Fighting to Keep IBEW Electricians on the Cutting Edge

A Conversation with Bernie Kotlier, head of Sustainable Energy Solutions for the California Statewide Labor Management Cooperation Committee.

It’s Bernie Kotlier’s job to keep an eye today on the jobs of tomorrow. As the Executive Director for Sustainable Energy Solutions for the joint Labor Management Cooperation Committee (LMCC), he not only bridges the gap between contractors and labor to create new work opportunities for IBEW members — he makes sure they have the skills to fill those jobs.

The statewide LMCC was formed via a partnership between IBEW and the California chapters of the National Association of Electrical Contractors. There are 15 chapters of the LMCC across California alone.

CSAEW spoke with Kotlier about his work on behalf of all California IBEW members:

What is the mandate of the joint labor management committee?

Our mission is to work with both labor and management to get more work for the organized electrical contracting industry in California. We develop training and education for IBEW and NECA members and aid in advocacy with state or local agencies. When I say advocacy, that may take the form of being involved in advisory boards, commissions, and workshops. We have a seat at the table.

We say in labor, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” What would you say to members of IBEW 11 about what you and the LMCC do to help them get jobs?

We use a number of tools to create more projects for the contractors and more work hours for the members.

How do you do that?

We look down the road, and we say, “What are the next big things coming in electrical energy? What are the technologies that are just beginning now and are likely to be much bigger in the future? How do we prepare our electricians and our contractors to be the most successful in these new technologies?”

The industry is changing very quickly. For instance, with sustainability, if we hadn’t seen that coming would we have missed the boat?

Absolutely. The main reason that our statewide LMCC trustees want us to spend a lot of time on new technologies in sustainable energy is that the trustees are visionaries. They understand that the whole energy industry is changing rapidly. It’s going through a transformation that is probably more significant than anything that’s happened for decades. That transition is all about new technologies and decarbonization.

There’s been technological progress going on in the electrical industry since electricity was first used, but I think the big transformations started in the 1970s with telecommunications[JI1] . Solar was the next big transformative technology in the industry. It’s continued with energy efficiency, building automation, energy storage, and microgrids, as well as electric vehicles and the infrastructure to charge them.

All these things have become important over the last 25 to 30 years. They have caused a lot of upheaval in the industry. Most of those major changes are related to safe, sustainable energy, decarbonization and fighting climate change.

What’s the difference between sustainability and renewables? And why is it important to differentiate between the two?

The reason my organization is called Sustainable Energy Solutions and not Renewable Energy Solutions is because the renewables field is narrower. It does not include saving energy or energy efficiency, and the state has a policy that we do energy efficiency before we do renewable generation.

The least expensive and the least damaging watt that you can create is one that you’ve saved as opposed to one being produced. We talk about building automation, which includes advanced lighting controls, daylight harvesting, and efficient motors.

Even though solar and wind are certainly preferable to generating with fossil fuels, you still have to build that equipment. You still have to build those panels; you still have to build those wind turbines. That requires energy, and that creates CO2. When you save a watt, it doesn’t create any CO2.

Are you always searching for the next big thing and then determining what necessary training and education is required?

Training and education is just one tool in the toolbox. At the same time, we are doing advocacy, business development, and networking. We’re sitting on panels, and we’re helping contractors develop projects. It’s a big toolkit.

I don’t think laborers or painters are experiencing nearly the amount of technological upheaval that’s going on in the electrical industry. Do other classifications in the construction industry change as much as electrical?

Changes in energy policy have been very favorable to the electrical industry, because decarbonization, for the most part, is electrification. Whether it’s solar, wind, electric vehicles, building energy efficiency, or building automation, every one of them equates to more electrical work.

Along with these new technologies, there’s been a lot of efforts to de-skill the trade. Every single one of these technologies has come along with people who don’t know what they’re doing[JI2]  and want to put in a narrowly trained or poorly trained “technician” to do an electrician’s work.

That’s why it’s important to have a seat at the table, on boards, commissions, advisory boards and in workshops. It’s a way to make sure that governmental bodies and other organizations understand the importance of having state-certified general electricians doing this work.