NECA TransmissionsNotes from the front lines of the electrical contracting industry
  • Public Perception Percentages

    Posted on Jul 09, 2010 by John M Grau

    I like to read the results of opinion polls and surveys, but I also have a love/hate attitude toward them. If the results agree with my own opinions, I think the poll is great and will use it to justify my point of view. If the poll tells me something I don't agree with, I question its methods and validity.

    So I was really conflicted when I saw the results of a recent Harris Interactive survey about public attitudes toward groups that influence government policy.

    The poll found that 57% of Americans believe that trade associations unduly influence government policy and politicians. (I guess they feel that’s a bad thing). Unions had the same percentage rating.

    The top influence groups, according to the survey, are big business (87%), followed by banks, financial institutions, political action committees and lobbyists (all tied at 83%).

    Other groups cited as having undue influence are the news media, entertainment and sports celebrities, and trial lawyers. (These would top my list).

    On the other side of the equation, a whopping 93% say small businesses have too little power, and 67% say nonprofit organizations are not powerful enough.

    So I started to wonder what the public would think of a lobbying, non-profit trade association of small union businesses that funds a political action committee.

    I’d put it right at 50% – whether that’s too much or too little influence – you pick.


  • Crises of Historic Proportions

    Posted on Jun 17, 2010 by John M Grau

    The environmental disaster in the Gulf is on the top of the news, and the reports try to outdo each other in describing the magnitude of this crisis. It is hard to grasp how big this is, and we all wonder what the long-term impact will be. But I also wonder, how many big crises can we absorb?

    The War on Terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, the mortgage bubble bursting, financial meltdown, the worst economic decline since the Great Depression, huge Ponzi schemes, auto company bankruptcies, high unemployment, exponential deficit increases, massive federal debt, illegal immigration, 100-year floods, 100-year snowstorms, and now an unstoppable oil leak. There’s no end to these crises of historic proportions.

    Even more frustrating is what we’re doing about these problems. It seems that each crises of historic proportion is being matched by a proposed massive government action. Wall Street bailouts, mortgage bailouts, auto industry bailouts, troop surges, stimulus packages (four? I’ve lost count), comprehensive health care reform, comprehensive energy reform, comprehensive financial reform, comprehensive immigration reform. At least they’re leaving the weather alone (unless you consider comprehensive climate change legislation).

    Tongue in cheek, the LA Times recently suggested that if you have a leak in your roof, don’t call anyone from the Obama administration. Their solution will be to design a whole new house, or neighborhood, or city from scratch.

    Who do we trust to solve these problems? Not financial institutions, or insurance companies, or big oil companies, or auto companies, or lobbyists, or unions, or the federal government. Polling data shows that many Americans have lost faith in our basic institutions. We don’t trust any of them anymore. That’s why groups like the Tea Party are having such success. They are organizing and voicing the average Americans’ anger and frustration.

    I don’t mean to dismiss the big problems we’re facing, but I sometimes wonder if some of these crises are being exaggerated to historic proportions, just to justify spending on a massive response. At any rate, I’ve had enough of these big crises. I wish they’d just stop, so we can go back to worrying about if we’re getting too much rain — or too little.

  • Unsustainability

    Posted on May 20, 2010 by John M Grau

    No, this isn’t about conservation and green energy. It’s about employment benefits.

    We used to call them fringe benefits, but most people dropped the “fringe” descriptor long ago. The cost of non-salary benefits is now a major factor in overall compensation costs. Not just in the construction industry but for many large businesses and especially for most state and local governments.

    News reports are full of stories of state and local budget crises. With revenues plunging, local government leaders are scrambling to slash costs. While they take the ax to road and building projects, community grants, and other discretionary programs, they are also stuck with the bill for over-promised pension benefits and gold-plated health care programs. (Actually, we, the taxpayers, are stuck with the bill).

    As we focus on survival in the electrical construction industry, one lament I hear time and again is that the cost of benefits for union electricians is a significant competitive disadvantage for NECA employers. Not only are the level of benefits and their associated costs much higher than for non-union competitors, but add to that the impending costs to salvage underwater pension plans, and it makes the whole situation unsustainable.

    A recent cost-containment measure applied by many health care plans is to require a working spouse who is eligible for health insurance under his or her employer to accept that coverage. After all, why should one employer pay for coverage for someone else’s employee?

