Sunday March 31, 2013

When Jack Blume of Sheffield talks about his 50-year career working as an electrical contractor throughout the Northeast, including 10 years teaching those who are training for the field, there are hundreds of stories to tell.

John LePrevost is managing those stories too, and 22 employees every day, as electrical contractor and partner with his brother Scott, of Henry’s Electric in Lee.

Chance was one man’s way into the career, family ties the other.

"Henry was my grandfather. It was he and my father and one other electrician," says John LePrevost about the start of his business in 1946.

Before entering the family business LePrevost enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he worked on F-15 fighter jet electronic systems. He was stationed around the world, including New Mexico and Okinawa, where a generation earlier his father had also worked on fighter jets. He then went to study at the State University of New York at Delhi, where he earned an associate degree in electrical technology.

All five of the LePrevost brothers went to SUNY Delhi, three of whom are electricians.

"Every school is different," says LePrevost, about the approach to training, but the outcome is the same: A required 8,000 hours of practical work with a licensed electrician -- the apprenticeship -- and 600 hours of classroom study, and then a state licensure test at the end.

Those who wish to stay in the Berkshires to study can enroll in a night program at Mount Everett High School in Sheffield, which Blume runs; study at Taconic High School in Pittsfield, via the Adult Learning Center; take the high school program at McCann Technical School in North Adams; study at a private technical school, the nearest of which is in the Pioneer Valley, or sign up with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 7, located in Springfield. The union program requires an entry test.

The apprenticeship takes about four years, LePrevost says. Vinnie Szymanski, executive director of the Adult Basic Education Program, which runs the program at Taconic, says those just starting their training sometimes have to work to find apprenticeships.

From the day of the elder LePrevosts’ startup until 2008, several local mills were running full speed and some of the electricians’ work was inside them, often related to the installation of a new piece of machinery. Manufacturing companies throughout the county hired electricians; now most have electricians in house, he says.

"We have about 60 percent residential and the rest commercial," says LePrevost.

Their commercial work includes Guido’s Marketplace, Lee Bank, and area schools.

Henry’s employs five electricians, five apprentices, and John and Scott, in the electrical contracting side of the business. Its appliance sales, with its Main Street presence, an offshoot of the early television sales and service, still nicely complements the electrical contracting work, he says.

Computer changed things

"The computer age has made the job more office oriented," says LePrevost.

Permitting is done online, and he says that actually lengthens turn around time. With the electrical work itself, there is much more interfacing with smartphones and smart houses, such as lighting and furnaces that communicate via apps to smartphones.

"Guys often have their laptops at the job sites."

New home building is slack, says LePrevost, with renovations and restorations the bulk of the current residential work. Other projects, such as lighting and cabling schools, and other data oriented projects, fill in some of the gaps.

"It will never go back to the second-home boom," says Blume, but he is still a bull on this occupation.

Teaching apprentices

He has been teaching apprentices for 10 years at night at Mount Everett, where 16 students are currently training to become electricians.

"I teach them how to use the code book," a thick bible that "would knock you out if you didn’t know anything about it," he says.

"Every three years the code changes; every three years you have to buy a new code book, which costs about $100."

That plus $350 to $400 annually for the course is the cost of the training there.

The 8,000 apprenticeship hours and 600 classroom hours bring the student to the journeyman level, ready to take that state licensure test. After a year of working as a journeyman, an electrician can go for the master electrician license, which includes an additional 150 hours of classroom work, says Blume.

Journeyman can hire an apprentice, but cannot hire other electricians, whereas a master can.

Was in Air Force

Blume was also in the Air Force, working on teletype maintenance, stationed in England, and then in Korea, during that war. He was 16 when he enlisted: "I lied about my age."

Originally from Boston, he worked as general foreman for the union there, on projects like the Prudential Building and Government Center construction.

"It’s heavy duty work. I used to love that kind of work."

His job required travel throughout the Northeast, setting up crews and supervising. I had a young family; I was on the road all of the time."

While living in Canton with his wife and sons, he came to Great Barrington to work on the Kmart Plaza construction 37 years ago. He liked the area, as did his wife, and so they decided to move. His children quickly adjusted.

"A couple of kids showed up on horseback; then in the winter a few showed up with snowmobiles. They were Berkshirites from that point on."

Now Blume is the patriarch in an electrical-contracting family, with two sons having businesses in the area, and two grandson electricians too, one working in Northern California and the other Southern California.

"I trained them both," he said.

Blume recently slowed his own business down, and started the program at Mount Everett because he thought South County needed one.

"There is lots of calculation, a lot of math to it. I tell them, ‘This is the stuff you went to sleep on and said I’ll never need.’ The formulas are algebraic. They spend a lot of time on the formulas."

He explains that in a new house, an architect may be the one who lays out the electrical plan, or it may be an engineer or the electrician. In any event, the electrician has to double check and implement the plans. Oftentimes, the electrician and homeowner work together, and the electrician adds the features that the client wants, according to what the code requires.

Have mechanical aptitude

An electrician should be able to "pay attention to details, listen, and have mechanical aptitude," says LePrevost. "And there is definitely math involved."

Now young people seem less mechanically ready, Blume and LePrevost agree. When the local high schools had more vocational programs, and Lee had its house-building program, students would start their electrician training with the ability to handle tools.

"There is a huge void in the workplace, says LePrevost. Every year more and more students graduate without these skills, including how to use a ladder, or simply how to be safe.

The occupation got a boost when the state required that photovoltaic installations require a licensed electrician. That state rule has been challenged in the courts, says IBEW Training Director Mark Kuenzel, but he feels it will stand.

The union electricians do not have much residential work, explains Kuenzel, and both LePrevost and Blume say there isn’t much union presence in the Berkshires.

Union finds work

Belonging to the union, which includes training and working under its auspices, gives electricians pension and health insurance, says Kuenzel, and the union negotiates pay and finds the work.

Union rates are often higher than nonunion rates. However, most of the union contracts are with bigger commercial and industrial projects, which are not as common in this area. Some nonunion electricians stress the benefit of being able to go out and find their own work, rather than putting their name on a list, waiting to be called.

"Bending pipe and pulling wire is an art," Blume says, but the science part and the knowledge of electrical theory helps keep him and the building’s occupants safe.

To light a house or a store, power a factory machine or a high-rise building’s systems, connect data systems, or even light a film (the gaffer), the electrician applies concepts and follows legal regulations.

Can intimidate

He says electricity can intimidate new apprentices. He remembers one young man who walked off the job forever because the power of electricity scared him, and for good reason: It had welded his screwdriver to a meter socket. Blume is enthusiastic about the field.

"I tried to convince my grandchildren, with a license, you can go anywhere in the country and work," he said.