“If I had a magic wand…”

“If I had a magic wand…”

This month’s guest columnist has some suggestions for ways that our industry could be improved, based on his own real-life experience.

I’d like start this month’s column by introducing myself. My name is Lee Ward and I’m an electrician who has been working in the electrical industry for a good number years as both as an electrical contractor and as a Qualified Supervisor. For the last 12 years (and counting) I’ve been self-employed, running my own electrical business.

In my early years I was able to do much of my training (and learning) in both commercial and industrial environments. The company I first started out with worked primarily in hospitals across the UK, which involved a variety of interesting and technical electrical installation works. I believe that this was a very good first step and grounding into the electrical industry.

Having undertaken a variety of what I’d call ‘grounding qualifications’ at the time (and I’m still learning to this day) I eventually moved on to work for a few different contractors, gaining experience and skills in various sectors and environments, before deciding to go out on my own over a decade ago.

Indeed, I can remember my first day of trading with literally five days’ work ahead of me, very little money in the bank and a beat-up Transit van to get me from A to B. This was a real challenge as (like with most people in this situation) I had a mortgage, wife and children to support, and I found out very quickly that the step from employment to self-employment takes a certain degree of self motivation and love for your job/industry. Kudos to all those who have taken the same leap of faith into the self-employed world.

Over the last 12 years I’ve built my business and client base up to a level that I’m comfortable with while also gaining extensive experience as an electrical consultant to three local authority building control departments, all based around the Dorset area where I reside.

Much of this work has involved independent assessments of electrical works that have taken place in domestic dwellings which are subject to Approved Document P. Over time, I’ve been exposed to jobs that have been undertaken by those that are registered (with a CPS), those that aren’t registered, and those that are in the process of trying to become registered. The full spectrum, you could say, and a first-hand view of the standards of design, installation and certification coming through into the industry.

I should also add that I’ve spent many years working on my own personal Continued Professional Development (CPD), and this is something that I passionately believe is important for electricians as we’re always learning about regulations, best practice and new technology as the industry changes and evolves.

As part of my CPD I’m proud to have been certified by The IET, the Engineering Council and also the The Institute of Clerk of Works and Construction Inspectorate. This is all voluntary, of course, but something that I’d highly recommend to all sparks.

Whilst I can only speak for myself, I feel that discussing the current challenges our industry is facing deserves more focus, leadership and direction, especially from those who we employ as paying members and customers. In my opinion, there are a number of elements that need improvement (immediately and in the longer term) for the benefit of everyone, including hard working electricians and the consumers who put their trust in us. I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on these, based on my own real-life experience.

Part P continues to raise many Q’s
One of the reasons for talking about my previous experience, and the route I took when I first started, is that I feel it has been far too easy for anyone to enter the industry and begin working in the domestic sector after short-form training and ‘qualifications’, especially as self-employed electricians.

The introduction of Part P (of the Building Regulations) has had a lot to do with this, and many of the grey areas that now exist within the electrical playing field.

I am all for people wanting to re-train, learn a new profession and enter into a new industry, but there also needs to be a sensible and realistic minimum standard of technical underpinning knowledge and proven practical training/experience before one can be awarded (what should be) the respected title of ‘Electrician’.

My gut feeling when Part P was first introduced was that whilst I could understand the reasons for introducing some form of system (improved standards and safety for domestic consumers) there was always the issue of questionable criteria of technical qualifications and training defined to prove that those certifying work to Part P were indeed ‘properly’ qualified or ‘competent’, which in their own rights are two words that have been open to interpretation. The issue, in my mind at least, is that there wasn’t enough time to get all of those working in the domestic arena trained up correctly, so this is where the ‘fast track’ courses which we see today originated from – allowing delegates to gain a fast-track route into the industry by undertaking courses that can range from five days upwards.

It’s not just our industry, but if I had prior knowledge that a Gas Engineer coming into my house had a 5 or 18 day qualification, would I let them? Absolutely not, but then I’m in a privileged position to do some due diligence in this area, knowing what I do about training across all trades.

Think about ‘Mrs Smith’ though, how does she know any difference apart from the logo she sees on the side of the van? She’s putting her complete trust in the fact that we are all qualified to the same level which, some could say, creates a false sense of security.

I’m not going to question the level of training offered by the various course providers (as there are some very good ones out there), but what I will say is that I’ve heard stories of some private training establishments that have ‘helped’ the delegate to ‘get through’ the course before, and to me this suggests that as long as you’ve paid your money, you’re going to get ‘qualified’ – something that is incredibly unhealthy for both the delegate and the industry in general. I’d rather train to learn than just train to pass.

