With Eyes Wide Open – 2009 International President Richard Owen

Three hefty challenges face IAEI in its eighty-first year. First, and perhaps the most troubling of the three, is the weakening position of the electrical inspector. Second, and closely tied to the first, is the difficulty in retaining members. Third, obviously a result of the first two challenges is the need to increase dues in an economically unstable time. Incumbent president Richard Owen clearly understands these issues from his long connection with both the industry and the association. Laying aside any rose-tinted glasses, he looks at the industry and IAEI with eyes wide open.

“I am taking over as president of IAEI at a difficult time. The inspector who inspects only electrical is becoming more and more of a minority as jurisdictions try to find ways to save money by hiring “multi-hat” inspectors, who inspect other parts of construction besides the electrical. As radical a concept as this might be, we need to get more of these multi-hat inspectors involved in IAEI. Even though they inspect more than just electrical, we, as the premiere organization for educating electrical inspectors, have the information these people need to know to ensure the safety of an electrical installation. I’m not suggesting we ignore the single-discipline electrical inspectors; nevertheless, these people (including me) are really getting to be the minority,” he observes.

“Membership is another real concern for the organization and will continue to be a concern for many years,” he continues. “Remember ‘30,000 in 2000’? This was the membership slogan in the late 1990s and it never came true. Right now, our membership hovers around 18,000 members, and we have the continuing problem of people joining for a year and then going “out the back door” by not renewing their membership. These new members need to be encouraged to participate at the section/chapter/division level, and they need to be encouraged to renew their membership.

“This can’t be done at the international (IO) level; it needs to be done by the local IAEI people—either the membership chair or the secretary of the chapter or division. I know it’s more work for a secretary or membership chair, who is usually serving without pay (and thanks!), but a new member needs to be welcomed at the local level first, usually, before they are comfortable participating at the section or IO level. As a chapter secretary/treasurer for eighteen years, I struggled with these same issues, and the answers are not easily found!” Owen states emphatically. “It involves some work to invite these people into the local meetings and to make them feel welcome.

“Also,” he opines, “we need to look at increasing the number of associate memberships by welcoming other non-inspectors from the electrical industry into our ranks. Many times these people have valuable information and skills they bring with them; and many are willing to pitch in and make a real contribution to the IAEI.

“At the same time, we also face a dues increase; although any increase in dues is difficult, the Board of Directors could come up with no other option. IAEI is very involved in the codes and standards process and the cost of doing this is increasing dramatically. IAEI sponsors thirty-eight NEC code-making panel members for the Report on Proposals (ROP) meeting, and nearly that many for the Report on Comments (ROC) meeting. The cost per person has almost doubled over the past few years, and this is just one of the many reasons we decided there was no alternative to an increase. The board realizes that everyone has higher expenses, but so does IAEI. This increase is the equivalent of one small cup of coffee per month!

I hope members see this small increase in this context and think being involved with IAEI is worth this addition,” he concluded.

Dick Owen has been involved with the electrical industry for thirty-eight years, and has been senior electrical inspector for the city of St. Paul, Minnesota since 1990.

His career journey began with a small observation in 1970 after he had graduated from high school, had a year of college and had worked two years in a factory.

“One day,” he remembers, “an electrician came into the factory to change some ballasts, and I noticed how well-dressed he was, which made an impression on me. I had always been interested in electricity, installing car stereos and similar jobs, and couldn’t see myself working in a factory for the rest of my life.” Hence, Dick applied to St. Paul Vocational School and was accepted for a two-year program in electricity. After the day school, he was caught in the economic downturn of the early to mid-seventies and ended up waiting two years to start his apprenticeship.

After four years of apprenticeship training through IBEW Local 110 and practical experience in the construction industry, he tested for and received his journeyman electrician’s license in the state of Minnesota. “I had discovered by that time that not all electricians dressed as well as the one I saw in my factory, and that there is a lot of dirty and sometimes dangerous work involved with the electrical industry. The nice thing about being in the trade is the feeling of accomplishment I had when I finished a project. There are tangible results to this work—the electrical system in a building works, and you can point to that building for a long time and say you helped wire that office/factory/home.”

Dick then worked for various electrical contractors and as an electrician for the city of St. Paul. In 1985, he was made an electrical inspector. In 1990, he was promoted to senior electrical inspector and has held that position since then.

