NECA TransmissionsNotes from the front lines of the electrical contracting industry
  • Meet David Roberts

    Posted on Jan 24, 2008 by John M Grau

    As Executive Director of NECA’s Southern Region, B. David Roberts is responsible for a territory from Arizona to Virginia that encompasses 15 states and 34 NECA chapters.He interacts regularly with two NECA District Vice Presidents and four IBEW International Vice Presidents.He directs a staff of four NECA field representatives, plus an office assistant.

    Above all, David Roberts is the right man in the right place.His depth of knowledge and personal touch in dealing with complex issues and disputes makes him a highly effective and widely respected NECA representative. David has devoted most of his career to working for NECA, serving as Southern Region Executive Director for over 20 years.He also worked as a NECA field representative for nine years and as manager of the former Ouachita Valley Chapter from 1973-1978. David also had a brief career as a high school football coach and math teacher.

    David holds the distinction of being one of the longest serving appointees to the Council on Industrial Relations.Whenever the Council breaks into two panels to decide cases, David plays the key role of coordinating and presenting NECA’s positions on the second panel.He has earned the admiration and respect of both IBEW and NECA representatives to the CIR.

    David was born in Yazoo City, Miss. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi and during summers, he worked as a carpenter on construction crews.

    While at Ole Miss, David played wide receiver on the same football team as famed quarterback Archie Manning.Apparently David dropped too many of Archie’s passes, or he might have moved on to the pros as well. (Archie Manning is father of current pro quarterbacks Payton and Eli Manning.)

    I appreciate that David has always been willing to provide me with lots of advice and down to earth wisdom, my favorite being “crow isn’t half-bad if you know how to fix it.” Having had to eat my share of crow over the years, I’ve found this bit of advice to be particularly useful.

  • 2008 Budget is More Than Numbers

    Posted on Jan 18, 2008 by John M Grau

    Mike Thompson and I may be the only people at NECA who get excited about our annual budget. I find that the process of creating the budget is one of the best methods for me to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on at this large and complex organization and to steer its overall direction.

    The 2008 NECA Executive Committee held their first meeting of the year last week. This meeting is traditionally devoted to approving the annual budget and plan of operations for the association.

    Our budget presentation to the committee is detailed and well-organized. A number of years ago, one of the District Vice Presidents commented that it really is more of a plan of operations than a budget, so that’s what we’ve called it that ever since. 

    We have an active agenda planned for 2008, including more progress on what the committee has labeled “The NECA Agenda 2007-2008.” Labor relations is a big part of the Agenda. As I’m writing this, a trial session of our new labor relations workshop series is taking place. We’re adding content to our online labor agreement and wages database every day, and our field staff is working hard to provide all the local labor relations assistance that’s requested from our chapters and members. 

    Workforce development is focused on apprentice recruiting and expansion of the CW/CE classification. A seminar to help members effectively use CW/CE is in the works. And since we know workforce development means bringing new managers into the industry,   the ELECTRI International “Talent Initiative” will expand our recruitment efforts to colleges and universities.

    We’re also continuing to work on the communications, business development and membership development priorities described in NECA Agenda. On this front, District 3 Vice President Frank Russell has agreed to explore the creation of a mentoring program for NECA members.

    A new issue raised by Executive Committee members at the meeting was NECA’s support for our contractors’ safety needs. We have decided to hire a full-time safety director to improve our current safety programs and assist members and chapters to meet this need.

    All told, NECA will be investing $30 million in programs and activities in 2008. Of course, it’s not how much we spend that counts, but what we do with it. Our plan of operations is ambitious. We’re going to do some big things, and we’re expecting big results. That’s why I find this whole budget process so exciting. It’s not just numbers. It’s our future.

  • Visiting Chapters Without the Air Miles

    Posted on Jan 10, 2008 by John M Grau

    I remember hearing a story about how one of my predecessors, Lawrence Davis, took an extended trip by railroad in the 1930’s to some of NECA’s west coast chapters. It was a major excursion, and it took him three or four weeks to visit a half-dozen chapters. I don’t know if he ever did it again, but if he did, it wasn’t until several years later.

    Today, I’m able to travel to dozens of meetings across the country and around the world. I spend hours, not days, getting to where I’m going, and I rack up nearly 100,000 air miles every year in the process. However, I’m only able to personally visit a handful of chapters. The travel logistics may be easier today than they were in the 1930’s, but conflicts and time constraints make it impossible for me to make a personal visit to each of our 120 chapters, let alone meet several thousand NECA members.

