NECA TransmissionsNotes from the front lines of the electrical contracting industry
  • Meet Russ Alessi

    Posted on Oct 17, 2007 by John M Grau

    One of NECA’s greatest success stories is our creation of the Electrical Contracting Foundation, which today is known as ELECTRI International – The Foundation for Electrical Construction, Inc. A chief architect of that success is Foundation president, Russ Alessi.

    Shortly after ELECTRI International was established in 1989, it became evident that if this new organization to succeed, it required full-time staff leadership. At the time, Russ was heading the educational foundation for the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors (NAPHCC), which he also helped create. Since the NAPHCC foundation was a great success and served as one of the models for NECA’s foundation, we went right to the source for guidance – and we were lucky enough to convince Russ to work for NECA.  The rest is history still in the making.

    Less than 20 years later, ELECTRI International itself now serves as a model for other organizations. The Foundation has created a permanent endowment valued at $20 million and has commissioned over 100 research studies with grants totaling $6 million. In addition, the Foundation has added an education center, an international center, and a scholarship fund.

    As Foundation president, Russ established the processes for selecting and managing dozens of research projects simultaneously, all the while maintaining relationships with universities around the country and seeking new industry research partners.

    But Foundation president isn’t the only job Russ does for NECA. He is also NECA’s first Executive Director of International Development, serving as our liaison with electrical contracting associations worldwide. He represents NECA at European and Asian electrical contracting association conferences, and he is instrumental in finding partners for NECA members doing work outside the United States. Russ has played an especially important role in cementing our relationships with contractors and their organizations in Mexico. Most recently he helped establish NECA chapters in Honduras and El Salvador.

    On top of all this, Russ oversees NECA’s Management Education Institute and serves as Secretary of the Academy of Electrical Contracting. He was elected a fellow of the Academy in 2003.

    Prior to joining the staff at NAPHCC, Russ owned a plumbing contracting business and even played some professional basketball in Europe. He earned his bachelors degree from Cansius College and holds a MBA degree from George Washington University.

    A native of Buffalo, New York, Russ is married and has one child. His wife Roberta is an administrator with Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., and his son Andrew is a college sophomore.  An avid Buffalo Bills fan, Russ also enjoys golf and scuba diving.

  • Back from San Francisco

    Posted on Oct 11, 2007 by John M Grau

    NECA’s convention was great, but it’s good to be home. I’m sure almost everyone who attended our convention and trade show last week in San Francisco feels the same way.

    While the convention takes most people away from their regular business and routines, it is my business. Since almost everyone I need to talk to or meet with was in San Francisco, there was only a small pile of mail and documents to approve when I returned to the office. And, of course, I was able to keep up with my e-mail along the way.

    By any measure, NECA’s 2007 convention and trade show were a big success. The workshops and seminars were well received, the speakers were fantastic, the trade show floor was busy, the governance meetings went smoothly, and the activities in San Francisco were a delight.

    Many people took time to share some of their thoughts and opinions with me about our industry and what they think about what NECA is doing or should be doing. Generally, I found that our members think we’re heading in the right direction, and we’re doing the right things – although everyone would like to see change come more quickly.

    For instance, many members expressed their dismay over IBEW President Ed Hill’s comments about portability and other issues following our Town Hall meeting. While we work closely and progressively with the IBEW on most matters, this is one case where there are some deep-seated differences. I’ll explore some of these in more depth in future postings. 

    The point I’d like to leave with you is that despite these differences, we will not give up in our efforts to achieve the changes needed to advance and grow our industry. What gives me hope is that in all my regular meetings and conversations with the IBEW leaders, I know they want to succeed as badly as we do. All we have to do is agree on the right way to get there. And now that I’m back in my office, it’s at the top of my “to do” list.

  • Gone to San Francisco

    Posted on Oct 08, 2007 by John M Grau

    I leave today for NECA’s convention in San Francisco, and since most of our chapter leaders are leaving in a couple days to attend the Board of Governors meeting, I want to offer some thoughts on proposals before the Board that I haven’t addressed in previous postings.

    Bylaw Amendment #1 deals with the issue of secret ballot voting. It has been our policy and our tradition to keep all Board of Governors ballots secret. However, last year the majority of Governors voted to change this practice and do away with secret ballots. This bylaw amendment will formalize that intent. Transparency is one of the new tenets of corporate governance, and non-profit associations are also adopting many of those practices.

    Bylaw Amendment #3 is just some technical corrections to the indemnification section of NECA’s bylaws. Before their revision in 2004, NECA didn’t have an indemnification clause in its bylaws. In today’s litigious society, a membership organization like NECA and its chapters should offer protection for our volunteers performing work on behalf of the association. We do carry insurance coverage for these liabilities, but even the best coverage can have some unintended gaps – thus, this clause in our bylaws. I would urge anyone with a leadership position in a voluntary organization to check the indemnity coverage offered by that organization.

