It's that time again when we call on expert pollsters to help us learn more about our readers and the work they are doing in the field. More than 2,400 of you responded to our questionnaire earlier this year, through snail mail or online, describing the work you did in 2015. These 2,419 responses paint a portrait of an industry that’s both continuing to mend following the financial meltdown eight years ago and expanding into new business areas.

ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR conducts this survey every two years, each time asking about the previous full year’s business. The 2014 edition (covering work completed in 2013) indicated a recovery was taking hold, and we’re happy to report that trend has continued. Fewer firms lost employees during the last 12 to 18 months, and a large majority of companies stood firm. Though large firms – those with 20 employees or more – remain a minority, their percentage grew, while the percentage of companies with 1–9 employees dropped slightly.

Such growth might, at least partly, be the result of a broadening in the kinds of work electrical contractors (ECs) now perform in addition to traditional power and lighting jobs. With new questions this year, we found that a large percentage of our respondents are working in heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) projects – both in controls and mechanical – and a significant number have even worked for water utilities and on wastewater treatment plants.

This article explores the rest of what we learned about the work ECs are doing and how their businesses are faring.

(Editor's note: In all bar graphs, percentage value displays are rounded.)

More gray matter

First, what do we know about individual ECs? Well, for one thing, they’re getting older, with an average age of 57.3, a statistically significant increase from 2014’s result of 56.2 (which had remained unchanged from the 2012 figure). Even more significant, the percentage of respondents aged between 35–54 decreased to 30 percent, from 36 percent in 2014. However, age goes down as firm size increases, with an average age of 54.1 in firms with 10 or more employees, versus 58.7 in companies with 1–4 employees. One explanation for this disparity is the possibility that older electrical pros might be more likely to go out on their own, after gaining experience in a larger organization. Or they worked in small companies their entire career and are now close to retirement.

The aging trend is a long–term phenomenon. For example, as shown in Figure 1, Comparison of Age Composition Over Time, the percentage of ECs aged 35–54 has dropped to 30 percent, from 59 percent in 2006. At the same time, the percentage aged 55 and older has risen to 67 percent, largely driven by an increase in the 55–64 age bracket, to 43 percent from 38 percent two years ago.

However, one demographic in our sample breaks this aging pattern: women. Although, at only 3 percent of total respondents, their numbers don’t make a big impact on the overall picture. In this survey, 42 percent of women in the industry are aged 35–54 (compared to 30 percent of the total sample), and only 7 percent are 65 or older (compared to 24 percent of the total). These women are more likely to work with larger companies, with 35 percent working for firms with 5–9 employees and 46 percent working for firms with 10–plus employees.

The increased respondent age, also is reflected in their stated level of responsibility, with 79 percent of our sample composed of company owners and top management. In addition, 10 percent are master electricians (or an equivalent title). A new title category, “project manager,” was added to this year’s survey, accounting for 4 percent of respondents. Women are less likely than men to have the title of owner/top management, with 63 percent falling into this category; however, they are just as likely as men to be a master electrician (or equivalent) or project manager.

Figure 1

Comparison of Age Composition Over Time

(N is the number of respondents)

2016 (n=2,419)2014 (n=2,722)2012 (n=1,024)2010 (n=1,077)2008 (n=1,157)2006 (n=1,144)
Figure 2

Company Size, Trended 2016 vs. 2014 Profile

(Reporting in Previous Year)

The (–) and (+) indicate a significant difference from two years earlier at the 90 percent level of confidence.
Figure 3

Change in Number of Employees Among Total Sample

The (–) and (+) indicate a significant difference from two years earlier at the 90 percent level of confidence.
Figure 4

Change in Company Size During Past 12–18 Months

 Total1–9 Employees10+ Employees
Stayed The Same65>61=63>5575>70=72>673835=37>23
The symbols > and < indicate the differences were statistically significant, moving in the direction of the arrow.
A firm recovery

The large number of higher management titles also might be a side effect of the large number of small firms in our sample – with 72 percent of reporting firms having 1–9 employees, there’s a much better chance the respondent will be an owner, manager or master electrician. However, as shown in Figure 2, Company Size, Trended 2016 vs. 2014 Profile, the proportion of firms in the smallest category, 1–4 employees, has declined to 56 percent, from 59 percent in 2014, while representation by firms with 20–99 employees grew to 11 percent, versus 9 percent two years ago.

