On April 28, 2023, 10 Cal Poly students will submit their proposal for the 2023 Electrical Contractors Innovation Challenge. Credit: Nina Tamayo | Courtesy

As the sizzle of pancakes and smell of bacon drifted through the house of construction management junior Jake Weiss, his team of 10 students gathered around the living room. 

Sipping on orange juice, Weiss laid out the prompt of this year’s Electrical Contractors Innovation Challenge: to submit an electrical contractor’s proposal as if they are in construction on the Emerson Student Center at Oglethorpe University.

The group mimicked exactly what professionals in the field do every day. This includes scheduled values, pay applications, looking at scheduling and purchase orders submittals over the course of the past few months. On Friday, their proposal will be submitted and the judging will begin. 

“It’s exactly like learn by doing,” Weiss said. “We’re not actually physically building but we are doing the same processes that we’re going to be doing in our careers.”

In the fall, the top three teams will present their project proposals at a conference in Philadelphia; all teams are invited alongside many companies in the industry.

Construction management junior Nina Tamayo said she picked up more skills in electrical contracting than she would be able to in her classes, since Cal Poly’s program is largely geared toward those interested in general contracting. Weiss noted that general contracting has many more recruiters and is more widely known in comparison to electrical. 

Tamayo recently switched into the major from environmental engineering and has so far found the subject to be very interdisciplinary and takes a “learn by doing” approach to the coursework. A large part of the experience is due to the clubs and competition teams available to students in this discipline.

Typically, electrical contracting isn’t covered in the construction management curriculum until the fourth year, so with only two seniors on the team, they have to look for external support.

“The fact that the majority of us are underclassmen, we feel like it’s a big accomplishment for our team,” Tamayo said.

Taft Electric’s Santa Maria office serves as the team’s advisor. They helped at every step of the way, Tamayo said, even offering their legal team to help the students sort through a dense contract. 

Both Tamayo and Weiss cited the team as a way to connect with like-minded individuals.

“I’ve built bonds with people that I normally wouldn’t have connected with,” Weiss said. “And I do have a lot of pre-existing friends from the team that I’ve gotten a lot closer with.”

While it allows for a tight bond, Cal Poly’s 10 person team is much smaller than its competitors. The proposal will go up against schools that have 30 person teams or even senior classes dedicated to the ECIC challenge every year. 

In the past, Cal Poly has not placed as well as it would’ve liked in the competition, but Weiss said it’s more about the personal experience and knowledge gained from participating. He said he expects they will improve in the rankings this year because their team is now upped to 10 members from the six of prior years.

“For the club, I just wanted to grow and I want other people to have the same experiences in the industry that I have had, like see that there’s more than just general contracting,” Weiss said.

Previously dead set on becoming a general contractor, Weiss said that through the competition teams he has participated in and the electrical contractors he has been around, he is now “100% on the fence.” 

He cited the shorter hours and high pay as a reason more students should look into niche contracting careers such as electrical, mechanical or concrete. 

Weiss said one of their biggest non-proposal related challenges is raising enough money to be able to take the whole team to Philadelphia in the fall to have the same conference experience that he has been able to have. 

On top of managing the proposal’s progress, a 21 unit course load and a paying job, Weiss is in charge of team fundraising and is currently working on hosting a golf tournament that’s proceeds would funnel into the team.

But all of that is worth it to be able to network and celebrate months of work at what he described as “just a big party.” 

“We almost, like, took over the city,” Weiss said. “There were just all these electrical contractors everywhere.”

Weiss’ favorite memory is from walking around the massive venue of the conference grabbing food and drinks. He turned the corner and was faced with a band out of a random Milwaukee tool company jamming out on the stage of a giant arena. 

There is always something to do during the months of preparation and assembling the proposal, but the laid back environment of the conference finally allows the ECIC team to “build great relationships” and have some fun.

The conference will be held from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2. Learn more at the ECIC website.