    But just as technology helped us overcome the time and distance barriers to travel, it’s helped us stay in touch. Over the past few months, we have been conducting an experiment in communications. NECA President Milner Irvin and I have had telephone conference calls with several different NECA chapters’ boards of directors. The idea is to use technology to approximate an experience we can’t do physically. (Ideally, we would visit each chapter for an extended face-to-face discussion about industry issues and their local concerns.)

    In 2007, we held 25 chapter board conference calls. The results have been very encouraging.

    During the typical 45-minute conference, we take some time to let the local chapter learn about the work we’re doing on the national level. The chapter then tells us about their key issues and projects. We leave plenty of time for questions, comments, and open discussion. Most of all, we listen.

    Both Milner and I agree that we’ve learned a lot from these sessions. While there is much in common between members and chapters across the U.S., there are also significant differences. Most often, those differences can be seen in the priorities each chapter places on various issues. For some, open portability of manpower is crucial; for others, it is less so. 

    The kind of relationship the chapter has with their local union leadership is another key factor. If the relationship is good, then the chapter leaders are optimistic about the future of the industry. If the relationship is poor, then almost any solution seems unattainable.

    Our “listening tour” continues this year with a goal of eventually meeting with every chapter board who wants a dialogue with us. 

    I keep thinking back to Larry Davis’s chapter tour in the 1930’s. Without a cell phone and emails on a PDA, what do you suppose he did on the train all day?

  • New Construction Documents — NECA's Working for You

    Posted on Dec 17, 2007 by John M Grau

    Occasionally I ask fellow NECA staff to tell the members what they have been working on. Dan Walter, NECA VP/COO recently submitted the following post on contract documents.

    By: Dan Walter

    Except for very small projects, the relationship between an electrical contractor and its customer (either owner or general contractor) is usually formalized by a contract. Such contracts detail the work to be performed, the amount the customer will pay for that work, all the requirements for communicating with the project’s stakeholders, and what will happen should either party to the contract not live up to their obligations.

    Contract law is governed by state law, not federal law. Like many legal issues, contract documents’ language has evolved over many years. It is based on the experiences of owners and contractors and the decisions made by the state courts that hear contract cases. Many organizations have developed model documents as “best practice” guides, and for the purpose of  making good documents available for any construction project in a cost-efficient manner.

    More than 115 years ago, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) began offering model documents. AIA revises its construction contract documents every 10 years. The reason for the long time between revision cycles is to allow construction contractors, construction users and the legal community time to become familiar with the documents and to get feedback, often from legal decisions, from their use. NECA has been an active participant in this revision process for more than 30 years. The AIA contract documents available today are good, solid documents that contain fair terms and conditions for subcontractors. The AIA A401-2007 Standard Form of Agreement between Contractor and Subcontractor is the document most electrical contractors might be offered when performing work as a subcontractor.

    Recently, a new coalition began offering model construction contracts. ConsensusDOCS as the group and their documents have come to be known, is a collection of 20 trade associations representing owners, contractors, subcontractors, designers and sureties. NECA is a participant here, too. ConsensusDOCS includes more than 70 documents and forms, and ConsensusDOCS 750, Contractor-Subcontractor Agreement, is the form most likely to be seen by electrical contractors.

    So why have two families of contract documents? For one, construction delivery methods keep changing. Design-Bid-Build, Design-Build, and variations of those methods require different contracts to reflect the different relationships among the stakeholders on the project. For another, the language of each set of construction documents reflects the perspective of its developers. Electrical contractors must be prepared to deal with contracts whether they are based on nationally developed models or locally drafted.

    Our industry is constantly in motion, and contract documents evolve along with it. As Building Information Modeling (BIM) and other collaborative techniques are adopted in construction, contract documents will likely continue to evolve to address issues that arise. And NECA will continue to represent the interests of electrical contractors as these forms are developed.

  • A Brief History of (Construction) Time, Part 4

    Posted on Dec 03, 2007 by John M Grau

    Read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3 . . .

    My last post in this series on BRT/CURT takes us up to how the organization is influencing the construction industry today. The speaker who kicked off the CURT National Conference in November talked about a global industry in crisis. He listed the challenges facing the construction industry, a worldwide shortage of skilled workers chief among them. One solution he offered was that owners don’t bid projects until they are know that all resources are available – including manpower. That may sound nice on paper, but who decides which projects go first?