Across the industry as a whole, most firms have at least maintained a status quo in their employee rolls over the last 12–18 months, with the percentage of companies across the total sample holding steady and climbing to 65 percent (versus 61 percent in 2014). The proportion of those who lost employees during the reporting period fell to 13 percent, from 18 percent two years ago. Twenty–one percent reported adding employees, virtually identical to the last survey results. See Figure 3, Change in Number of Employees Among Total Sample.

However, these averages hide some interesting differences in hiring activity between smaller and larger companies, as you can see in Figure 4, Change in Company Size During Past 12–18 Months. Smaller companies of 1–9 employees were most likely to report stable employee numbers, with 75 percent falling into this category and only 11 percent stating they had added staff. For firms with 10 or more employees, however, the hiring climate has been much more bullish, with 47 percent reporting an increase in their numbers, from 42 percent in 2014. This kind of growth is a great reminder of how far the economy has recovered in the last 6 years; in 2010, 61 percent of the larger firms reported decreased staff numbers and only 15 percent said they’d added employees.

Figure 5

Trended Number of Employees by Firm Revenue

 Total1–45–910–1920–99100 +
Less than $1 Million68<72959573<8129304500
Less than $250K42<45717111<17342000
$250K – Less than $1 Million26272424626426262500
$1 Million or More28>230022>17696591908580
$1 Million – Less than $2.5 Million1090020>154851151842
$2.5 Million – Less than $10 Million9>7002221>13535659
$10 Million – Less than $25 Million4>300001121>131819
$25 Million +5>4000000235850
Don't Know/No Answer45545225551520
The (>) and (<) indicate a significant difference from two years earlier at the 90 percent level of confidence.
Figure 6

Respondent Education

Education Among Total Sample

Education by Number of Employees

B.S./B.A. +College up to B.S./B.A.Apprentice, Trade, Vocational
High School Only

Firms, as a whole, also reported higher revenues for 2015, versus their figures for two years earlier, with a significantly smaller percentage of ECs working for firms with revenue under $1 million (68 percent this year, versus 72 percent in 2014) and a significantly higher percentage with firms of revenue over $1 million.

Again, though, this big-picture view obscures an interesting segmentation. As shown in Figure 5, Trended Number of Employees by Firm Revenue, the upward shift is driven primarily by improvements in the fortunes of firms with 5–9 employees. Seventy-three percent of ECs working in such companies reported their firm’s revenues totaled less than $1 million, versus 81 percent in 2014, and, correspondingly, 22 percent reported firm revenue of $1 million or more, versus 17 percent two years ago. These results support findings from the 2014 survey that companies with 5–9 employees are becoming more like larger firms and less like those with 1–4 workers.

Education level of electrical contractors has remained consistent with this survey, versus 2014’s results, with 57 percent across the total sample having some college education. However, a significantly higher percentage report having a bachelor’s degree in 2016 – 22 percent, versus 19 percent in 2014. Those working for firms with 10 or more employees are more likely to have at least some college education than those in smaller organizations (63 percent, versus 54 percent) and are more likely to have a B.A. or B.S. degree (30 percent, versus 18 percent). See Figure 6, Respondent Education.

Figure 7

Average Revenue From Types of Work Performed in Previous Year by Sector

New Construction (Including Additions)Modernization/RetrofitMaintenance/Service/Repair (on a Combined Basis)RepairMaintenance Not Done Under ContractMaintenance Service Contracts
Figure 8

Types of Work Performed in Previous Year (Residential and/or CII Combined)

What are you doing?