    The NECA-IBEW Health Care Plan recently added this requirement. Many of the participants protested because the spouse, while eligible for coverage under his or her employer’s plan, often had to pay 10, 20, or 50 percent or more of the premium cost. It was an eye-opener regarding what employers in the marketplace outside of union construction are doing. And it once again emphasizes the competitive challenge our employers face.

    What’s to be done about this problem?

    In some areas the solutions are already being implemented. For health care plans, it means single coverage, tiered benefits, and cost sharing. For pension plans, it involves the transition from defined benefit plans to 401(k) and similar options. Obviously, when collective bargaining is involved, the solutions are easier said than done. But in the long run, there really aren’t many other options. To stay the way we are is simply unsustainable.

  • I'll Fix That

    Posted on Apr 16, 2010 by John M Grau
    Many of us like to fix problems. It
  • It's Time to Oppose the Health Care Bill

    Posted on Mar 18, 2010 by John M Grau

    The time has come for us to take a final stand on health care legislation. We need to oppose the bill that’s on the table.

    We tried to be supportive. We worked to shape the legislation into something acceptable. We championed the Merkley amendment which made the coverage mandates fairer for the construction industry. But the Merkley amendment is being stripped from the final legislation, and, in the final analysis, there is little for us to support.

    The goal all along for business was to cut, or at least control, health care costs. The bill before us doesn’t do much to accomplish that.

    It does, however, pile on a whole bunch of taxes that will be paid by small businesses and small business owners. It will be especially harmful to unionized electrical contractors who provide good health care benefits already. Their reward is an excise tax heaped on top of the cost of insurance.

    In fact, I’ve often wondered why non-union construction groups oppose this health care bill. To my mind, it will raise their union competitors’ costs even more than their own. Seems like a built-in competitive advantage.

    The sad thing is, health care reform IS needed. It has been said that the two things you don't want to see made are sausage and legislation. Well, it seems counterintuitive, but the “sausage” that could be produced by a true bipartisan effort would probably produce a better result. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like common sense will be one of the ingredients.

    So, in the end, we are forced to oppose health care reform legislation and work for its defeat. In terms of what to do next, we need to get the right people elected to Congress and then work with them to get the right kind of health reform legislation passed.

    NECA has a plan for that. It’s called ECPAC Victory 2010. We ask all our members to support this effort.

  • More US Engineers

    Posted on Feb 26, 2010 by John M Grau

    This past Saturday, the National Building Museum in Washington, DC hosted Discover Engineering Family Day. My son Brendan and I went to check it out.

    The floor of the immense, open pavilion in the museum was filled with exhibits booths featuring hands-on demonstrations of engineering skills. The purpose of the event was to discover how professional engineers turn ideas into reality.

    We built a stomp rocket with paper, a plastic tube, and an empty water bottle (aerospace engineering). We made slime (chemical engineering). We used a few Lego pieces to build a structure that was supposed to withstand a simulated tsunami in a wave tank (civil engineering). We failed.

    We learned about the science behind popcorn (agricultural engineering), and we were able to play with competition robots (mechanical engineering). We controlled radios with light beams (electrical engineering), and we took a break to eat hotdogs and giant cookies (smart parenting).

    Basically, we had a good time, and we learned first-hand how a career in engineering can be practical, interesting, and fun. I wish we had Engineering Family Day in my community when I was growing up. I started college as an Engineering major, but I switched to Business at the end of my freshman year. I didn’t have a clear vision about what all my math studies would lead to.

    Getting our young people excited about engineering is a good thing. We need more home grown engineers in this country. India and China are producing many more engineers than the United States, and that will lead to their competitive advantage.

    I think our country would be better off with fewer lawyers and investment managers, and more engineers.

  • SOTU Reaction

    Posted on Feb 01, 2010 by John M Grau

    State of the Union.

    I didn’t know what it meant either. I kept seeing “SOTU” in e-mails from the Government Affairs folks. I finally figured it out.

    This isn’t a commentary on the President’s speech, but some of my personal observations on the new legislative reality — post the Senate election in Massachusetts.  

    Obviously, things have changed dramatically, whether political leaders will admit that or not.

    I think there will still be some kind of health care legislation, but not the comprehensive package that was being brokered a couple weeks ago. The air has been let out of that balloon.

    Likewise, don’t expect to see climate change legislation, immigration reform or the Employee Free Choice Act. You may hear talk about these, but in the end nothing will be enacted.

    Much more will be focused on creating jobs, even if it isn’t in the form of a third stimulus package. The President is already floating proposals regarding small business loans and hiring incentives for small business. Note that these programs will be aimed at small businesses, which most see as the real engine of job growth. Plus, most people feel too much attention was focused on bailing out big banks, auto companies, and financial institutions.

