Ask no questions, tell no lies, the Client subbie dilemma

22 April 2021

On major NHS, MOD, Educational, Infrastructure and the other UK publicly funded capital projects, most tier two electrical contractors rely on a downward succession of other third-party enterprises to support the effort of their directly employed workforce. Using “subbies” to offset some, or sometimes all, of the financial risk associated with project labour costs is an established industry practice.

The practice of “subbing work out” makes sound commercial business sense for many responsible tier two contractors. However, over the period, drawbacks for Client organisations and unintended detrimental consequences for the national industry have become evident.

The use of “subbies” often means that the scrutiny of individual electrical worker qualifications and competencies are set aside. Tier two employers do not feel compelled to apply direct employment checks to indirectly employed workers or labour gangs.

Price and transfer of risk are the main determining factors. However, previous experience, availability and trust also feature in the appointment of tier three sub-contractors, labour gangs and agency workers.

As the tiers become extended, more unqualified, underqualified, and self-determined electrical workers enter the supply chain.

Most public sector Clients are in the dark when it comes to understanding the technical and skills composition of an electrical contractor’s workforce.

Reasons for lack of Client awareness

  • Absence of drivers to disclose – ask no questions, tell no lies
  • The “at arm’s length” relationship with the lower subcontract supply chain
  • Deficiency in tender and procurement policy – no will to discover
  • Lack of transparency and accountability culture in the industry
  • Administrative burden – deemed unnecessary and complicated
  • No independent compliance auditing – If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it
  • Matter not considered or recorded at project site meetings
  • Over-reliance on the main contractor and CDM regulations

Client problem

The “you get what you pay for” idiom should ring a bell with public sector Client organisations regarding building services, at least in terms of the technical and productive qualities of the on-site labour.  Many complex publicly funded UK projects are resourced with only a few go-to qualified people supplemented with high proportions of semiskilled and underqualified electrical workers.

Although the work gets done and the lights go on, many project managers contend with excessive snagging, quality, commissioning and functional problems, especially when nearing handover.

Value for money, whole life cost, and benefit outcomes are under-realised at the Client’s expense when complex work is installed on projects by a workforce weighted by semiskilled electrical workers.

Industry problem

The industry should declare with alarm like the penguin, “Our iceberg is melting.” Under-investment, poor gatekeeping, procrastination, make-do-and-mend, commercial expediency, and short-termism have withered the industry value proposition.

Too many unqualified, underqualified and self-designated electrical workers have entered the supply chain. The industry fails to attract the best of the school leaving population and continues to lose capability through workforce retirement rates. Short-form technical training, containment only courses and recalibrating established course pass marking criterion hasn’t slowed the melt.

Conclusion

Evidence shows that the UK industry has inadequate capacity, will or drivers to help reform itself. Competition, leadership, discord, under-representation, vision, structure, and lack of regulation contribute to the industry’s present inconsistent and unstable state.

If we are to rebuild and maintain a world-class UK electrical contracting industry, we must deal with the cause and not just the effects of decline. Responsible Client engagement and fit for purpose procurement policy is the place to start. Failure to do so will mean that present and future public sector Clients will be saddled with increasingly poorer quality, value for money and safety outcomes.

Turning a blind eye, failure to monitor and audit the supply-chain on public sector projects means that authentic apprenticeships become displaced by a growing band of semi-skilled and underqualified electrical workers.

We need responsible public sector procurement bodies to become engaged in the effort to correct an industry that is drifting badly off course. Effective engagement and improvement can be achieved by implementing a procurement policy that obliges increased accountability and, crucially, independent auditing of the electrical contractor’s workforce.