Looking at the type of work today’s ECs are doing indicates continuing improvement, if not a full return to the boom years of the early 2000s. For example, the average percentage of revenue derived from new construction has risen to 34 percent from 32 percent in 2014, a statistically significant increase, while the contribution of maintenance/service or repair has dropped to 39 percent from 41 percent. (As a benchmark, new construction accounted for 43 percent of average revenue in 2007.) At 27 percent of revenue, the contribution of modernization and retrofit work is unchanged since 2014.

Figure 7, Average Revenue From Types of Work Performed in Previous Year by Sector further breaks these results down, showing new construction is a bigger part of business for firms with 10 or more employees than it is for their smaller counterparts. Maintenance under service contracts also play a bigger role in overall revenues with the largest firms than with the smallest.

At a high level, considering both residential and commercial/industrial/institutional (CII) projects, traditional power and lighting projects were included in the work of 94 percent of respondents through the course of 2015. Second on the list, as shown in Figure 8, Types of Work Performed in Previous Year, is automation and controls, including HVAC controls and programming (CII and Residential automation/controls are shown separately in Figure 10). Power quality, sustainability, communications systems/connectivity form a new tier, as does Other.

At a more detailed level, we polled respondents on their participation in 41 specific project types, including five new categories for 2016: wire and cable; LED lighting (including lamps, fixtures, controls); HVAC controls; HVAC mechanical; water utilities or wastewater treatment plants. Among the key findings in this part of the research is the fact that higher percentages of ECs perform these individual tasks in CII settings than in residential construction. For example, as shown in Figure 9, Types of Work Performed by Company in 2015, 34 percent of ECs said they worked on structured wiring/cabling in CII, compared with 25 percent who did this kind of work in residential construction.

Figure 9

Types of Work Performed by Company in 2015

Communications Systems/Connectivity573343
Structured Wiring/Cabling45–25–34–
Networking VoIP/Wireless/Broadband, etc.351827
Fiber Optics (Communications and Security)20418
Data Centers17316
Energy–Efficiency Projects/Upgrades (Non-LEED)371630
LEED Projects19–715–
Electric Vehicle Charging Stations17+11+9
Energy Audits (Including Thermal Imaging)111310
Smart or Net Metering10+57
Energy Storage5+24
Wind Generation423
Smart Grid Technology2+12
Fuel Cells20.52
Power Quality684248
Backup Power/UPS492534–
Troubleshooting/Maintenance of Low–Voltage Systems452633
VSS/Lighting Surge Suppression341724
Energy Management/Power Quality20517
Traditional Power/Lighting947072
Wire and Cable846163
LED Lighting (Including Lamps, Fixtures and Controls)845962
Lighting Fixtures84–6063–
Lighting Controls72–46–52–
LED Drivers or Ballasts69–44–53
Daylight/Shading Systems231018
Automation/Control Systems734753
Fire/Life Safety (Including Alarms/Detectors)48–3033
HVAC Controls382127
Security: CCTV/Access/Motion, etc.33–16–26
Industrial Controls29N/A29
Home Automation/Smart Home/Connectivity21+21+N/A
Home Theater/Sound or VDV1818N/A
Automated Building Systems/Connectivity16N/A16
Sound and Video or VDV16N/A16–
Programming and Commissioning16515
HVAC (Mechanical)231515
Preassembly/Prefabrication of Electrical Components19+7+16+
Waste Utilities or Wastewater Treatment Plants14N/A14
The (>) and (<) indicate a significant difference from two years earlier at the 90 percent level of confidence.

However, exceptions to this general rule are seen in five categories – power, wire and cable, fire alarms, HVAC mechanical and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations – in which residential and CII involvement are quite similar.