    There’s lots of talk about applying the “cash for clunkers” concept to other industries. A program called Home Star would offer rebates to homeowners for energy-conservation and improvement projects. Building Star would do the same thing for commercial buildings. One aspect of that program would encourage energy audits — something that NECA is hoping electrical contractors will be able to market as one of their services. Another energy-conservation rebate program will be directed at manufacturing.

    Other good news for our industry: Programs to fund the creation of high-speed rail lines and the promotion of nuclear energy. I also think we’ll see some movement on pension funding relief legislation and getting a permanent fix for estate taxes.

    Expect the Administration to increase its attacks on big business — especially banks, insurance companies and business lobbyists. 

    One red herring is the concern being expressed over the recent Supreme Court decision allowing freer political spending by corporations and unions. It really doesn’t change that much and it won’t have much impact either. This doesn’t allow direct corporate contributions to candidates. Those still need to be personal contributions or from PACs. That’s why Justice Alito shook his head and mouthed “not true” when President Obama said that the decision overturned 100 years of legal precedent. It hasn’t. The decision nullifies a more current law which kept corporations and unions from financing political ads within a certain number of days before an election. I don’t think corporations are lining up to spend big bucks on political ads. 

    BTW, NECA GA DIR Lake Coulson was in 202 for SOTU and sat in the balcony F2F with FLOTUS. KEWL. 


  • Our Plans for 2010

    Posted on Jan 14, 2010 by John M Grau

    Meeting in not-so-warm Florida last week, NECA’s Executive Committee reviewed and approved NECA’s Budget and Plan of Operations for 2010. Here are some highlights:

    While expecting a continued decline in revenue, the association has an active and aggressive agenda for 2010. The cutbacks made in 2009 helped us stay within spending limits, and we expect to be financially stable this year. We anticipate tapping 7 percent of the reserve fund to balance the budget.

    We expect some very positive labor relations progress this year. NECA and the IBEW are dead serious about moving forward to grow our industry. Members of the NLMCC (leaders from both organizations) are meeting in early February to assess where we are and to decide what we need to do next. There will be a continued push for expansion of small works agreements, portability of manpower, and use of the CW/CE classifications.

    In that regard, NECA is developing a program to help our members understand and take advantage of these labor relations tools. We’re learning from electrical contractors using the CW/CE classifications about what changes are needed to successfully manage a lesser-skilled workforce.

    The NECA Management Education Institute (MEI), which is responsible for this project, is also working on a new introductory foreman training course. It will dovetail with the more extensive Effective Supervision courses but can also serve as a basic leadership training course for lead journeymen. In addition, the MEI is putting together a networking and mentoring program for women electrical contractors.

    Our government affairs program is looking ahead to the big legislative issues coming down the pike after the health care bill is resolved. Pension reform, taxes, and energy are at the top of the list. After a banner year for ECPAC in 2009, we are planning an even bigger push in 2010. This is the year to get the right people elected to Congress and to support our efforts to protect small businesses and promote policies that grow our industry.

    A special Energy Solutions Task Force, formed last year, has been expanded. It will continue to implement the recommendations from a master plan developed in 2008. This year, we will focus on the new Energy Auditing training course and developing a “funding source” matrix that contractors can use to help customers pay for energy solutions projects.

    Safety also takes a front-burner position with the creation of a new contractor safety orientation training program. There will also be several webinars focused on NEC and NECA safety materials.

    NECA continues its support for the National Electrical Installation Standards (NEIS). In addition to updating some of the existing standards, we will begin the process of creating four new standards. We are also working with the Canadian Electrical Contractors Association to develop a CEIS version of the NEIS for Canada.

    The ELECTRI foundation is meeting next week to select up to $200,000 worth of new research projects. In addition to completing many other research projects in the pipeline, ELECTRI will once again sponsor the Talent Initiative program that encourages college students to seek careers in the electrical contracting industry.

    Personally, I will be involved with a financial futures task force appointed by NECA President Rex Ferry to address NECA’s future revenue needs. Rex and I are also planning to experiment with a few electronic town hall meetings, where we hope to foster an open dialogue with NECA members in various areas of the country.

    And of course our showcase event is the annual NECA convention and trade show, October 2-5 in Boston.

    Well, these are just the highlights of the highlights. Look for a lot coming out of NECA this year.

