Derek Thompson, Chief Executive of SparkSafe, explains why he believes that the electrical industry needs to tighten up if individuals and businesses are set to prosper in the future.
Good electricians know that loose electrical connections cause problems. Arcing across a gap in an electrical circuit produces a luminous heat generating discharge, which can compromise cable insulation and cause a fire. Yet the absence of periodic inspection often conceals this latent electrical hazard for system users who should reduce or remove the risk of electrical fire or shock by tasking a qualified and competent electrician to check the condition of a property on a regular basis.
In my opinion the existence and consequences of loose electrical connections reflect the present state of the UK electrical contracting industry as a whole. I’ve spoken to hundreds of electrical workers at the 2017 series of ELEX shows and other industry events and at Manchester, Exeter, Harrogate, Birmingham and Coventry the consistent messages from ground level speak of an industry that’s in need of reform.
It’s my belief that the following ‘loose connections’ need to be tightened up:
1. An unqualified problem
Too many unqualified and self-designated electrical installation and maintenance workers have entered the supply chain. Commercial and industrial building projects in the UK have become dependent on growing numbers of electrical workers, some of which may operate without qualifications or with those that are below the requirements of the national occupational standards. As a result, productivity, quality and standards decline, while risk factors, snagging and defects increase.
2. Parity perception
In domestic and residential work, Part P continues to be poorly understood by many consumers. Reports indicate that many authorities don’t have sufficient technical resources to proactively assess or administer the requirements of the regulation. Some competent workers express frustrations with short form training schemes that provide new entrants with a client perception of skills parity with fully qualified electricians. Although the output of short form training schemes is mainly intended for the domestic sector, there’s a danger that these workers could be drawn via agencies and umbrella organisations into the more demanding areas of industrial and commercial sub-contract work.
3. Knowledge gaps
I believe that too many existing workers still operate with sub 17th Edition accredited knowledge of the current IET Wiring Requirements. This number of sub 17th Edition accredited could well extend to 100,000, with the basis for this estimate based on the fact that 40% of ‘gold card’ holders presently operate with a sub 17th BS7671 qualification. Gold card holders are considered to be on the structured side of the industry, which represents around a third or more of the UK electrical installation workforce.
Therefore, it’s very possible that a similar or perhaps greater proportion of those who operate outside of the gold card system will not possess a qualification covering the current edition of the BS7671 wiring requirements.
4. Demographic deficits
The demographic outlook, combined with competition from other existing and emergent sectors, should have the alarm bells ringing in the electrical contracting industry. Even now, the industry is struggling to attract and retain the best of the annual school leaving population. Parents, post-primary schools, and top GCSE pupils continue to demonstrate a reducing interest in vocational trades. As a result, the average age of the existing workforce is set to climb, leading to reductions in productivity and performance.
Employers are increasingly obliged to recruit new entrants from the lower end of the GCSE literacy and numeracy spectrum. Some new entrants with lower level GCSE ability achieve and progress well in the trade. However, many are poorly equipped and unsuited to the academic demands of an electrical apprenticeship.
The demographic deficit should be a wake-up call to the industry. I feel that slackness in the industry around identity and competency has undermined the trade and reinforced the negative perceptions of the brightest school leavers towards a career as an electrician. Parents, careers officers and school leavers need to see tangible evidence of a sector that is working towards reform and modernisation. If we keep doing the same thing, the same way, we’ll keep getting the same results!
5. Dependency issues
Internationally productive electrical workers have entered the UK construction industry supply chain and the electrical industry is sustained in part by the availability, willingness and flexibility of this important asset. Many of these workers are highly qualified and bring valuable and much needed skills and experience to the UK industry. However, some of these workers are also employed to undertake electrical work without appropriate qualifications, knowledge or skills.
Lower hourly pay rates and longer working hours are commonly reported features in the employment of international workers in the UK electrical industry. In my opinion, the strategy of employing low skilled and low paid electrical workers undermines the sustainability and reputation of the UK electrical installation industry. Responsible employers, qualified workers and existing apprentices are hindered by this ‘race to the bottom’ practice, dissuading potential new entrants from a career in this sector.
It’s time to tighten up
How many snags, delays, latent defects, safety issues and costs could have been avoided if our sector had a system that rewarded electrical contractors who invest in the training and competency of individual workers?
Moving forwards I believe that we need a system in place that will reveal, rather than conceal, the composition of the electrical contractor’s workforce; one that removes any opaqueness that can facilitate low bid tendering, cowboy contractors and ‘rogue’ operators. We need a system that stimulates and supports sustainability in the industry and connects competency with contracts as well as providing clients and the industry with greater transparency over who is actually doing the work in the multi-tiered world of electrical contracting.
We need a system that prevents rogue installers from performing electrical installation work and makes social procurement partners out of responsible clients. We need a modern, on-line gatekeeping and monitoring system that supports discerning clients with social procurement values and is supported by the rigor on site audits.
We need a ‘National Electrical Licence to Practice’ system!