In reviewing the combined total of residential and CII projects, we found some notable changes over the 2014 survey’s results:

  • Six sustainability–related work types posted significant increases, including EV charging stations, smart or net metering, co–generation, energy storage, smart grid technology and microgrids. Preassembly/prefabrication of electrical components also posted an increase over 2014.
  • LEED–related work declined, despite the growth of the green–leaning project types above.
  • Structured wiring declined; although, respondents might have reported some of this work as part of the new wiring and cabling category added in 2016.
  • Similarly, fewer respondents reported working on lighting fixtures, lamps and lighting controls or LED drivers or ballasts, which could simply reflect the addition of a new LED lighting category (including lamps, fixtures and controls).

Figure 10, Types of Work Performed in Previous Year by Category, provides a snapshot of the kinds of work done by firms of different sizes during 2015. Note the trend spotted in the 2014 survey that firms with 5–9 employees are starting to look more like companies that are slightly larger than those that are slightly smaller. Another point of note is the broad range of project types the smallest firms are working on within the residential sector. Companies with 1–4 employees are performing many aspects of traditional power and lighting, low-voltage, automation and even HVAC work. In addition, the fact that so much of this kind of work is now being done in residential settings demonstrates how complex our homes are becoming.

Figure 10

Types of Work Performed in Previous Year by Category

Figure 11

Firm’s Active Engagement in Systems Integration or Data/Telecom Centers

(2016 n = 341; 2014 n = 382)

Figure 12

Roles Played by Firm in Integrated Systems

 Specify OnlyInstall OnlySpecify and InstallDon’t Work in This CategoryNo Answer
Fire/Life Safety23224357
Lighting (Including Controls)3255894
Communications (VDV, etc.)22722427
Building Controls (Including HVAC)22923398
Figure 13

Average Revenue from Sector by Number of Employees

 Total1–9 Employees10+ Employees
New Construction34%>32%31%<34%<43%29%28%26%<30%<38%45%43%43%47%52%
The (<) and (>) difference shows significance at the 90% level of confidence.
Low–voltage projects

The 2016 survey results show low-voltage projects have a big presence in the work of today’s ECs. Across the total sample, 95 percent of respondents reported they had completed such projects, and 10 percent of all firms noted they now have a separate division dedicated to low-voltage efforts, up from 7 percent in 2014. There has been a significant uptick since 2014 in low–voltage interest among firms with 10 or more employees – 25 percent of such firms reported having a separate low-voltage division, which is up from 20 percent in 2014.

As indicated in Figure 11, Firm’s Active Engagement in Systems Integration or Data/Telecom Centers, the kinds of work ECs are doing in this field does not differ much from what was reported in 2014. However, a category just added to this year’s list of questions indicates how broad EC involvement is becoming, with 16 percent reporting experience in commissioning and programming assignments. Low–voltage systems integration is the biggest category of low–voltage work for respondents, with 35 percent stating involvement in such projects.

Looking at several specific integrated systems product categories, one can see the overwhelming importance of ECs in lighting selection and installation. Figure 12, Roles Played by Firm in Integrated Systems, shows that almost 60 percent of ECs said they both specify and install lighting – about double the percentage that say they only install such systems, without also specifying them.

Figure 14

Average Revenue From Specific Areas

Electrical/Power DistributionLighting (Ballasts, Controls, Fixtures, Lamps)Industrial SystemsCommunications/Data SystemsAutomated Building Systems/ControlsBackup PowerFire SystemsSecurity SystemsEnergy Management/Power QualitySound and Video (Home Theater)Sound and Video (Commercial)Alternative Power Generating SystemsBuilding Systems IntegrationLife Safety (Not Including Fire)
Figure 15

Average Revenue From Various Building Categories

Where's the money?

In small but statistically significant ways, new construction has become more important to ECs’ bottom lines, accounting for 34 percent of 2015’s revenue, across our total sample, up from 32 percent in 2013. It was especially important for larger firms, responsible for almost 50 percent of revenue for firms with 20 or more employees (not shown). On the flip side, the maintenance/service/repair sector is at the top for billings among smaller companies. While the revenue percentages for each sector remained fairly steady compared to 2014’s survey results, Figure 13, Average Revenue From Sector by Number of Employees, shows how much more important new construction was eight years ago, when it represented 52 percent of revenue for larger companies.