  • Holiday Wish List - 2009

    Posted on Dec 21, 2009 by John M Grau

    As we are in the midst of celebrating the holiday season, I once again asked NECA staff what they are wishing for this year. Here are some of the responses:

    Always the optimist, Southern Region Executive Director David Roberts wants roller skates for his staff so they can keep up with our members as they accelerate their businesses during 2010. I wonder what the field reps think of that.

    Midwest Region Executive Director Drew Gibson wants a commitment by local unions and chapters to succeed in market recovery expansion by cutting costs, improving profitability, and retooling training for emerging markets. Drew also hopes for continued global warming to ease the burden of Midwest blizzards. The Midwest reps will get ice skates instead of roller skates.

    Convention Director Beth Ellis naturally wants a good turnout for the NECA 2010 Convention in Boston. She would also like something in a little blue box (Tiffany’s) and an additional staff person for help. My wife asks for the same things.

    Public Relations Director Beth Margulies wants to see NECA members take advantage of the business opportunities that social media offer. Beth has been active in getting NECA involved in Facebook, Twitter and the like. Lets all give a tweet in 2010.

    Marketing Executive Director Rob Colgan is hoping for a “sustainable” recovery. He’s pushing NECA members to explore new market opportunities in energy efficiency and renewable energy production.

    Greg Mankevich, executive director of the Management Education Institute, put in a shameful plug for his latest MEI offerings such as “Adapt or Perish,” “The New Business Model of Construction Contracting,” “Business Development for the Design-Build Market,” and “Understanding Net-Metering, Distributed Generation, and the Energy Policy Act and its Impact on the Electrical Contracting Industry.”

    Safety Director Jerry Rivera is hoping for a zero accidents for our workforce in 2010. Jerry is our designated driver at office parties.

    Mike Thompson, NECA secretary-treasurer, had a rough year revising the NECA budget downward more than once. His fervent wish is that we have only one budget in 2010.

    As for me, I’m hoping that we all take advantage of the many opportunities coming our way in the year ahead.

    Now I’m off to Tiffany’s to see if I can buy just a blue box for a bracelet that I bought at Costco.

    Happy Holidays! 
    Merry Christmas! 
    The Best of New Years!

  • Obamanomics and Democratic Leadership 101

    Posted on Dec 12, 2009 by John M Grau

    I spent last weekend in Miami at the newly renovated Fontainebleu Hotel, which re-opened only three weeks ago. I was there for a meeting of the Associations Committee of 100, representing the CEOs of the most influential national associations in the country. The meeting was actually an educational event — an introductory course, of sorts — as various speakers prepared us for issues and legislation expected at the start of the Obama administration and the incoming 111th Congress.

    The two biggest agenda items are likely to be first out of the box in January — a stimulus package and health care reform. Both will be important to our industry, so it’s a good idea for industry leaders to learn about them. I took a copy of an 89-page paper on health reform by Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus with me for airplane reading.

    I also used my networking time during coffee breaks to form a coalition of construction associations interested in promoting building issues for the stimulus package. The existing infrastructure coalitions are more focused on highways and bridges. We think some of the stimulus should be spent on building construction as well.

    One interesting observation noted during our discussions is that the Obama economic team is mainly composed of individuals with PhDs in economics. That’s considered a positive sign for business groups because economists, whether conservative or liberal, believe in markets and market solutions. We were told that our arguments on domestic issues will have their best chance of being accepted if they are supported by economic data and principles.

    A special treat during our meeting was a briefing by General James Jones, nominated to become President-Elect Obama’s National Security Advisor. General Jones is currently CEO of the Institute for 21st Century Energy and a member of our group of 100.

    We first crossed paths three years ago when I was one of a dozen association executives invited to Brussels for a briefing by our United States missions to the European Union and NATO. After our visit to NATO headquarters, General Jones invited us to SHAPE headquarters in Mons, Belguim, where he then served as SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe — a post also previously held by Dwight Eisenhower and Wesley Clark). We were briefed on NATO’s changed military mission around the world.

    For the past year, General Jones has headed up a coalition to develop and promote energy policy recommendations for the United States. NECA fully supports the coalition’s recommendations. It was good to hear General Jones say that he truly believes in the policy positions they helped develop and will be an advocate for them within the White House.

    Just being at the meeting in Miami confirmed that NECA is recognized as a highly influential organization. Now, as a result of the education I received there, I feel better prepared to help lead NECA in influencing the major legislative initiatives we’ll face in the next few months.


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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