    IBEW President Ed Hill and Building and Construction Trades President Mark Ayers followed this presentation. They used their time to discuss what the organized trades are doing to staff the owners’ projects. Ed talked about NECA/IBEW recruitment and organizing efforts and highlighted the Construction Wireman/Construction Electrician category as one way we are addressing the manpower shortage issue.

    The union effort stood in sharp contrast to a presentation from the non-union side, which basically had nothing new to offer. Both sides readily admit that we have a lot of work to do.

    The conference wasn’t all about manpower. The newly developed ConcensusDocs construction contracts have created a buzz, along with an effort by the architects group to promote the newly revise AIA pattern documents. Building Information Modeling (BIM) and its growing use on construction projects was also discussed. BIM is a topic that NECA is closely following, and one that we plan to be increasingly involved with.

    While at this year’s meeting, I thought back to my uneasy attendance at BRT construction conferences in the late 1980’s. I feel that we’ve come a long way. The group’s outward animosity towards unions is gone. Unions recognize that they have to meet the owners’ needs. Owners recognize that contractor associations play an important role in advancing the whole industry.

    It’s not a perfect relationship, by any means. But we’ve moved beyond re-hashing the past, and we’re working on what we need to do now and in the future. It’s a much healthier relationship, and one that will reap better rewards for all of us.




  • A Brief History of (Construction) Time, Part 3

    Posted on Nov 26, 2007 by John M Grau

    Read Part 1 and Part 2 . . .

    When The Business Roundtable (TBR)shut down its construction committee in 1990, it left many construction department heads at owner companies wondering what to do. Not too many years before, they had been deeply involved in developing a series of monographs on construction industry issues. These monographs were intended to be prescriptive remedies for the construction industry, focusing on training, safety and productive work practices. They set forth agendas for owners, contractors, contractor associations and unions. They were widely embraced by most elements of the industry, and the individuals who worked so hard to develop them didn’t want all their work to go to waste.

    The remnants of the BRT committee gathered to decide their future, and in the summer of 2000, they committed to form a new organization of construction owners. They came up with the name – Construction Users Roundtable, or CURT for short. In forming CURT, they decided on a few important changes.

    First they wanted to broaden the scope of their membership. Realizing that the U.S. economy was trending away from heavy industrial manufacturing, they reached out to new big construction consumers like Intel, Disney and Merck. They allowed in some large constructors as associate contractor members and even created a category for the major construction associations.

    The new CURT group also reached out to unions. In what has become known as the Tripartite Initiative, CURT formed a committee of owner representatives, construction union presidents, and contractor association leaders. At first the meetings were a bit tentative. But it soon became apparent that the old BRT leadership had moved on, and the new generation knew little of the horrors of the 1960’s. They weren’t necessarily sold on unions, but they weren’t opposed to them either.

    And union leaders had evolved as well. Best exemplified by IBEW President Ed Hill, the unions openly admitted past mistakes and readily discussed the need for improved productivity, better attitudes, no absenteeism, no jobsite jurisdictional disputes, and a safe, drug free workforce.

    On top of all this, the owners realized that the construction industry was facing a manpower shortage, and the union side of the industry had the best system to recruit and train workers. The relationship between owners, contractors and unions had a new beginning, and we needed to take full advantage of it.

    What about CURT today? One more post to go . . .


  • A Brief History of (Construction) Time, Part 2

    Posted on Nov 19, 2007 by John M Grau

    Read Part 1 . . .

    I attended my first meeting of the Construction Committee of The Business Roundtable in 1986. I was invited by J.R. Pritchard, a NECA member from West Virginia who did a lot of work for DuPont, and Jack Buttrum, a NECA member from Evansville, Ind. who worked on Alcoa projects. Despite their sincere invitations, I didn’t feel very welcome at the meeting.

    The owner representatives of The BRT were very hostile to unions and union contractor associations. Everyone I talked to recounted the “horrors of the 1960’s” when construction unions called the shots and owners suffered jurisdictional walk-offs, feather-bedding practices, and costly job delays. Ted Kennedy (not the Senator – the founder of non-union B.E.& K Construction) was the darling of the group. The carpenters union followed Ted wherever he went and set up pickets outside the meeting hotels where he spoke. He reveled in the attention and saw it as a sign that he was doing something right.