Looking at the types of work ECs are doing within these sectors, electrical/power distribution accounted for 43 percent of revenue in this year’s survey, and it is statistically unchanged from 2014. As a point of reference, in 2004, respondents indicated this category accounted for 69 percent of revenue, which serves as another indicator of how much ECs’ expanded into other areas just over the last dozen years. Figure 14, Average Revenue From Specific Areas, shows that this trend holds true for the smallest firms – revenue from electrical/power distribution is no longer statistically higher for these companies than for their larger counterparts.

Looking at our total sample, CII projects represent a larger portion of total revenue than either residential or nonbuilding (including transportation/lighting and utility categories) projects, though residential is the top money-maker for firms with 1–4 employees. Continuing a switch seen in the 2014 survey, though, firms with 5–9 employees are no longer following that pattern; as in several other areas, these companies are more like larger organizations in this breakdown of revenue sources. See Figure 15, Average Revenue From Various Building Categories.

Despite the combined importance of CII work, single-family housing remains the single largest revenue source for ECs, at 36.7 percent of the total, across our entire sample, as shown in Figure 16, Average Percentage of Business in Previous Year From Specific Categories. Small firms derive almost half their revenue from single-family projects. Within the CII category, commercial construction is most important, contributing 28.1 percent of revenue, compared to 14.2 percent for industrial and 8.7 percent for institutional. Firms with 10–99 employees are most dependent on commercial construction, while those with 100 or more employees get a disproportionate percentage of their revenue from industrial and institutional projects and utility/nonbuilding work.

Figure 16

Average Percentage of Business in Previous Year From Specific Categories

Single FamilyMultifamily (1-5 Stories)Multifamily (6+ Stories)CommercialIndustrialInstitutionalTotal UtilityTransportation Lighting and CommunicationsLine WorkPower-Generating Plants and SubstationsSmart GridDistributed Generation/Alternative Energy
Figure 17

Percentage of Sales That Included Green/Sustainable Building Elements in Previous Year

Any Revenue From Green or Sustainable BuildingMean Percentage of Revenue
Seeing green in green

As energy codes continue to tighten performance requirements for everything from lamps to fan motors, it’s becoming a bit more difficult to separate out sustainability as a business driver. For example, is a client request for LED lighting intended to boost a facility’s “greenness,” or simply future-proofing, with recognition that LEDs are the direction toward which all lighting technology is heading?

With this caveat in mind, we do continue to ask about the importance of green/sustainable building elements to overall sales. In total, 56.4 percent of respondents reported that at least a portion of their sales fell into this category, accounting for an average of just under 15 percent of revenues. The impact of such products and services grows with firm size, as shown in Figure 17, Percent of Sales That Included Sustainable Building Elements in Previous Year. More than 80 percent of respondents from the largest firms reported at least some sustainability-related revenue.

Figure 18

Courses Taken or Will Take

Course2016 (n=282)2014 (n=414)
Have Taken Training in the Past 12 Months7076
Will Take Training in Next 12 Months7874
Mentioned Any9897
NEC Changes7167
Lighting (Net)5858
Lamp Technology Including LED3933
Lighting Design2631
Automation/Controls (Net)43<52
Home Automation Systems2320
Commercial Automation Systems17<25
Fire/Life Safety Systems23<30
Security Systems13<20
Safety (Electrical/Personal/On-site/Job Site)4247
Green/Sustainable (Net)4039
Alternative Energy Systems2224
Electric Vehicle Charging Stations1413
LEED Certification1212
Energy Use Regulations1112
Community Solar10N/A
Energy Storage98
Green/Sustainable Building/Energy Audits810
Electrical Testing and Maintenance34N/A
Course2016 (n=282)2014 (n=414)
Cabling (Net)3337
Data and Telecom: Cable, Conduit, etc.1923
Data and Telecom: Testing1618
Electrical System Design or BIM2218
Developing New Business Opportunities2117
Estimating/Financial Management1921
Power Quality1921
Increasing Productivity1720
How to Use New Software15N/A
Sound and Video/VDV (Commercial)1113
Systems Integration11<21
Sound and Video/VDV (Residential)1112
Prefab/Off-Site Building10N/A
Line Work88
Collaborative Building (Including Integrated Project Delivery)5N/A
Mentioned 1912
Mentioned 211>7
Mentioned 3 or More7878
Mentioned 6 or More5049
Training plans