    Bylaw Amendment #2 and Ordinary Proposal # 4 both address the composition of Council on Industrial Relations (CIR) panels. The twelve member CIR panel consists of six IBEW appointees and six NECA appointees. The intent of Proposal #4 is that the CIR has someone with knowledge of systems (IBS) work when the CIR hears an IBS case. Amendment #2 changes the composition of the six-person NECA panel by adding one contractor and removing the NECA regional executive director. Proposal # 4 makes sense; Amendment #2 doesn’t.

    [In making his appointments to the CIR panel, the NECA president] strives for a strong balance of expertise, including contractors and chapter managers from around the country, as well as national labor relations professionals. Adding IBS experience to the panel for relevant cases is a good thing and follows what we have done for our cases that involve line construction. However, taking away the extensive knowledge and deep expertise that our regional executive directors bring to CIR would be a bad thing. The CIR is an important and effective tool for resolving labor disputes within our industry, and we need to keep our best people on it. (I know Geary Higgins recently dedicated several “Between the Lines” columns to discussions about the CIR recently. NECA members can read them herehere, and here.)

    I look forward to a lively Board of Governors meeting and an exciting convention. See you all there.

  • Globalization and Our Industry

    Posted on Sep 26, 2007 by John M Grau

    Question: What are the top concerns of electrical contractors worldwide? Answer: Finding enough skilled craftsmen and getting paid by general contractors.  

    Question: What is the latest worldwide buzzword for work opportunities for electrical contractors? Answer: Sustainable construction

    These were the main issues of discussion at a conference of the European electrical and mechanical contractors associations last week in Rome. Milner Irvin, Russ Alessi and I participated in the conference, along with our counterparts from Australia and South Africa. (This definitely wasn’t a pleasure trip. I arrived in Rome on Wednesday just in time for the opening afternoon session, and I was back in Washington on Saturday afternoon.)

    What we learned is the electrical contractors all over the world see great potential in responding to global environmental concerns and challenges. Saving energy and reducing carbon production in the construction and operations of buildings is a task well-suited to the technical capabilities of mechanical and electrical contractors. 

    How to best position ourselves for these opportunities was the theme of nearly every conference speaker. As with most business matters, there were no magic solutions. In the end, I think it will come down to a matter of awareness, education and training.

    NECA can play a vital role in this regard for electrical contractors in the U.S. Through our research foundation ELECTRI International and other sources, we stay on top of the latest trends in markets and technology. We can use MEIELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine and other communication vehicles to educate and inform the industry. Finally, the NJATC can develop the training resources needed to bring our workforce up to speed.

    A great example is the solar technician text recently developed and released by the NJATC. It’s the only book of its kind anywhere. Our challenge is to put it to use.

    By the way, I did have time for a quick walk through St Peter’s Basilica during my 72 hours in Rome. It was certainly one of the most impressive structures in the world, and it was built over 400 years ago. That’s quite a construction legacy.

    Next stop: San Francisco for the NECA Convention and Show.


  • On Capitol Hill

    Posted on Sep 20, 2007 by John M Grau

    Last year at this time members of the NECA Political Leadership Council (PLC) met with U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. Ms. Chao dropped by the PLC meeting being held at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.   Among other subjects, she asked if we would like to hear about her department’s enforcement efforts against unions. She told us how the department was cracking down on reporting requirements under the 1959 labor-management act and forcing union bosses to detail all their expenses and any benefits received from management.

    Of course, we were already familiar with the new DOL initiative. While we are all for honest and ethical behavior in the labor-management arena, our experience has been that these particular regulations were excessive.  They mostly amounted to a paperwork nightmare and a potential liability trap for union employers and union leaders alike. 

    The members of the PLC were very forthright in telling this to Secretary Chao. They pointed out that the new enforcement efforts made it a potential criminal offense to fail to report inviting the local union business agent to a chapter dinner meeting or picking up the tab after a labor-management negotiating session – items that would be routine for any other businesses. When it became clear to Ms. Chao that our group wasn’t in a union-bashing mood, she politely thanked us for inviting her, turned on her heels, and marched out the door.

    The PLC is meeting again this week in Washington, and as far as I know, Secretary Chao hasn’t been invited to drop by for another chat. Instead, the PLC members may hear about one of the budget battles brewing in Congress. The White House has requested an increase in the Dept. of Labor’s enforcement budget to about $57 million, a 20 percent increase over last year. The Democratic-controlled House has scaled that amount back to $46 million. Meanwhile, President Bush is threatening to veto the broader spending bill that contains the labor budget in part because it doesn’t include the full requested amount for the union oversight office.

