Amid electrician shortage, Detroit union has long waiting list

As the country embarks on electrifying homes, cars, buildings and industry in the face of climate change, experts are raising alarm over a shortage of electricians to do the work. 

But in Detroit, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58 has a pipeline going untapped: A waitlist of nearly 1,000 people and not enough contracts for work. 

“We are ready to tackle this work,” said Byron Osbern, a business agent for the Detroit-based electrical workers union, adding the local is getting one or two jobs a day, but it is ready for much more. “This isn’t something new to us. We’ve been there.”

The union, Osbern said, has trained electricians on installing electric vehicle charging stations for more than a decade, and has been waiting for the infrastructure, companies, and the government to catch up. It has 5,000 members trained in solar installation and battery storage, with a list of another 800 people waiting to be trained. But the amount of people accepted into the apprenticeship program each year depends on requests from developers, said Osbern, and there aren’t enough yet. 

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has directed millions toward installing 100,000 electric vehicle chargers to support two million electric vehicles by 2030, and the state is expected to receive millions more in federal funding. At the same time, the big three automakers in Detroit – General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis – have vowed to make 50% of vehicle sales electric by 2030 and a coalition of Black Detroiters are leading the way for the nation in electric vehicle infrastructure. 

Projections suggest a complete transition to electric vehicles in the United States would result in 30% more electricity usage each year; the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects tens of thousands of electrician openings in the next decade.

But last year, Local 58 accepted just 80 of the hundreds of people on its apprenticeship program waiting list. 

“The investment in Detroit is not as high for electric vehicles,” noted Art Wheaton, a union expert and director of labor studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Other parts of Michigan and states that are less heavily unionized are getting more EV work, Wheaton said, because some automotive companies are anti-union. Take Tesla, the biggest EV company, which is “notoriously anti-union,” Wheaton said. Tesla has faced charges for unfair labor practices and in 2018, a judge ruled that a tweet from CEO Elon Musk was illegal, which claimed that employees could lose stock options if they unionized. 

Osbern worries that the IBEW union will be skipped over with the impending electric vehicle infrastructure expansion in Detroit, bringing up a recent example when the developers of the Godfrey Hotel, located less than a mile from the Local 58 union hall, hired other non-union electricians. The developers said the cost to hire union workers for the project – a $1.5 million dollar difference – was more than what they wanted to pay. 

With Local 58, apprentices start at $21.83 per hour and make $36.39 per hour at the end of their training. As trained electricians, they can earn more than $66,000 per year and receive a number of benefits, including insurance and a pension plan. 

There are federal incentives that could help address the issue, like the Inflation Reduction Act, which ties hundreds of billions in tax incentives to labor standards that unions could benefit from. Projects that pay workers a prevailing wage, a federal rate set by the government, and have a portion of their work done by apprentices, qualify for a 30% tax credit versus 6%, without it. 

With federal funding and incentives, Osbern hopes the union will get more work in addition to the few contracts the chapter has signed for EVs already. The union could not provide racial demographics for its membership, but of its nearly 5,000 members in southeast Michigan trained in electrical work, approximately 200 to 300 are Detroiters. 

In August, IBEW Local 58 signed an agreement with Vehya, an electric vehicle startup in Detroit, to provide the workforce for installing and servicing electric vehicle charging stations. (from left) IBEW Local 58 business agents Byron Osbern and Andre Crooks, Local 58 business manager Paul VanOss, and Veyah co-founder William McCoy. (Courtesy photo)

In August, the union signed an agreement with Vehya, an electric vehicle startup in Detroit, to install and service electric vehicle charging stations. 

“We chose IBEW as a partner because they have an organization with many electricians certified in EVITP (the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program),” said William McCoy, co-founder of Vehya. 

EVITP is a certificate required for contractors interested in being hired by the state of Michigan for electric vehicle work. By summer, Local 58 hopes to double the number of its electricians trained in EVITP, said Andre Crook, a business representative for Local 58. Right now, a little more than 300 are trained, he said. 

Local 58 is also finalizing a contract with Walker-Miller Energy Services, which, along with several other Detroit groups, including Vehya, formed the Blacks in Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Trade Association (BEVI) last year. 

“We are absolutely planning to work with the union in order to build up the EV infrastructure that’s going to be required for this country,” said Carla Walker-Miller, founder of Walker-Miller Energy.

“We need to develop an exponential number of qualified electricians,” she said, “there’s an absolute dearth that is going to present a barrier to the growth of electrification and fighting climate change.” 

BEVI, Walker-Miller said, supports customers choosing whether they want to contract with union labor. 

On the state level, the political tide has been shifting back in favor of unions due to more Democratic representation in the Legislature. 

In 2021, Whitmer reinstated Michigan’s prevailing wage on state funded construction projects that go through the state’s Department of Management, Technology and Budget, requiring employers to pay at least as much as unions would.  

Additionally, during the first week of legislative session this year, Michigan Democrats proposed to repeal Right-to-Work, a law that allows employees at union-represented companies to reap the benefits of a union, without paying into it. Feelings about the law are mixed, but since it passed in 2013, union representation dropped from 16.3% to 13.3% in Michigan, more than the national average during the same time period. 

But Wheaton said that the historical lack of right-to-work in Michigan and the likelihood it could be repealed might be part of the reason why the state is not getting as much EV development. 

“Detroit is more heavily unionized so a lot of the battery and the investment in EVs have gone to right to work states,” he said. 

State funding for EV projects comes through two programs. Charge Up Michigan is a reimbursement program funded through the Volkswagen State Mitigation Trust. It provides 33.3% of funding for public charging stations enrolled in a utility rebate program, but as a reimbursement program, primarily for the cost of equipment, it does not require a prevailing wage. Projects that go through the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program however, do require a prevailing wage. 

The state is expected to receive $110 million in funding through NEVI. Early this year, the state plans to issue a Request for Proposals for projects under NEVI, said Hugh McDiarmid Jr., a communications manager for the state’s environmental department. 

Local 58 recently installed public EV charging stations at Belle Isle’s nature center, but McDiarmid Jr. said it was a “one-off” project, and not connected to current funding. 

Osbern said he hopes that as the funding trickles down Detroiters know about the opportunity for a good paying job that working with Local 58 provides and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be on the forefront of a major infrastructure shift. 

“The chance is here for you to rebuild your neighborhood with the new infrastructure for the next three or four generations. We don’t want anybody exploited when it comes down to it,” he said.“We want to make sure that this industry is something that lasts and most importantly is powered by Detroit, just like the [internal combustion engine] vehicle.” 

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