic code of business ethics, in addition to uniform codes and standards for performing installations.
4. But how could novice electrical contractors, who were more likely to have been educated (if trained at all) in the mechanics of the job, rather than in commercial management, be persuaded to operate according to ethical directives? To accomplish this objective, a system of providing management training would have to be developed. Some local associations were already addressing this concern, but they realized that the industry would not flourish unless all its members across the nation adopted a professional approach. Industry expansion was also hampered by a lack of skilled craftsmen to do the work.
5. Responding to the organized labor movement and enacting fair labor relations practices was also important to these new electrical contractors. At the turn of the 20th century, the nation was still recovering from the severe economic depression of the 1890s. Many contractors remembered days when anti-union feeling ran high, due, in part, to the prevalent misconception that the country’s financial turmoil stemmed from union forces inflating the wage base. Some electrical contractors would carry their prejudices for a generation or more, postponing until after World War I the establishment of the relationship of mutual respect and cooperation that unionized electrical contractors and their workforce enjoy today.