    The non-union organization Associated Builders and Contractors had a prominent spot on most of the BRT meeting agendas to talk about their “Wheels of Learning” training program and how they were developing safety and drug testing programs. Union leaders were not invited, and union contractor associations were barely tolerated. 

    With Jack Barry elected as the new IBEW president and other changes in union leadership, I knew that construction unions had changed. I also knew that the owners were stuck in the past, unaware of these changes. So I decided to engineer at meeting between Jack Barry and Charlie Brown, a DuPont executive who many considered the spiritual leader of the BRT Construction group.

    Charlie drove down from Wilmington, Del., and we met at the Madison Hotel next to the IBEW office in D.C. We didn’t get off to a good start. Charlie started talking about the 1960’s, and then starting quizzing Jack about the IBEW’s position on federal legislation. He wanted to know when the unions would start supporting Republicans for office and why they were aligned with the Democratic party. 

    For his part, Jack was very patient. He tried to convey the union’s new attitude, but Charlie kept talking politics. I asked Charlie what all this had to do with productivity on the jobsite. That sent him back to the 1960’s, and I never got an answer. It was clear to me that Charlie would never warm up to unions, and that with few exceptions, the entire BRT group felt the same way. The BRT hated unions and unions hated the BRT.  I thought the situation was hopeless.

    What started to change was a shift in focus of BRT-member CEOs. They became less interested in U.S. production issues and more focused on global competition. They began building production plants in Mexico and Central America, and later, in China and India. They cut their own in-house construction management staff and in the late 1990’s, these CEOs shut down the BRT Construction Committee completely. The BRT, which was founded on controlling construction costs, was no longer interested in construction at all.

    So where does CURT come from? I’ll answer that in my next post ...

  • A Brief History of (Construction) Time, Part 1

    Posted on Nov 15, 2007 by John M Grau

    The Construction Users Roundtable (CURT) held their annual National Conference in Naples, Florida last week. Milner Irvin, Dan Walter and I represented NECA. CURT’s membership is comprised of some of the largest, best recognized industrial companies in the U.S. – companies like Boeing, Intel, General Motors, ExxonMobil and American Electric Power. NECA and about a dozen other national construction associations are associate members.

    CURT began back in 1969 when former U.S. Steel Chairman Roger Blough formed the Construction Users’ Anti-Inflation Roundtable. At the time, big construction users were being pounded by huge price increases on their projects, some as high as 25 percent annually. Blough gathered together the heads of the nation’s largest companies in an effort to achieve “stability” in the construction industry. He wanted to form a united front of big corporations to stiffen contractors’ resistance to union demands, even at the price of construction delays.

    Construction contractors and their associations charged that the big companies wanted their projects completed without delay and at any cost. General Motors was urging contractors to schedule 70 hour work weeks in building its new Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant –  with the overtime paid at double time. Meanwhile, GM needed a plant to produce a small car to compete with the Ford Maverick, and it needed it fast.  The story was the same for every manufacturer.

    With pressure like that, construction contractors could do little to resist union demands at bargaining, and wages spiraled upward. Given the lower rate of globalization in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, this translated to overall high inflation in the U.S. economy.

    With the involvement of then-Labor Secretary George Schultz, President Richard Nixon instituted overall wage and price controls. NECA Executive Vice President Robert Higgins sat on the wage board that was responsible for approving labor agreement settlements in the construction industry. Any labor agreement that increased wages by more that five percent needed wage board approval. Ultimately, wage and price controls failed. It turns out that they only delayed inflationary pressures. They didn’t eliminate them.

    Roger Bough’s Roundtable eventually morphed into The Business Roundtable (BRT), a select group of 200 big company CEOs. In the early 1970’s, it was the most important business lobby group in the country. Their focus continued to be construction, though they branched off into other business policy matters as well.

    Early on, the BRT thought construction contractors and their associations were weak, so they tried to deal directly with union leaders. When that didn’t get them anywhere, they turned to the non-union segment instead. Over the next two decades, the BRT embraced non-union contractors. Some big users, especially those in the petro-chemical industry, all but shut out union construction companies from bidding their work. And the non-union ABC and construction companies like B.E.& K were off and running.

    More in my next post. . .

  • What's in a Name?

