- Associated Press - Saturday, June 3, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Bill Lindberg grew up with stories of his namesake, grandpa William Lindberg, doing his best to lead the family electrical company through the Great Depression.

Hauling large coils of wire and pipe onto a streetcar to get from downtown St. Paul to a project site in University Avenue’s Midway neighborhood - it’s a treasured keepsake of a tale, but not the kind of family lore that helps recruit talented young college graduates, the Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/2rb6GjC ) reported.

At 27, Bill’s son, Matt Lindberg, knows what workers his age think of electricians and electrical companies, because he thinks it too. Few milliennials dream of surrounding themselves with set-in-their-ways middle-aged men yanking on wiring. Yet such infrastructure is essential, even in today’s wireless society.

“Historically, it’s a really stagnant industry,” said Matt, whose storied great-grandfather launched St. Paul-based Peoples Electric Co. in 1922.

Matt knows he can’t budge the industry or its reputation overnight, but as a fourth-generation electrician and company executive, he’s doing what he can to bring it into the future.

Matt, who also has become active in the National Electrical Contractors Association, recently suggested that Peoples Electric upgrade its vehicle fleet to partially electric-powered hybrid cars. The company purchased nine of them in October.

“To me, it just makes sense,” said Matt, who was recently promoted from company payroll administrator to vice president. “We’re an electrical company. And there’s nothing wrong with being more green.”

While Peoples Electric has long focused on wiring street lights, traffic signals, print shops and industrial projects, he’s happy to hear that the company president - his father - is eager to focus more and more on the internal wiring for wireless devices that can communicate with each other - the so-called “Internet of things.” Bill sees it as “the center of the piece of our industry that we’re really trying to grow.”

“I get excited about it,” said Matt, before a brief tour of the company’s work floor in an industrial corner of Fillmore Avenue on St. Paul’s West Side. “The ultimate vision, or goal, of buildings for the future is to have an app on your phone or touch screen on your wall and be able to control lights, window shades, temperature. I could be in the office and maybe change the color of my lights, or turn the brightness down.”

He’s eager to recruit and retain millennial employees. When the company’s sole female electrician, Lisa Schwarz, was reaching 30 years of age - and years of working in the field, carrying heavy pipe and pulling wire started wearing on her - Matt found a way to keep her on staff, namely by promoting her. “I knew she was a hard worker,” said Matt, who was still an electrical apprentice when Schwarz graduated to journeyman. Partly at his suggestion, she now handles much of the company’s pricing estimates and contacts with vendors, essential office tasks.

Both he and Schwarz say that while many millennials see a college degree as an essential mark of adulthood, working in the building trades suits also works. Given the retirement wave hitting the industry, the Lindbergs say it’s just a matter of time before they and other trades employers face labor shortages, so the industry needs to put on a positive face to recruit younger workers. Peoples Electric employs 130 workers at peak construction season.

“The field is stagnant because so many people are pushing ‘you have to go to a four-year college and wind up in a lot of debt to get anywhere,’ ” said Schwarz, 31, who is happy to be gainfully employed with one year of formal college instruction on her résumé. “I do miss working out in the field. It’s good to have the knowledge.”

Matt, who obtained an electrical degree at Dunwoody College in Minneapolis, notes that union electricians qualify for defined-benefit pensions, family health care plans, paid vacations and other benefits. An apprentice might earn $16 an hour to start, and a post-apprentice journeyman might earn $25 to $28. Electricians can make $36 to $40, depending upon their certifications and specialty. The company is constantly on the lookout for communications installer-trainees eager to learn how to wire security systems, fire alarms and video cameras.

“When I was in high school, the only type of recruitment going on was ‘go get your degree at a four-year school,’ ” Matt said. “Going into the trades was never an option, and becoming an electrician is a good living. It’s a good opportunity for a lot of people that doesn’t get enough exposure.”

Over the past century, Peoples Electric has wired United Hospital, the old Miller Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital, the old St. Paul civic center and, most recently, the highway lights and traffic signals along the Cayuga Street interchange project off Interstate 35E. “We followed Northwest Airlines around the country for a while, doing work at just about every airport,” said Bill Lindberg, who followed his father Neal Lindberg into the industry.

Beginning in 1979, as newspapers began major color expansions, Peoples Electric wired the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain’s print shops around the country, including production plants belonging to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Bradenton Herald in Florida, the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel, the Allentown Morning Call in Pennsylvania and the Denver Post. Peoples Electric also contributed to a lesser degree to plant expansions at the Chicago Sun Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Matt said the industry began changing 5 to 10 years ago, in part in reaction to compressed construction timelines. Spools of electrical wiring that years ago might have been trucked out to a construction site are now rolled together at the company’s Fillmore Avenue production site. The single spool, or “speed pull,” allows workers to wire a traffic light or a corner of a commercial building in much less time, while avoiding hiccups in the field, like misplaced wiring.

“If you run into any problems on site, it’s disastrous for your schedule,” he said. The movement toward prefabrication, assembled in-house and then shipped to the client, is likely to grow.


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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