    The fight seems to be less over dollars and enforcement and more about payback for or protection of unions, depending on your party’s perspective. (To my mind, the Department should focus on true criminal behavior, not counting how many cups of coffee were purchased during a meeting with the local business manager.) But whatever the outcome, we’ll be watching to make sure that NECA contractors don’t get caught in the crossfire.

    I’m grateful for the commitment our PLC members have shown by participating in the Summit. It’s their faces and their stories as constituents that make the difference in how a representative may vote on an issue. The PLC and ECPAC have given NECA a pretty loud megaphone on Capitol Hill. Secretary Chao may not have wanted to hear what we told her, but that didn’t stop us from speaking up.

  • Certification and Core Skills

    Posted on Sep 17, 2007 by John M Grau

    In response to my post “What Makes a Journeyman a Journeyman?” I received the following comment from Oregon-Pacific-Cascade Chapter Governor Nathan Phillips.

    Your August 21 post regarding journeyman training and journeyman skill assessment raised a number of provocative questions about how to evaluate the effectiveness of our local training programs. What fell out of the discussion for me is a need to establish a set of metrics for assessing competencies that should be developed and disseminated nationally but adjusted locally. Mike Kanetsky’s report on the dismal success of the training in his area is both disheartening and not surprising. Many of us have sadly come to the realization that our vaunted training program can no longer be relied upon to effectively set us apart from our non-union competition with respect to the quality of the completed project and the productivity of our workforce. 

    Although the license laws in my state provide a mechanism for assessing the code knowledge of our completed apprentices, we are sorely lacking a meaningful set of tools for identifying and evaluating the training outcomes in the broad range of skills and knowledge that are essential components of a well rounded journeyman. Whether we are concerned with rebuilding our market share or with satisfying the rapacious and growing workforce development demands, it is incumbent upon us to refocus our training efforts by validating outcomes through a consistent application of assessment tools. While these tools ought to provide the flexibility to tailor training and assessment to local needs, my view is that there is a core and essential set of skills and knowledge that all graduates of an NJATC program should possess.

    Nathan raises some good points and I believe we’re addressing his issues in two ways.   First, through the NJATC we have developed an electrical worker craft certification. This is a voluntary program, but any area adopting it will have the assessment tools and metrics to validate training outcomes. 

    Second, the NJATC is currently working on a project to determine the core skills required of all apprentices and then matching the curriculum and training programs to those needs. Once this assessment it complete, the information should allow local programs more flexibility while still maintaining a national training standard. I’ll provide more information on this in future discussions. Use the “Send Feedback” link below if you have additional comments or questions on this issue.

  • Honoring Emerson Hamilton

    Posted on Sep 12, 2007 by John M Grau

    Emerson Hamilton was one of those special people who will always be remembered for the lasting impact they have had on our industry. Emerson was co-owner of a family electrical contracting firm in Eugene, Oregon. He was active in NECA and rose through the leadership ranks, serving NECA National President from 1986-1989. I became NECA’s chief staff officer during Emerson’s first year as president, and we developed a very close and special friendship over the years. 

    Emerson brought the professional management skills of his MBA degree and the savvy of his political consulting work to his role as NECA’s contractor leader. He believed in strategic planning, progressive change, and open communication. We worked together to usher in a new era of NECA leadership.

    Emerson later sold his business and went on to become manager of the Oregon Pacific Cascade Chapter. A couple years later, I convinced him to come on board with NECA’s national staff as Executive Director of NECA’s Western Region. Once again, he brought all his knowledge and skills to bear in this new role in serving the association and industry.

    Emerson died in 2004, just a short time after his retirement. He is still well remembered throughout the organization, and especially by his many friends from District 6. That’s why they wanted to do something special to honor him.

    At this year’s Board of Governors meeting, Ordinary Proposal #2 calls for support for a newly created “Emerson Hamilton Scholarship Fund” within the ELECTRI International Foundation. The fund will provide scholarships for both students and faculty of university construction management programs and NECA Student Chapters. 

    The creation of the fund is not just a nice gesture. It will play a critical role in NECA’s effort to address the shortage of young management talent available for our contracting firms. A plan to use our student chapters as a resource for new managers is being formulated by a Foundation researcher from Oregon State University. Scholarships from the Emerson Hamilton Fund will be one means of encouraging these programs and creating a vital link to our industry.

    So once again, Emerson Hamilton will be part of an important, progressive program designed to advance and improve our industry. It is the way he would want to be remembered. 

  • Mark Ayers Moving to BCTD

    Posted on Sep 07, 2007 by John M Grau

    I just learned that Mark Ayers, Director of the Construction and Maintenance Department of the IBEW, has been elected as the next President of the Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD) of the AFL-CIO. We worked closely with Mark on most NECA-IBEW matters, so his move to the BCTD is a big deal for us.