    Posted on Nov 05, 2007 by John M Grau

    How do NECA contractors describe their relationship with the IBEW? I’ve heard it called everything from “partnership” and “marriage” to “employer-employee” and “customer-vendor” – even “parent-child.”

    I’ve heard all of these definitions of our relationship. And I’m hearing those definitions debated more and more lately.

    Within NECA, we tend to talk about “our partnership” with the IBEW. But a number of our members have objected to this, stating that a partnership is a sharing of risks and rewards. They say that the IBEW doesn’t share in the risk, only the rewards.

    When I first started in this industry, I often heard our relationship compared to a marriage. I guess that’s just another way of describing a partnership, only closer and more permanent. I don’t hear that description as much anymore.“Partnership” seems to indicate that ours is a professional relationship.

    Others argue that the IBEW should view the contractor as their customer, and that they (the IBEW) are a vendor supplying electricians. And in one case, someone suggested that the contractor is the parent providing all the support and benefits, and the union employee is a child needing guidance and discipline. He noted that the child shouldn’t be allowed to tell the parent what to do.

    There may be some confusion because we often fail to define who the parties are. The contractor and union electrician? The contractor and the local union? The NECA organization and the IBEW organization?

    No matter who the parties are, I still like to characterize the relationship as a partnership. Certainly all the other descriptions apply in one form or another, but the reason I like the term “partnership” is that it helps drive us toward our goal of flexibility, change, and increased market share.

    I like the market-driven concept behind “customer-vendor,” but I’m not sure that we want the IBEW as the so-called “vendor” to consider it appropriate to sell their services to the highest bidder. Even though it now happens occasionally, do we really want the IBEW supplying electricians directly to the customer, whether that’s the general contractor or industrial plant owner?

    By naming the IBEW as our partner, we’re inviting them to consider themselves as sharing in the risk, even if that risk is only a fraction of the contractor’s risk.  When someone has “skin in the game” they’re more likely to agree to concessions, delayed rewards, and tough changes. Partners are more open to understanding what it’s like to be in the other partner’s shoes. Partners look at the big picture, and what’s advantageous in the long run.

    In the end, it’s just a game of semantics. But semantics can have a lot to do with how we feel. And for my part I’d like my employees to feel that my success, my organization’s success, and my industry’s success is just as important to them as it is to me.

  • SETS and CATS

    Posted on Oct 26, 2007 by John M Grau

    The boardroom at our national office has been taken over, and school is in full session.


    This is the week for SETS and CATS.   Those acronyms stand for Staff Executives Training School and Chapter Administrative Training School. They are orientation and training sessions for new chapter and national staff. Under the direction of “Dean” Stuart Binstock, who in real life is NECA’s Executive Director of the Management Executive Institute, attendees learn about administering a local chapter, and also what services are available from NECA and who’s responsible for them.

    This week we have 13 people attending the three-day SETS class which is geared for new chapter managers, assistant managers, and national staff associates. The two-day CATS class has five attendees who are chapter administrative personnel. The CATS sessions focus more on learning about processing membership and finance information at the chapter level.

    NECA has offered these courses in one form or another twice a year for over 40 years. Almost every NECA chapter executive has attended one sometime in his or her career. Some interesting topics covered include complying with anti-trust laws, chapter risk management (i.e. insurance coverage), strategic planning, chapter NEBF collection responsibilities and of course labor relations issues.

    I teach a segment on chapter administration that I’ve dubbed “How To Get Fired.” It’s based on my observations of how some former chapter staff have gotten themselves in trouble. The number one, absolute best way to get fired is to cheat on an expense account. And there have been some very creative attempts over the years. The second leading reason is embezzlement. Not by the chapter manager, but by the person in the office writing checks and handling the books. While the manager didn’t steal the money, he inevitably pays the price by losing his job.

    I have long thought that chapter staff education is one of the great services NECA offers to its members and chapters. In additions to CATS and SETS, each NECA region holds an annual chapter managers conference, and we have a national association executive conference in the convention city each spring. We’re adding specialized labor relations training to the mix starting next year (more about that in future postings), and more advanced training through a recently formed Chapter Executives Institute (CEI) will continue next year as well. On top of all that, our field staff is available for individual consulting and assistance.

    The new chapter staff attending SETS and CATS this week are well on their way to becoming part of the best association staff in the country. But it’s only a start to a lifetime of learning.

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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