What words would you use to describe the typical millennial—those born between the years 1981 and 1996? The boomers and Gen Xers haven’t been kind. Lazy, entitled, and pampered are the usual Internet memes. But seriously, in the long history of the world, has any cohort of retirees ever believed in the subsequent generations’ ability to take the reins? The folly of this doubt has been well proven by history, but if you still need some convincing on the resolve of millennials, you should meet Blake Behr, president of Ridgeline Electrical Industries, Greenwood, IN.
Blake entered the electrical trade by ruling out all his other options. After high school, he enrolled at Calvary Chapel Bible College with plans to join the ministry. His first days on campus were ideal, but he began to develop some doubts and, with those, came questions. Curiosity wasn’t considered a beneficial personality trait at Calvary. After a year’s worth of classes, Blake asked himself, “Can I hold onto something that I can’t challenge?” The answer was no. With only 24 credit hours left, he decided it was time to try something else.
Blake enrolled at his local community college to study business and finance. Who doesn’t want to learn about the science and accounting of business? Understand the complexities of financial statements? How to finance debt, make a profit, and deal with taxes? Well, at 20 years old, Blake decided he had zero interest. He left school saying, “Nope, I’m never going to do this.”
So, after leaving divinity school and college behind, and with little understanding of what to do next, he took a part-time job as a youth pastor and married his high school sweetheart. With his wife, Lindsay, expecting their first child, Blake began looking for work. A local roofing contractor had an opening. “How hard could this be?” Blake wondered. As it turned out, it was very hard work. It was that dirty, dangerous, exposed-to-the-elements kind of work. Blake wasn’t about to go back to the ministry or finish a degree in business administration. He enjoyed the trade work—just not roofing. That’s when a member of his church approached him about IEC.
Ed Brown was a friend, a pew-mate, and fortunately for Blake, an IEC student. Ed had broached the subject of electrical work before. Coming off a hot roof one afternoon, Blake gave Ed a call, “I’m looking for a new job.” The following Monday, he began as an apprentice at ATC Electric.
For the first time, Blake felt connected to his work. “I was a math person in high school, and I was finally using it.” His initial experience with IEC training was less fulfilling. “The first year’s instruction wasn’t great. It’s very dependent on the teacher,” he said. The following year was an improvement, but the final year fell a bit short. Still, Blake saw promise in the IEC model; upon graduation, he became a master electrician as well as an IEC instructor.
Working full time at ATC Electric to support his growing family, Blake still found time to grow his teaching skills. But he soon realized that being a great teacher wasn’t enough; he needed to help grow the collective pool of IEC instructors. He convinced his friend Ed Brown to join the cause. The chapter was growing. His family was growing. Blake’s ambition was growing. He left ATC to work as a foreman for a smaller firm with lots of promise. It didn’t take Blake long to realize that promise was more of a dream—a pipe dream to be precise. One month into his new job, he was called in to meet with the owner. On April first—yes, April Fools’ Day—Blake was let go. “Really?” Lindsay asked. She was “very pregnant” at the time. Blake needed to find a new job quickly.
He landed another foreman position at a rival firm. He was all in, and quickly put together a high performing crew. He was feeling good about his new role when he was approached by the president of the general contracting firm he was subcontracting for. “You’ve done great work with this crew, but you know the business you’re working for has issues.” Blake was surprised to learn this, but he confirmed the information through Dan Beyer, his contact at Allied Electrical Supply.
Blake’s family was still growing, and he had reengaged with his local IEC chapter by becoming an instructor; spare time was lacking. But he began contemplating an idea that he’d previously ruled out—starting his own business. Dan called the following week. “If you want to start something on your own, you have credit with us.” With Lindsay’s support, Blake opened Ridgeline Electrical Industries, and from the beginning, he knew what he didn’t want Ridgeline to be. He had worked for business leaders that were driven solely by bottom line numbers. Ridgeline would be driven by culture.
Rolling your eyes right now? Yes, every business leader loves to talk about their culture and how it’s unique. Corporate culture too often culminates into a word salad of mission and vision statements plastered on the conference room wall. But Ridgeline’s culture is different. It wasn’t outsourced to a consultant or downloaded from an HR website. Blake’s passion for developing electricians formed the foundation of the Ridgeline work experience.
Blake explains his philosophy like this: “Culture is alive—like a garden. If you tend the soil, you can have a beautiful bed of plants, but unattended, it will be overtaken by weeds.” Blake realized that all of his previous employers had a culture—including the roofing company—but most were lacking intentionality. That’s certainly not the case at Ridgeline. Everyone is on board, and initiation begins during the hiring process.