Our respondents recognize the need to keep up with new technologies, as more than 70 percent say they or someone in their firm has taken training in the past 12 months or plans to do so in the next 12 months, either to improve their skills or gain or maintain certification. This isn’t a new trend – the percentages remain statistically unchanged from the 2014 survey, as shown in Figure 18, Courses Taken or Will Take.

The leading reason for training isn’t surprising – with the National Fire Protection Association revising its National Electrical Code (NEC) every three years, those updates top the list of topics at 71 percent. Other subjects included:

  • Lighting (58 percent), particularly controls and systems (44 percent)
  • Grounding and bonding (49 percent)
  • Safety (42 percent)
  • Green/sustainable (40 percent), particularly alternative-energy systems (22 percent)
  • Electrical testing and maintenance (34 percent)
  • Cabling (33 percent)

Increased interest also was indicated in several project-delivery and business-development topics, including:

  • Design/build, at 25.4 percent, versus 18.8 percent in 2014
Keep reading

Do you like what you’ve seen so far from our general market coverage? We’ve covered a lot of ground, but we learned much more about electrical contractors and their work than this. Continuing, you will find part 2, which focuses on the kinds of project arrangements ECs see most frequently, such as design/build and more traditional bidding formats, along with the role ECs play in specifying and substituting products. There are some surprising revelations ahead.

Part 2: Spotlight on Collaboration

In Part 2, we focus on how today’s ECs are doing their work, including the kinds of project teams with whom they’re involved, their level of influence and the importance of building information modeling (BIM) and other collaborative processes in their work.

Join the Team

Design/build (DB) and design/assist (DA) project–delivery approaches continue to be a big part of how ECs get work done, according our 2016 survey results. Further, even more respondents reported involvement in any DB or DA work during 2015 (remember that our survey asks about work completed in the prior calendar year). Across the total sample, 73 percent said they had participated in such projects, up from 69 percent in the 2014 study. The uptick was particularly notable in firms with 1–9 employees, with 68 percent reporting any DB or DA work, up from 63 percent two years ago. Firms with 10–plus employees didn’t see a statistically significant increase in this work (86 percent, up from 84 percent in 2014), but the percentage is high enough that there isn’t much room for more significant growth. See Figure 19, Any Design/Build or Design/Assist Work in Previous Year.

Figure 19

Any Design/Build or Design/Assist Work in Previous Year

Total and by number of employees

The (+) indicates significant difference from 2014.

So how does this increased participation in DB and DA work affect ECs’ bottom lines? As shown in Figure 20, Average Percent of Revenue from Projects Involving This Type of Project Delivery, an average of 43 percent of revenue came from such projects, a statistically significant increase from 2014’s 39 percent. As in the past, DB represents the bigger piece of this pie, at 32 percent versus 11 percent for DA. At 49 percent, traditional bid/build is still the most important contributor to total firm revenues.

Figure 20

Average Percentage of Revenue from Projects Involving This Type of Project Delivery


Design/Build or AssistTraditional Bid/Build BasisCollaborative BasisOther Basis

In an interesting twist from 2014’s results, DA and DB represent a significantly higher percentage of revenue for firms with 1–9 employees (especially 5–9 employees) than for larger firms; two years ago, there was no difference. Following a trend first noticed in 2012, however, traditional bid/build remains a higher contributor for larger firms, especially those with 20–99 employees.

