Loose Connections

24 October 2017

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. The absence of periodic inspection often conceals this latent electrical hazard for system users. Reduce or remove the risk of electrical fire or shock by employing a qualified and competent electrician to check the condition of the electrical system on you property on a regular basis. The existence and consequences of loose electrical connections reflect the present state of the UK Electrical Contracting Industry. Loose connections, in the form of double standards and contradictory processes, continue to erode the electrician’s brand.

I have spoken to hundreds of electrical workers at the 2017 series of Elex Shows and at the NEC ED&I Expo. At Manchester, Exeter, Harrogate, Birmingham and Coventry, the consistent messages from ground level speak of an industry that is muddled and fragmented.

Loose connection #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 who 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.

Loose connection #2 – parity perception problems!

In domestic and residential work, Part P continues to be poorly understood by many consumers. Reports indicate that many authorities do not 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. The output of short form training schemes is mainly intended for the domestic sector. However, many of these workers are drawn via agencies and umbrella organisations into the more demanding areas of industrial and commercial sub-contract work.

Loose connection #3 – knowledge gap problems!

Too many existing workers operate with sub 17th Edition accredited knowledge of the current IET Wiring Requirements. The number of sub 17th Edition accredited workers in the UK could extend to 100,000. The basis for suggesting this, lies with the fact that 40% of gold card holders presently operate with a sub-17th BS7671qualification. 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 seems likely 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. Unfortunately, workforce development throughout the industry appears to have been financially and operationally constrained during the period by the survivalist business model that continues to grip the construction sector.

Loose connections #4 – demographic deficit problems!

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 wakeup call to an industry that is already struggling with the negative legacy of poor gatekeeping. 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 an industry that is working towards reform and modernisation. If we keep doing the same thing, the same way we will keep getting the same results!

Loose connection #5 – dependency problems!

Internationally productive electrical workers have entered the UK construction industry supply chain. 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 employed to undertake electrical work without appropriate qualifications, knowledge or skills. Lower hourly pay rates and longer working hours are commonly reported feature in the employment of international workers in the UK electrical industry. The exploitative 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 the bottom practice and prospective new entrants are dissuaded from a career in an increasingly muddled industry.

Loose connection #6 – qualification problems

Current and legacy qualifications in the electrical industry continue to present difficulties to some employers, workers and clients regarding how they are interpreted and applied in the workplace. The establishment of formal occupational assessments for knowledge and practice (NVQ Level 3 www.bit.ly/2zAiAVL) have helped the industry get to grips with the idea of a standard minimum UK qualification for an industrial and commercial installation electrician. However, misunderstandings, questions and doubts persist around standalone knowledge only Level 3 qualifications, especially when these are mixed and matched with electrical qualifications obtained in other occupational areas, e.g., Engineering/Maintenance. Level 3 qualifications in the subject areas of Inspection and Testing or the BS7671 Wiring Requirements are sometimes erroneously considered as being equivalent to the Electrotechnical NVQ Level 3. Examples of this error can be seen in notices that advertise vacancy requirements for a 17th Edition or a 2391 Electrician! The matter can become more confusing when for example the term “Part P Electrician” is used by recruiters. And of course, a building regulation (Part P) is not technical qualification such as City and Guilds 2382 or 2391.

Time to tighten up on loose connections

How many snags, delays, latent defects, safety issues and costs could have been avoided if the sector had a system that rewarded electrical contractors, who invest in the training and competency of individual workers? The majority of electrical installation workers operate outside the scope of the plastic card system. Many employers who subscribe to the plastic card system are obliged to sublet significant work to labour gangs and subbie’s with ad hock or no affiliation to the established plastic card system. This often means that construction and maintenance projects are peppered with unqualified and under-qualified workers who do not possess a suitable occupational identity card but access construction sites and perform electrical work on the back of a de-facto Health and Safety passport. As a result, there are less go to people on building projects, more semiskilled workers entering the trade, a poorer perception of the industry and a diminishing interest in apprenticeships from the brightest of the school leaving population.

We need a system to reveal rather than conceal the composition of the electrical contractor’s workforce. We need a system that removes the longstanding opaqueness that facilitates low bid tendering, cowboy contractors and rogue operators. We need a system that stimulates and supports sustainability in the industry. We need a system that connects competency with contracts. We need a system that provides 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 is fair and not elitist. We need a system that prevents fake download and counterfeit card users from performing electrical installation work. We need a system that 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. We need a system that is supported by the rigor on site audits. We need a National Electrical Licence to Practice system.