Good policy in a bad crisis

3 September 2020

Maintaining quality and standards in a crisis is a measure of government, business, and personal integrity. An argument could be made that in times of crisis, quality must temporarily be set aside, on the basis of “needs must”, “the end justifies the means” and “let’s just get the job done” thinking.

By-passing established procurement procedures and adopting situational reasoning to solve crisis driven problems is tempting and may even be unavoidable. However, allowing crisis conditions to displace the normal reflective approach to procurement exposes organisations to long term negative value for money outcomes, buyer’s remorse, and public scorn.

New conditions

We have seen a few examples of understandable desperation on the part of PPE buyers, being compromised by the arrival of sub-standard PPE products from elsewhere. Attempts to relieve the front line, were no doubt well intended. However, pressure to do so, disrupted the orderliness of established procedures. Thankfully, basic final checks on the bulk imports, exposed the non-compliance issues and halted the potentially dangerous transfer of non-compliant PPE to the end-users.

Old problems

Is there a similar situation happening with the employment of unqualified, underqualified, and self-designated electrical workers? Before Covid19, most Clients in the public sector had little awareness of how well construction projects were being served by the industry with regulated qualified electrical workers .

Most Project Managers overseeing public funded projects, are obliged to operate with a trust-based system regarding the composition of the main contractors appointed electrical contractors’ workforce. Similarly, main contractors are largely ignorant of how well the workers of appointed electrical contractors’ workforce are up to date with accredited industry technical knowledge e.g. BS7671 18th Edition Wiring Requirements.

Tolerating and accommodating such weaknesses have perpetuated decline in productivity, moral, quality, standards, recruitment and retention across the industry.

Tough questions

Has the surge of public sector construction activity in the wake of Covid 19 exacerbated the problem of admitting and funding large numbers of unregulated electrical workers unto complex construction projects? Many of these workers enter projects on the basis of an entry level health and safety passport system or with an occupational skills card that is not matched to the electrical installation work.

Cause and effect

What are the causes behind the dependency on unregulated electrical workers on construction projects?

  1. Competitive tendering satisfies the public test for value for money. However, most public sector PQQ’s, ITT’s and contract award documents place little or no weight on the occupational identity or the skills composition of an electrical contractor’s workforce. Weaknesses and generalisations in workforce specification requirements have led to endemic and longstanding oversight of skills in the construction industry. Has the outcome of such oversight stifled apprentice recruitment, hindered adult worker upskilling and lead to shortages in go-to electrical workers?
  2. Since the introduction of CDM regulations, Client focus has shifted towards a Health and Safety led agenda. This move has reduced attention to the technical qualifications of electrical workers. The significant majority of gate-keeping and induction procedures in the UK and Ireland, rely on basic health and safety passports to admit electrical workers on to construction sites. Establishing and monitoring individual and workforce competency on public sector projects is often an overlooked matter.
  3. Clients rely on main contractors to scrutinise and manage the workforce composition of the appointed electrical contractor on their behalf. However, most main contractors’ default to the plastic Health and Safety card system as the principle means of fulfilling this obligation. Consequently, supply-chain contractors in most trade sectors, have become conditioned to meeting Health and Safety requirements at the gate and not demonstrating the essential accredited occupational competencies.
  4. Weakness in established industry gate-keeping measures, poor engagement with Clients, institutional resistance to innovation and disruptive ideas have hardened scepticism, lowered moral and reinforced doubt throughout the building services sector. Large parts of the industry have become more fractured, less attractive and suffered loss of standing and influence when compared to other sectors. Many of the problems are self-inflicted. Establishment barriers and territorialism are industry traits that are observed by the silent blue-collar majority. Critics, constructive and otherwise, are frustrated by a mammoth decline in quality, standards and standing of the contemporary electrical contracting industry.
  5. Has the absence of transparency around workforce composition across the industry become a short-sighted, self-serving, toxic convenience that corrodes the economic proposition of the electrical trade? Has the unfortunate lack of insight and scrutiny by public sector Clients over the past three decades into the competency of labour resources contributed to the weakened state of the present electrical industry? Responsible contractors are frustrated and often out-bid on tenders because of historical weaknesses in gatekeeping procedures. Significant parts of the industry have become acclimatised to and dependant on, high proportions of semi-skilled electrical workers being employed to service projects. Has the virtuous loop, which traditionally attracted and retained high quality school leavers into apprenticeship’s been broken by a system that outsources much of its labour requirements to an unregulated supply chain?

Profits may be achieved, and certain risks reduced when labour is subbed out to a third party. Who can blame anyone for adopting the management-led subbie solution? So, what’s the problem?

The accrued impact of subbing work during the period has given rise to a less qualified, less productive and an increasingly degenerating industry. Other negative effects include less high-quality new entrants, fewer go-to people on sites, an ageing workforce, absence of CPD drivers and fragile risk reward outcomes. Has the industry taken advantage of Client apathy and ignorance around workforce composition to its long-term detriment? Only a minority of Clients and main contractors are equipped or motivated to scrutinize the qualification and experience of electrical workers. The majority practice across the construction and maintenance industry is to wave electrical workers unto projects on the basis of trust or because they possess Health and Safety plastic card.

To do’s

Specify SparkSafe Licence to Practise and achieve the following outcomes

  • Improve the national capacity to recruit new apprentices and upskill adult workers
  • Incentivise unqualified and under-qualified electrical workers to achieve accredited qualifications
  • Improve the quality and raise the standard of work
  • Increase productivity and value for money
  • Reduce client risk and improve safety
  • Increase supply chain accountability
  • Strengthen anti-fraud controls

Summary

We have been kicking the can down the road for a long time in the UK and Irish electrical contracting industry. The visibility, transparency, and accountability around the occupational identity of those who carry out electrical work, has become progressively obscure and unsatisfactory in the sectors developmental history. A mishmash of disorder, poor quality work, low productivity, training irregularities and standardisation loopholes has distanced the industry from world class standards.

Good policy is designed to produce good outcomes. Something always gives when the policy manual is set aside. Deviation from good policy can lead to negative media attention like the sub-standard PPE story or as so often is the case, produce short-term gain with long-term pain.

Bypassing established procurement procedures may be expedient in times of crisis but the decision to do so risks becoming detrimental in terms of expense, reputation, and outcome in the long run.