Are there Workforce Composition Problems in the UK Electrical Contracting Industry?

23 September 2019

We analysed eleven recent UK Public Sector construction projects with a combined value of circa £200 million to ascertain the composition of the electrical workforce. The projects ranged in value from £500K to £60 million. Each of the projects is considered to be complex in scope as they:

  • require significant coordination and cooperation with others
  • make use of industrial pattern materials and techniques
  • have an impact on the public
  • involve professional design services
  • require compliance to exceptional standards
  • require a high-level health and safety management

SparkSafe workforce ratio guidance  recommends a 50% minimum cohort of Qualified Electricians (QE) where complex electrical work is to be undertaken. None of the projects in the sample meet the proposed recommendations. Eight of the eleven projects are reported with a QE worker percentage between nil and 25%.

Summary

  • Three projects operated without a QE worker
  • Four projects operated with a QE cohort of 15% or less
  • One project (circa £30 million) relied on a 47% cohort of Apprentice Electrician (AE)
  • The most significant value project (circa £60 million) was contingent on 75% of the electrical workforce operating below a QE licence level

Quality improvement and control measures are likely to be undermined when the model becomes over-reliant on disproportionate use of semi-skilled, underqualified, or apprentice workers to carry complex and skilled tasks. Exceptions do exist. High-quality, close supervision, and other control measures may off-set the accumulation of defective work, reoccurring snagging lists, and latent defects. However, the trend, if unchecked, in this and other building service sectors, will continue to wither, an already ailing construction industry.

Historical toleration of this model has progressively shifted the Client prerogative to one of necessity and acceptance in terms of workforce composition in parts of the UK. Skilled labour shortages, lack of CPD drivers, and other demographic factors point to an industry that presently struggles to field a match fit team for industrial and commercial projects. Extended supply chains and focus on health and safety checks at the gate, have blurred Client insight into the occupational identity and qualitative make-up of the contractor’s workforce.

Nevertheless, projects are completed, commissioned, and eventually handed over.

So, what are the problems?

  •  A decline in quality and standards is widely reported throughout the industry. Clients are often forced to contend or accept failing and inconsistent standards by the industry to gain timely possession of their project.
  • Failure to correct the problem means that it will become worse. The virtuous loop of sustainable skill training is replaced by a vicious circle which depletes the industry with a feed of semi-skilled and under-qualified workers.

Conclusion

The resolve of many responsible Electrical Contractors to maintain traditional standards has been eroded as other existing, and new enterprises adjust working practices to win contracts, build turnover and attempt to stay in business. Who could blame them! Discipline and restraint by the industry are poorly regulated. Insolvency and/or prosecution are the primary checks and balances for the UK electrical contracting industry.

Attempts at self-regulation have broken down as competitive instincts and market forces, compel the supply chain to find ways of getting around the notional conventions of the industry.  Industry-led, self-help efforts must continue. Responsible trade and industry bodies must be encouraged, supported and be subject to constructive criticism in their efforts to do the right thing. Nevertheless, the ultimate authority and influencer over the behaviour and development of the industry, is the Client.

The findings of our analysis flow from an absence of specification and scrutiny concerning the dynamics and composition of the contractor’s workforce ratio. A greater effort by specifiers and designers is usually placed on material specification. Whereas the competency of those who install those materials is often presumed and unchecked.

High spec materials and low-tech installers don’t make sense!

The striking imbalances across the sample projects are the immediate product of the industry, not the Client. However, by using their buying authority, responsible Clients can halt the decline, reinstate the virtuous loop, and help produce a much-needed win-win outcome for the UK going forward.