Licence to Practise and Part-Qualified Electrical Workers

7 July 2021

The Context

Categorising workers according to standards is an established and appropriate action of the UK electrical contracting industry. By doing so, Client organisations can determine how well contractors match the proportion of fully qualified electrical workers to all other workers with their project requirements.

Likewise, employers and workers can agree on an occupational hierarchy for the purpose remuneration and responsibility.

Although deemed competent by their employers, many electrical workers have not attained baseline electrical installation qualifications that allow them to be recognised as a Qualified Electrician. As a result, determining the competency and place of part-qualified electrical workers is problematic for the industry and its Clients. Some employers focus on a worker’s productivity as a measurement of competency. Others apply arbitrary, undocumented assessment strategies that may prove difficult to transfer or defend.

Many part-qualified electrical workers have acquired knowledge and demonstrated sufficient skills to support a de facto claim on the title of Qualified Electrician. Some employers contend that certain part-qualified workers are comparable or better than some qualified electricians, especially recently qualified electricians. The performance of newly qualified electricians is often compared with experienced, part-qualified electrical workers to argue against the selective effect of standards based on a Licence to Practise system.

As well as part-qualified workers, other experienced workers in the UK contracting industry appeal to supplementary technical or knowledge only qualifications, e.g., 18th Edition, to persuade Clients by inference or misunderstanding that they are fully qualified electricians.

The Arguments

1. The subjective experience and supplementary qualifications of a part-qualified worker is equal to or better than the objective knowledge and experience of newly qualified or other less experienced qualified electrical workers. Accordingly, there should be no discrimination by licence definitions between workers.

2. Part-qualified workers are grieved by the outcome of a licensing system that relies solely on industry approved baseline qualifications as the measure of attributing a Licence to Practise. A fairer model should be developed to recognise the claim of part-qualified workers upon the title of an electrician.

3. Some part-qualified workers and those who rely solely on supplementary technical qualifications claim that assessment as a QS equates to recognition as a fully qualified electrician. Such workers appeal to the idea that SparkSafe should accept third party QS approval as an alternative to baseline qualifications under Licence to Practise requirements.

4. Some fully qualified electricians contend that a Licence to Practise gatekeeping model is unnecessary and cost-prohibitive. Possession of relevant qualifications and personal industry experiences are reasons cited against the idea of measures to categorise workers by licence type on behalf of Clients. The contention is that employers and the market will eventually sort out the use and dependence of the industry on part-qualified experienced workers.

The Position

The subjective standards of self-assessment or employer assessment of part-qualified workers may be better, the same, or less than those approved by the industry. Many will argue that satisfactorily determining the outcome of self or employer assessment in the absence of full qualifications on behalf of the Client is possible.

It is further argued that part-qualified workers can competently apply unaccredited technical knowledge in the workplace to the required standards.

Workers and employers vary considerably in opinion and methodology when assessing competence. A worker may, for example, overstate their competency based on faulty perceptions of past experiences, ignorance of near misses, or by comparing their performance with others and not with the standards.

An employer might prioritise productivity, cooperation, or other subjective qualities when gauging an employee’s technical and practical performance but lack the critical objectivity of structured, verifiable assessment procedures.

The Standards

Without objective standards, i.e., those determined, regulated, assessed and agreed, the industry will continue to become less safe and less productive.  Independent, on-site assessment based on continuous professional development ideals may be a solution.

However, there are firmly held arguments against regular, independent workplace assessment of electrical workers. Cost, inconvenience, disruption, industry culture, scepticism, governance, and justification feature in the list of reasons against the idea of periodic individual assessment.

UKAS approved individual assessment is already available, although uptake is relatively low amongst most electrical workers operating on commercial and industrial installation projects. The requirement and willingness to be assessed arises mainly from the demand of Client-led Competent Person Schemes in the domestic and social housing sector.

Soundings over many years about periodic individual assessment has returned a consistently negative response from the industry. Employers and workers hold that the risk-reward outcomes in the industry are not sufficient to justify the cost.

The majority view of the industry is against periodic individual assessment. The strength of this view has shaped the strictly objective qualification led-policy of SparkSafe towards Electrical Licence to Practise. Qualifications are only part of the picture and cannot be relied on in isolation to deem competence. Nevertheless, the possession of appropriate qualifications does provide evidence on which Clients may, as a rule, establish a greater degree of confidence in a contractor’s workforce technical, safety and performance capabilities.

The Client

Leaning on a strictly objective approach to individual electrical worker assessment, i.e., accredited qualifications only, provides a straightforward proposition for industry Clients. SparkSafe’s Licence to Practise system equips Clients with an end to end, independent quality improvement resource based on objective, industry-approved criteria.

Most of the industry holds part-qualified workers to be valuable and necessary assets. Accommodating the dependence on or preference for such workers by the contemporary industry is addressed on behalf of the Client through SparkSafe’s workforce guidance ratio and workforce composition report. Using these resources will better equip Clients to establish and monitor the proportionality of qualified electrical workers on their construction projects.

The Conclusion

The gatekeeping and control measures in the UK electrical contracting industry have significantly deteriorated during the past thirty years. Trends, especially around the employment of part-qualified workers, as well as the decline in apprenticeship training, have outpaced the best efforts of industry governance.

Initiatives to address dependence by the industry on part-qualified workers inevitably raise stigma and discrimination objections. The spectrum of such workers includes experienced, competent, valued workers through to those who have jumped in on the back of short-form training courses or those who in the past were unable to achieve full apprenticeship completion.

On-site, periodic individual worker assessment has merit and is desirable. Formally re-accrediting electrical workers should be a quality improvement aspiration of the UK industry. However, as things stand, the cost-benefit of such measures are not sufficiently developed, understood or accepted by the majority of the industry. Most Client organisations including, public sector procurement organisations, have progressively distanced themselves from determining the scope and limitations of an electrical contractor’s workforce.

The absence of legislation, demand, structures, and an industry-led business case, presently obliges SparkSafe to rely on objective means, i.e., industry-approved accredited qualifications, to discriminate between electrical workers by licence type on behalf of Clients.

Most will agree that the objective approach is imperfect and does not satisfy individual competence assessment. Nevertheless, for the Clients sake, the benefits of a qualification rule (objective) based system are better in terms of simplicity and application when compared to an arbitrary exception (subjective) based approach to occupational identity.

Electrical workers and electrical contractors will have their hard-won achievements and reputations effectively guarded with a Client focused Electrical Licence to Practise system. Such a system will help responsible Clients ensure that main contractors appoint electrical contractors who employ electrical workers that have been independently and objectively assessed to agreed standards.

Additionally, the courts, arbitration, and adjudication systems are more likely to favour parties whose defence can be supported through the specification or compliance with the SparkSafe Electrical Licence to Practise system in disagreement proceedings.