Workforce Development Spotlight: State Programs Bolster Recruitment and Retention

You might say Ken Kettner was born into the electrical contracting business. He started working in his dad’s union shop when he was only 14. He began the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) apprenticeship program, left that to go to college, and left college to return to the company when his dad’s partner wanted to retire.  

Ken learned many things along the way about how he wanted to do business for himself, his employees, his customers, and his local Florida community. Ken put his ideas to the test when he started Electrical Consulting Services, Inc. (ECSI), in West Palm Beach, FL, in 1990. 

“When I opened the new company as a non-union business, at first I did only consulting and design work,” he says. “Then, Hurricane Andrew put me back into the electrical contracting business. Builders had tremendous amounts of work to be done, so we started contracting.” 

Ken says ECSI is strictly commercial with a specialty niche of automotive facilities and car dealerships. He estimates he’s done the electrical for about 80 percent of the car dealers in south Florida, including taking care of new needs for electrical vehicle charging. 

“We do quite a bit of hospitality as well,” Ken adds. “We always have one or two hotels in our book of business.” 

ECSI has just under 100 employees and currently has 17 apprentices in the IEC program. They work a broad area stretching from about 80 miles north of their base in West Palm Beach to South Miami about 110 miles south. 

The Art and Science of Recruiting  

Ken is a believer in making an effort to identify and groom potential ECSI workers before they get into apprentice programs. He cites a key factor available in Florida that helps him to accomplish this. 

“Most community colleges in South Florida run postsecondary vocational education programs, and they have electrical classes,” he notes. “The community college closest to us turns out about 25 electrical workers every six months. These guys have spent a full year in class but have yet to have on the job training.” 

Ken says he goes to talk with those classes at least every three months and teaches classes as well, as do several other contractor members from the IEC Florida East Coast Chapter. 

“I preach and teach about the industry in general, but while there I also try to figure out who is at the top of the class and then focus on trying to recruit them,” he says. “Last year was the first time the college allowed us to actually do a work-based learning where we brought students to work with us at different jobs for a week. It was a huge undertaking!” 

 While this method of recruiting takes considerable time and effort, Ken says it’s been the company’s best means of identifying and attracting quality employees to ECSI. 

 “They’ve spent a year in classes, and some time with us. We now know they’re committed to the trade when we interview them to work at ECSI,” Ken says. “We won’t sponsor anyone for the IEC Apprenticeship Program until they’ve been at ECSI for at least six months.” 

 Other recruitment efforts include word of mouth and offering bonuses to existing employees who bring in electrician friends they know who want to join the company. 

 “They are great ambassadors and promoters of our way of doing things and finding people who want ‘to live the right life’ as we call it,” Ken jokes. 

Retention Strategies Go Hand in Hand 

Ken builds an effective retention strategy on the heels of another state-based recruitment opportunity, CareerSource Florida. CareerSource offers funding to the company sponsoring potential electricians in an apprentice program. Ken holds these dollars available through the program in reserve and then returns them — over time — to the employee as an incentive to stay with ECSI. 

 “It’s really a no brainer,” Ken says. “Instead of using those funds for a gain to us, we tell the applicant if they qualify for the CareerSource program, we’ll give that money back to them. We give a third of it to them at the end of the first year of IEC apprenticeship, another third at the start of third year, and the final third upon graduation.” 

 Ken feels this incentive keeps good people with ECSI through the tough initial time of learning the trade while showing them there is a path to greater success. It also allows them to see why his company is a good place for them to advance in their careers if they put in the time to deal with the beginning stages. He is proud of his company’s retention and says 62 percent of his people have been with the company 10 years or longer. 

 “Retention starts at apprenticeship,” Ken believes. “Typically, by the time they’re out of the fourth year, they really are meaningful employees for us.” 

 And, ECSI invests in making that so. They host apprenticeship breakfasts every six months in a hotel setting without foremen where open conversation is encouraged.  

 “If there is a problem with a foreman, we want the apprentices to talk about it,” Ken says. “If there is a job and they did something cool, we want them to talk about that. We want to create an environment of sharing the good, bad, and different and show these apprentices they are a big part of the team. If an apprentice doesn’t like how something was done, we encourage them to tell us what they might have done differently for a better outcome.” 

 Additionally, ECSI offers employees regular training on trade-related subjects at company expense and with pay incentives as appropriate. They offer a one time per year “need help” assistance loan where employees can borrow up to $750 with no fee that is paid back over a 10-week payroll deduction. They plan company-wide events every six months and occasional special events, like a recent cruise for the management team. 

 “We want to make ECSI a good place to be,” Ken says. “We try to offer superior wages, superior benefits, superior perks. I think that’s key to retention especially in this market.” 

 Ken points to inflation being so out of control in south Florida and that housing costs for his people have increased dramatically. He’s been adjusting wages probably every three months over the last year and a half so that his people don’t feel like they have to move away to be able to afford housing. ECSI also pays travel and time expenses if employees need to work outside their local market. 

 A new program, which he feels will help his business thrive as well as help with retention, is the institution of an emerging leaders program modeled after the IEC Emerging Leaders Program. [Editor’s Note: see March / April Insights cover story on Elizabeth McGoldrick, an ECSI employee and 2022 IEC Emerging Leader.] 

 “We’re in the baby steps of starting the ECSI Emerging Leaders Program,” Ken says. “We’ve identified eight participants and have held three meetings to date. These are apprentices already working in lead positions because they’re above average in intelligence and aptitude. They are superior performers and have the right stuff to come up through the ranks quicker than others.” 

 They are receiving additional teaching and coaching on what it’s like to become a foreman, or an estimator, or a project manager. The goal, says Ken, is to show them their career possibilities and help them get there. 

 “It’s wonderful to see somebody coming to the trade and playing a part in helping them to succeed,” Ken says. “I like to think that maybe I was a little bit of an influence on why they had the skills to do so. Honestly, for probably the last 10 or 12 years, the most rewarding part of my job has been that nurturing and giving back to the industry that has served me and my family so well.”