As in the past, we also asked about revenue contributed by projects structured on some “other” basis, and the result was a bit of a surprise. Respondents attributed only 6 percent of project revenue to this category, a big drop from the 12 percent two years ago, which could be a result of the new “collaborative” project––delivery category introduced in this year’s survey. This category encompasses such arrangements as integrated project delivery and virtual design and construction. Perhaps not surprisingly, these methods, which can be expensive to implement, are more common with larger firms. Across the total sample, 12 percent say they have done “any” collaborative building work, but this figure grows to 21 percent for firms with 10–19 employees and approximately 32 percent among firms with 20–plus employees.

“We expect the importance of collaborative building to grow in the future among the largest firms and for it to be adopted to a greater extent by smaller firms,” the report notes. Collaborative building is “an area to watch in the years to come.”

Of course, BIM is a base–level enabling technology for any form of collaborative building. As shown in Figure 21, Use of BIM in Current Year, BIM use remains at essentially the same level first noted in 2012, with just more than 22 percent of respondents noting any use for an average of 6 percent of the time. However, this obscures the larger finding that, while BIM usage is low among the smallest firms (those with 1–4 employees), both use and related average revenues jumped significantly as firm size grows to 5–9 employees—in fact, this group mirrors the participation rate of firms with 10–19 employees.

Figure 21

Use of BIM in Current Year

Engineering – a difference

To better understand who is part of an EC’s team, the 2016 survey initiated some questions regarding the professional relationships ECs have with engineers, whether in a consulting relationship or as a staff member or member of a separate engineering division. The thought was this inquiry would lend some insight into the complexity of the work ECs now are doing. As shown in Figure 22, Professional Relationship With Engineers, engineers are, indeed, important to the work of today’s contractors, with 42 percent of firms reporting any such relationship.

Figure 22

Professional Relationship with Engineers

 Number of Employees
Any Professional Relationship4227<4531<78
On Staff/Separate Division158<159<32
Bolded numbers (<) indicate significant differences in the direction of the arrow.

Consulting relationships are more significant—38 percent of firms reported such an arrangement—but a notable 15 percent of firms said they had an engineer on staff or even had a separate engineering division. Also, 11 percent have both consulting and in–house engineering relationships. This setup is more prevalent as firm size grows. However, even small firms see benefit in these relationships, with more than a quarter of companies with 1–4 employees having some sort of ongoing arrangement with an engineer.

In another first, our researchers polled this year’s survey participants on their current level of collaboration with professionals from other building trades, including mechanical; heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC); plumbing; and systems integrators from other trades.

As shown in Figure 23, Current Level of Project Collaboration, there is a lot of teamwork with building owners and other design team professionals on the electrical design, with 74 percent of ECs reporting “high” or “medium” levels of project collaboration with representatives from various trades. In addition, there is cross–trade teamwork most frequently with mechanical and HVAC professionals (55 percent and 52 percent, respectively). More than one–third of respondents reported collaboration with plumbing professionals and integrators from other trades. It is clear that ECs are working with team members from around the building industry.

Figure 23

Current Level of Project Collaboration

 Number of Employees
 Building Owner/Other
Design Team Members
MechanicalHVACPlumbingSystems Integrator
From Other Trades
High or Medium7455523834
Not Applicable1521212933
Don't Know/No Answer34568
Just how important are you?

So, just how influential do today’s ECs see themselves when it comes to their projects’ overall electrical design and specifications? According to our findings, results are similar to what we have seen since the 2010 survey. Almost three–quarters reported having a “high” or “medium” ability to influence design or specification with building owners or design team members. However, firm size can make a difference in this perspective: 42 percent of those in firms with 1–9 employees reported a “high” level of influence, versus 30 percent in firms with 10–plus employees. On the flip side, 17 percent of those in larger firms reported a “low” ability of influence, versus only 6 percent in the smaller firms.