“How do you eat a bag of Skittles?” This is one of Blake’s favorite interview questions. “It isn’t expected and there’s no right or wrong answer.” Blake looks for people who can think and react on their feet. Ridgeline conducts interviews in a group setting. Many of Blake’s employees are millennials or Gen Zers who love to participate in the process. One of Blake’s business partners wears a suit to interviews, again, looking for a candidate’s reaction. They use testing to identify personality traits and measure problem solving ability. Discovering talent is one of Ridgeline’s specialties.
Blake approaches experienced candidates with skepticism. Years of experience does not necessarily equate to expertise. “Do they have 10 years of experience and the associated wisdom that would develop in that timeframe? Or do they simply have a single year’s experience 10 times? There’s a difference,” Blake explains. Experience equals exposure and repetition. “We are looking for understanding and an expectation of results.”
This investment in people has paid off. Ridgeline Electrical has grown to 45 employees, and the turnover rate is less than 4 percent. People don’t just work for Ridgeline, they grow there. For some business owners, this success would suffice, but Blake has always focused on scale. He believes that the biggest problem for the industry is developing enough electricians that will stick with the trade and evolve with changes to technology. Thus, Blake developed a plan to export his cultural successes. He headed over to his local IEC chapter, IEC Indy, with a new idea.
The typical IEC apprenticeship program takes four years, with one day of classroom time and four days of hands-on work each week. This follows the “earn while you learn” philosophy, which Blake believes works well for some but not for all. “What if we could teach all the curriculum in one year?” Blake thought. Ridgeline had already developed a boot camp for new apprentices—two weeks of extensive training where apprentices learn 20 percent of the work they will be doing 80 percent of the time. Blake wondered if he could try a similar approach at IEC. He developed a one-year course where apprentices would be in the classroom three and half days per week to develop the hands-on skills and theory required in the field after graduation. This approach doubles the amount of classroom instruction of the four-year program. And unlike the traditional program, apprentices would pay for the training.
There was plenty of skepticism that this method would work, but Blake was able to prove his thesis with real world results. Last year, one of his one-year program apprentices won the local “wire-off” competition. This same candidate went on to the 2022 IEC National Apprentice of the Year competition to win fourth place nationally and first place in the motor controls competition. He was competing against fourth-year apprentices. This program, combined with Blake’s commitment to finding good talent, earned Ridgeline Electrical the IEC National Member of the Year award.
In the third year since the 12-month program has been offered, it has racked up some impressive statistical data. Graduates regularly score in the top 10 percent on the National IEC final exams, and to date, no apprentice has dropped out. Despite this success, Blake continues to see value in the traditional program. “Not all students learn the same way. We need to provide options,” he says. In Blake’s opinion, Gen Z students are more visual learners who benefit from a kinesthetic approach to the curriculum. Blake also believes this new generation will want better technology.
According to Blake, both millennials and Gen Zers expect technology to support their work experience so information can be accessed on demand. How do they access job site work instructions? How do they check their schedule and connect with field leaders? If the answer is “on paper,” you might have trouble recruiting and retaining a younger workforce. In 2021, Blake began collaborating with RIVET Work (www.rivet-work.com), a Detroit-based company scaling a labor management platform for construction contractors, to streamline forecasting, scheduling, and field communication. Blake uses RIVET to assign the right amount of labor based on estimate and forecast, a key solution to evading over- or under-staffing while monitoring costs in real time. Blake’s feedback has helped RIVET fine-tune its feature set for the electrical trade with relevance and specificity. In turn, RIVET provides a valuable tool for Ridgeline’s nimble workforce.
In the five years Ridgeline has been in business, Blake and his team have grown the business to employ 45 full-time employees, graduated over 20 IEC trained apprentices, and taught thousands of hours in the classroom. Blake built a culture model for his peers to follow, publishing Uncultured (see sidebar) in 2021, and invested his time and experience into technology that helps move the industry forward. Does Blake’s story represent the drive, creativity, and passion of all millennials? Of course not. Every generation produces those driven to lead and create, and those that follow. But his journey sounds familiar to many in his cohort. Purpose might be the best word to describe Blake. It may also be the change millennials bring to the electrical trade.
In his 2021 book, Uncultured, Blake shares intel from his experiences on efficient and less-than-efficient teams. He explains the importance of tending to culture and how to create, fix, build, and maintain a successful team. Blake’s methods on hiring and retention have earned his business a brag-worthy employee retention rate with minimal turnover in an industry where retention traditionally has been a challenge to business owners.