TAMPA — The first Ideal Electrical National Championship had few enough competitors that it was held in a bracket format, like the NCAA basketball tournament.
When the 2022 edition was held in early November, it was at the Tampa Convention Center and included more than 140 pros and apprentices, split into two groups each in the first round to accommodate them all.
Some of the pros were veterans, having competed in all six live competitions and the virtual version during the Covid-19 year in 2020.
And then there were first-timers. Lots of them.
All, including the eventual champion, saw an evolution. A big television production for CBS Sports Network (airing Friday, Dec. 9, at 8 p.m. EST). Cash and prizes that have grown to $600,000 overall. A woman advancing to the final round of the apprentice competition for the first time. And challenges that have expanded into renewable energy.
But there are things that haven’t changed, and organizers hope won’t ever: The welcoming nature of the competitors, and the support for careers in the trades in what has become the Elite Trades Championship series and expanded to competitions for HVAC (to be broadcast Dec. 16) and Auto Tech (Dec. 23).
That big-time environment is what hooked Tom Kennedy, a second-year competitor in the Pro competition and a full-time apprenticeship instructor at Pieper Electric.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I'm hooked. I got hooked last year when I showed up the first time.
“You watch a football game, and you may have played football, but you can't relate to an NFL game unless you've been there. This is the kind of thing where, you know these guys do the same thing you do, and you can relate.
“It's like being an NFL player (in the trades).”
The $60,000 first prize isn’t bad either.
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Lobbying for help
Defending champion Anthony Kovalchick has been to every Ideal Electrician National Championship since its inception in 2016. He has seen the competition grow and change over time.
“It's a lot more mainstream,” he said. “I'm loving how it's more focused toward getting more people in the trades, because everyone knows there's not enough of the trades.”
As a former winner, he has taken on a new role: Mentor.
“I go up and I encourage the other competitors, especially the apprentices,” he said. “You give them tips just to try to calm them down, because if it's their first time here, their nerves are just all over the place.”
With 65% of the expanded field in Tampa newcomers to the Nationals, there were a lot of nerves to be found. The approachability of former winners such as Kovalchick, three-time champion Greg Anliker and Roman Ryszewski helped ease them. But there was a good deal of recognition, pointing and whispering in the hotel lobby beforehand.
Kovalchick, who had never gotten to the second round in five tries before winning in Nashville in 2021, was a target of that attention.
“Yeah, that's weird,” Kovalchick said. “I'm not used to that yet. But they come up and say, ‘Oh man, you won.’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, but it took me five years. So it's anybody's ballgame. You just focus on one task at a time.”
That includes the task of promoting the trades, at the competition and beyond.
“We are starving in the trade world, especially back home,” Lance Giesbrecht, who owns ELG Electric in Goderich, Ontario, Canada, said. “We're starving for people. Our nuclear power plants can't get people half the time.
“I'm hopeful that something like this and the expansion to HVAC, it'll really help. Everybody's got to do their part.”
Women get another role model
Just the presence of Emma Becker at the Ideal Electrical National Championship, Kennedy said, could have an impact. The fact that she qualified for the apprentice final, the first woman to do so, expanded that impact.
“That's something that's hard to get, women and minorities into the trades,” Kennedy said. “And the recruiting processes, the high schools need to go and find them, because the thought is, ‘that's a man's job.’ And that's not the case, women can do it just as good as the men.”
How did Becker, who works for a one-person shop with two apprentices in Gaylord, Minn., get past that outdated stereotype? The usual way, she said.
“My honest answer is money,” Becker said. “I was just looking for a career and this one seemed to pay well and it was good work. But after I started doing it for a while, I fell in love with it.”
She also became very talented, very quickly. In the industry for two years, Becker has twice qualified for the Electrician National Championship.
Showing more women participating in the trades, in advertising and otherwise, could bring more women to the trades, she said.
“To get more women into the trades, I would just advertise it more,” she said. “Show them more women doing trades, and that this is something you can do and you can look cute doing it.”
Raising awareness of the trades
Kristian Desjardins had never been to the Ideal Electrician National Championship before. He teaches at Ocean County Vocational Technical School in New Jersey, and his students, he said, watched videos of previous competitions.
“It's nothing like when you get here,” he said. “It's really cool what they put together. It's really a neat setup, and it's challenging. That last 40 minutes, I'm sweating. I need a pool. I can't get any wetter, so I got to jump in just like this.”
He wants more students to jump into the trades, too.
“I love the electrical trade,” he said. “My family, we're blessed to have the electrical trade, so I want to pass that down to as many people as we can, and get more of these young people in here doing it.”
Seeing an environment like the one in Tampa, he said, can only help promote the trades.
“It's nuts,” he said. “It's really a crazy experience to be here. I didn't expect it to be this big. The bleachers, people cheering on. I mean, it's really, really neat. I made my goal. I wanted to get to the second round, I got to the second round. I'm stoked.
“Everything else is gravy.”
The communications before the competition included mentions of renewable energy, so there was chatter among the competitors about what that might mean. The consensus? Must be solar.
That consensus turned out to be correct: The Five-competitor final round for the Pros turned out to be installing and wiring a solar panel, with work to be done both on the roof and on ground level.
With aggregate scoring that included all rounds of the competition, there would be room for error, but not much. And the competition?
When the 30 semifinalists were cut to five for the final, Kovalchick, the defending champion, advanced. So did Anliker. Kennedy, in his second year in the competition, joined Josh Tower and Albert Nadeau to fill out the field.
In 2021 in Nashville, Kovalchick was excited to see the final task, a generator installation, because he had experience with the task.
But solar? Essentially new to all the competitors.
Kennedy had done some work with solar, but not a lot.
“I’ve got solar at my house, so I had a little bit of experience with it,” he said. “I don't do it all the time, but I've done a project here, project there kind of thing.”
That turned out to be enough. Kennedy outperformed the field and took home $60,000 for first place. Anliker finished second, and Tower third.
Among the apprentices, Jordan Finfrock won a separate competition with different tasks to take home $40,000. Elliott Phillips finished second, and Luis Sanchez third.
Pro Seth Agnew and Apprentice Justin Frick shared $10,000 for winning a team competition.
How big could this get?
Giesbrecht, who advanced to the semifinals, said the Ideal Electrician National Championship still has room to grow.
“We literally call it the Olympics of electrical because every year it gets bigger and bigger, more in-depth,” he said. “It's amazing how much you can action-pack from a job site into an hour.”
Anliker compares it to something else.
“It's like a family reunion in some ways,” Anliker said. “I know the competitors, I know the competitors' wives, I know their kids at this point. So it's super cool.”
There were 35,000 entries in 2022, cut down to the attendees in Tampa. They included every student in Kennedy’s vocational school classes. But could the competition get bigger?
Anliker said he’d like to see 40,000 attempt to qualify in 2023, when the competition returns to Tampa, but that 50,000 should not be out of the question.
Giesbrecht said he could foresee 100 journeymen and 100 apprentices in a future competition, if the venue would accommodate that many. Or regional competitions ahead of the nationals.
“The number of people who are doing it is growing, the qualifiers, which is amazing,” he said. “Now we're two full days. Maybe we're three full days next year, or the year after.”
Kennedy agreed, because of what he sees at the competition and how many people should want to be a part of it. And that can only benefit the industry, he said.
“It's amazing this group of people came together,” Kennedy said. “It's just a great group of guys competing and doing what they do best.
“The bigger it gets, the more they'll attract people into the trades.”