It’s on the ‘shop floor’ that I feel we have one of the biggest challenges currently, as I do not believe the CPS providers and private training companies have anywhere near enough exposure to the jobs that are taking place in the real world on a daily basis, by ‘qualified’ individuals. In one of my day job’s I’m often the first person to witness a job after building control has been notified, so I get to see the varying standards of work on offer from all manner of individuals, including those who may recently have qualified through a short-form course.

Poor workmanship is certainly not exclusive to this demographic, but in my experience it is much more commonplace in those that have very little real-life working experience via proper courses. I understand the counter argument that proper time-served sparks can also produce awful work, which is absolutely correct, and I’m certainly not excusing that. What I do know, from my own experience, is that the majority of poor workmanship that I’ve personally witnessed comes from the domestic route upwards. I should add that I am also a domestic spark, and very proud of it!

NAPIT produced an interesting industry infographic a couple of years ago, which showed an exceptionally low number of prosecutions had taken place under Part P over a two year period (2011-2013) and a significant percentage (72) of local authorities took no action against Part P non-compliance over the same time-frame. Yet when you consider that there could be over 500,000 notifications made over a calendar year, the lack of action is worrying. Furthermore, there should be a fairly substantial pot available (if we assume that each notification costs around £3.50) through which greater investment in front line ‘policing’ could be made.

Lest we forget that you don’t even have to be a member of a CPS to notify your work under Part P, so potentially even more non-compliant workmanship that can slip through the cracks.

Part P has also bought with it an awful lot of misconceptions, and this does nothing to help the outward perception of the industry. Essentially the homeowner has the responsibility of doing their due diligence, but how do they know of an individual’s qualifications and competence, outside of the badge they’re advertising on their van?

I would argue that, as the appointed gatekeepers of the industry, CPS providers have a wider responsibility to use our membership fees to better educate the public and consumers on our behalf. After all, how many domestic homeowners actually know about Part P? 14 years down the line, it’s hard to believe we’re not further forwards.

Based on my own frontline experience I also have reservations about third party certification systems, mainly because I feel they go against the fundamentals of taking responsibility for one’s own work. The process can potentially be open to abuse because, for it to work effectively, the QS needs to be on-site with you before, during and after – but how can they prove that’s been the case?

I’ve always felt that there appears to be too much inward fighting for a piece of the pie from many of those responsible for training, ‘competence’ and standards within the industry.

When you add to this the confusion that Part P has created and the low entry levels of standards of technical competence, is it any wonder that rates and standards are going down? From there it becomes a race to the bottom, as standards of work drop – along with wages – and the industry suffers right across the board.

How could we improve things?
If I could wave a magic wand right now then I think we need some form of a license to practice system, whereby the entry level is adequate in terms of proper long term on-site training and qualifications. Electricians would then be given a photo ID card so that ‘Mrs Smith’ can trust that the individual is up-to-date and has the correct qualifications and technical competence required to complete the work she needs doing.

I do think we could take a look at the gas industry in terms of improving accountability in our current system. I know their system is not perfect, but at least it is governed by one central regulator/body which creates far less confusion. The current complaints procedure in our industry, for me, is too convoluted and reliant on the consumer to do most of the work (as it requires them to lodge a complaint before action can be taken and allow someone back who may not then be trusted). We should also be taking action by policing strongly from within our own industry.

We have enough modern technology available to us all (such as cameras and smartphones) to allow electricians on-site to gather evidence if we believe that an installation is dangerous. We should then be able to send this through to an approved body that would look into it and, if an individual was found to have worked in a dangerous way, they should be held accountable.

There has to be some sort of deterrent that ensures electricians don’t cut corners in their work, so one idea could be a points system logged against an individual’s record (like a driving license system), and if you acquire too many points/black marks against your name, you’re given a final warning and told you need to re-educate or risk being delicensed, much like a driving awareness course. If an individual is de-listed for whatever reason, this should also result in a blanket ban across all other bodies/providers for a defined duration.

The industry also needs a much more transparent approach, as there is too much confusion currently. As a result, the frustration levels of many electricians on the tools are growing as all they really long for is to do a good job, and be part of responsible systems that improve consumer confidence and focus on technical standards of electricians. This will, in turn, raise the entry level that new entrants to the sector can come in at and ensure those operating within have to commit to staying up-to-date through CPD and training.

When I talk to my customers about our industry, I’ll tell them that different electricians work to different standards, which I believe is fundamentally wrong for me to say, but it is true. In my opinion, we should ALL be working above the minimum standard – the regulations are not the maximum standard, they’re the minimum standard.

If we can raise the levels of knowledge, experience and accountability within our industry then we’ll have gone some way to rectifying that situation.

Can those governing the sector rise to the challenge?

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