“As an inspector, you will see a paradigm shift from being in the trade,” Owen observes. “You have some feeling of accomplishment that the places you inspect are safe and livable, but you no longer have the same feeling as when you actually wired the building. What you do as an inspector is a very important function: you act as a second set of eyes on a project to ensure that everything installed is code-compliant and safe for the users, but in this profession you are doing a good job if nothing happens! If the electrical system doesn’t electrocute someone or start a fire, you did your job correctly. It’s a totally different situation from the installer’s trade, and many people have a difficult time transitioning to that type of job,” he continues.

“When I started as an inspector, one of the other inspectors told me I had to belong to this inspector’s group, the International Association of Electrical Inspectors, so I said “OK.” I had no idea how joining this organization would change and enrich my life over the next 23+ years.”

Dick became the Minnesota Chapter secretary/treasurer for eighteen years, served as the chapter president and then as Western Section president in 1998. He was elected to serve on the IAEI Board of Directors and has “worked” his way through the positions for the last twelve years until reaching the presidency.

“I am grateful to all the people who have helped and encouraged me along the way. The entire list is way too long for this article, but I really have to recognize and thank some of the people from the Western Section; Ed Lawry, Phil Cox, Mike Forister, Ray Weber, Don Offerdahl, and many others. I also wish to thank Jim Carpenter for his encouragement since he’s been CEO/executive director. In addition, I have visited some of the chapters around the country and the wonderful thing about this organization is that they all do an excellent job of welcoming ‘strangers’ such as me to their meetings.”

Dick has also been active in the NEC code-making process, starting as the alternate to Panel 3 chair Ray Weber for NEC-1999. Dick remained as alternate to Ray for the 2002 cycle and then was appointed chair of Panel 3 for the 2005 and 2008 NEC cycles. At the end of the 2008 cycle, Dick was appointed to replace Phil Cox as the alternate to Jim Carpenter, chairman of the NEC Technical Correlating Committee.

“I enjoyed the two cycles as chair of Panel 3, with all the challenges and extra planning that goes with being a chair. When I was asked to serve as alternate to Jim Carpenter on the TCC, it meant giving up my chair position on Panel 3 due to NFPA’s rules. I probably hesitated all of five seconds before saying yes to the TCC, knowing what an honor it is to be serving at that level. I thought there was a lot of work as a panel member and discovered an increasing workload as a panel chair, but I had no idea of the amount of work necessary on the Technical Correlating Committee. The TCC has to review every proposal and comment during the course of the code cycle, and that’s a lot of work by itself, not to mention that every member has another full-time job.

“I am really impressed with the high level of professionalism and the dedication to the electrical code these TCC members have,” he states. “Besides the code process, the TCC oversees other electrically-related documents such as NFPA 70E and reviews just about every action related to these documents. It’s a huge job, but it’s a necessary one.”

In addition to membership on the TCC and being a principal member of CMP-3 representing IAEI, Dick is now a principal member of the NFPA 90 Committee on Air Conditioning. “I represent the TCC on NFPA 90 A and B,” he explains, “to have input on decisions in that committee which affect the NEC. NFPA 90A has jurisdiction over air-handling spaces such as ducts and environmental air-handling spaces in buildings. Changes in 90A could affect the wiring methods used in these air-handling spaces and so it’s worthwhile to monitor what is going on in NFPA 90 before it comes to the NEC.

“It’s more time away from the office and home, but someone has to do it and I’m fortunate that my employer thinks code development is a worthwhile use of some of my time. I really appreciate their support. I also appreciate the support of my wife Marge, who spends a lot of weekends and weekdays without me around while I’m off at one meeting or another.”

Dick has two grown children who are working in other parts of the country. “In an interview for a magazine article, I was asked what I thought my biggest accomplishment was, and I told them my two children. Jennifer and John have both grown up to become responsible and caring adults; and although I certainly can’t claim I did this single-handedly, I hope that I had some influence in their lives. I’m very proud of them both, and they are both a joy to be with when we have the chance.”

Dick is married to his wife of 35 years, Marge, and enjoys spending as much time as possible outside on a golf course during the summer when the Minnesota winters are a distant threat.