This difference in perceived influence could, perhaps, reflect the kind of work performed by companies of different sizes. For example, a small company’s residential customers may be more likely to lean on an EC’s recommendations. The larger and more complex projects in which bigger firms specialize might also include consulting engineers who are responsible for planning and specification.

Influence also could depend on the building stage in which an EC firm gets involved in a project. This apparently varies widely, as the answer “it depends” garnered the most responses, at 35 percent. “Preconstruction” and “construction” came in second, each at approximately 25 percent. Although 58 percent of the total sample say there’s been no change in when their involvement begins over the last three to five years, some 16 percent reported they now get involved earlier in the design process than they did before.

One would expect ECs to have more influence when they receive incomplete plans and specifications, which remains a common occurrence for our respondents, with 72 percent reporting they received incomplete plans or specs at some point during 2015. On average, 40 percent of plans and specs received were incomplete, which is statistically unchanged from the 43.4 percent reported two years ago.

For the first time this year, we asked which building categories saw the highest level of incompleteness, and, not surprisingly, single–family construction took the prize, with plans and specs becoming more complete as project complexity increases.

What specifiers want

As in previous years, 2016’s investigation into EC purchasing patterns began with a look at the requirements of the specifications they initially receive. We asked respondents to estimate the percentage of initial specifications that fall into each of four categories: single brand or proprietary, multiple brand, “or equal to,” or performance–specified. On average, participants reported a single brand is specified about one–quarter of the time, as shown in Figure 24, Average Percentage of Specifications That Were.

Figure 24

Average Percentage of Specifications That Were...

Single Brand or ProprietaryMultiple Brand“Or Equal To”Performance-Specified

An interesting twist emerged in this year’s finding. In contrast to earlier surveys, there was no statistical difference in how categories ranked based on firm size. However, the “single brand” option jumped significantly this year to 24 percent from 16 percent, among firms with 10–plus employees, although no other selection option, by itself, changed enough to account for the difference. Initial specifications are, by no means, the final word, as ECs said they are able to make brand substitutions about two–thirds of the time.

A range of factors play into brand selection. As shown in Figure 25, Reasons for Original Brand Selection or Substitution, “availability” and “price” beat all other attributes as a reason for original brand selection. “Availability” was the clear winner for the top spot. We first included compatibility with existing systems in the 2014 survey, and this year, it showed up on 32 percent of respondents’ top–three lists, comparable with ease of installation and prior experience and slightly higher than either durability or manufacturer reputation. When it comes to brand substitution, availability and price remain the top two decision factors, with compatibility with existing systems a clear winner for third place, included in the top–three list by 37 percent of respondents.

Figure 25

Top 3 Reasons for Original Brand Selection or Substitution

Original BrandSubstitution

It’s interesting that energy efficiency only showed up on 10–15 percent of respondents’ top–three lists, for both original brand selection and brand substitution. One possible explanation is efficiency benefits take place too long after project completion to play a role in an EC’s selection process. Alternatively, it could be that efficiency is so integral to overall performance that ECs don’t consider it as a separate feature.

That's a wrap

So, in this year’s profile, we saw continued, albeit slow, improvement in the EC market. More ECs are growing or remaining stable; fewer ECs are losing employees. On the whole, ECs with 5–9 employees are beginning to resemble firms with 10+ more than smaller companies (1–4 employees). The average EC age continues to rise. More ECs are engaged in low–voltage and systems work, and it surprised that so many ECs are working on HVAC projects—both in controls and mechanical—and a significant number are even working for water utilities and on wastewater treatment plants. At an increasing frequency, ECs continue to specify lighting products. As EC firms diversify, they rely less on traditional electrical power and distribution work. Green–related projects, such as installing electric–vehicle charging stations and energy storage, have become more important to ECs’ bottom lines, and BIM, perhaps thanks to more affordable technology, is becoming a bigger presence in smaller firms.

Will these trends continue? Quite possibly, and we will let you know for sure in two years when we present the 2018 Profile of the Electrical Contractor.