    Mark has been a hard-driving force in promoting the NECA-IBEW partnership. In the past few years, he has transformed the annual IBEW Construction Department conference (the IBEW’s biggest meeting next to its five-year convention) into a major event dedicated to advancing the positive benefits of our partnership. Mark is one of the hardest-working individuals I know. He is constantly seeking out innovative ways to communicate and to reach out to the owner community. The cutting edge websites and were created at Mark’s urging and under his guidance.

    While I am happy that Mark has been elevated to an important position in the labor movement, I am sad to be losing such a solid working partner at the IBEW. I am certain that the IBEW’s International Office will appoint a successor to Mark who will rise to the occasion and continue in his progressive tradition.

    To experience some of Mark’s creative work, check out the current edition of The new segment on training in our industry is especially good.

  • Board of Governors Meeting Preview

    Posted on Aug 29, 2007 by John M Grau

    It’s still more than a month away, but at the national NECA office, we’re in countdown mode for the 2007 convention in San Francisco. It’s a big event and requires a tremendous amount of planning. We book convention sites ten or more years in advance, and preliminary budgets and plans are already in place for NECA’s 2008 convention in Chicago. So considering how far in advance we’re planning, the 2007 convention is getting very, very close.

    Recently, chapter Governors and leaders received copies of the proposals being submitted for action at this year’s Board of Governors meeting. The Governors will consider three bylaw amendments and four ordinary proposals. 

    As time and interest permits, I will add some comments about these proposals in this blog.

    Ordinary Proposal #1 calls for the Board to reaffirm and support the Code of Excellence clause as Category I language. We’ve had several past postings on the Code of Excellence, so I won’t elaborate any further.

     While we’re on the topic of standard language, I’ll skip to Ordinary Proposal # 3 regarding optional shift language. Way back in the days of the National Agreement (1976), NECA and the IBEW came up with a standard shift clause. It was the first time that many local areas were able to establish three independent shifts at reasonable premiums. It also prevented pyramiding of rates, multiple-shift requirements, and other non-competitive practices that were common at that time. Over the years, there has been some tweaking of the standard language, including how the shifts were run and premiums calculated, but the actual amount of the premium-per-shift remained the same.

    In 2004, the Quad Cities Chapter submitted a proposal to the Board of Governors requesting that we negotiate an optional shift clause allowing lower premiums, if agreed to by the local parties. The proposal was adopted by the Governors, and I’m proud to say that we were able to make good on that request. So if the local parties agree, the standard shift language can be modified to insert lower (but not higher) shift premiums. The rest of the shift language remains the same. 

    This new language is a beneficial change, and in light of generally lower shift premiums in the National Maintenance Agreement and other national and local agreements, it is well justified.  I understand that some areas have already reached agreement on lower rates. I assume that the Board of Governors will be more than happy to endorse the optional shift clause.

  • Meet Dan Walter

    Posted on Aug 27, 2007 by John M Grau

    Some of my blog posts that seem to get the most attention don’t actually have much to do with me – they’re the ones where I introduce key NECA national staff. So to continue that practice, I’d like to tell you about Dan Walter.

    Dan’s title is Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, and in terms of dollars spent, he oversees nearly 60 percent of NECA’s operations. He is responsible for many of NECA’s programs, including government affairs, codes, standards, safety, marketing, public relations, communications, ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine, and all of NECA’s websites, plus our annual convention, exposition, and meetings. That’s a lot for one person, but he gets help from a talented staff of 25.

    Dan may not always be visible as a speaker at our meetings, but he is well known as the face of NECA with our sister associations in Washington, D.C. He regularly meets with other industry leaders at the national offices for AGC, AIA, SMACNA, and MCAA. In addition, Dan has served as president of the Associated Specialty Contractors (ASC) for over 20 years.

    An important project that Dan is currently spearheading for NECA is enriching the information in our member database to meet the ultimate goal of customizing NECA national communications for each of our members. Dan is also working to make the abundant information NECA produces more relevant, accessible, and easier to find. These are ambitious projects, and they require someone who can both see the big picture and the small details, something Dan excels in.

    Dan brings a wealth of experience to his position. He started his career with NECA in 1975 as a staff associate assigned to the Midwestern Region. He spent 10 years as manager of the Quad Cities Chapter, NECA, before coming to NECA headquarters to replace the venerable Bob Wilkinson as Director of Services.

    A business school graduate of Penn State University, Dan attends most of his alma mater’s home football games. Dan’s wife, Doris, is enjoying her latest career as a water aerobics instructor. Their daughter Deena lives with her husband in Virginia, and son Danny and his wife are in California. Dan and Doris will celebrate their 38th wedding anniversary this year, and Dan recently pulled off a surprise birthday party for Doris, much to the amazement of their family and friends. Everyone was sure Doris would figure out what was going on!

About NECA Transmissions

NECA Transmissions is a collaborative effort from CEO John Grau and NECA staff to provide insight and feedback on key issues from the front lines of the electrical contracting industry.


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