What’s wrong with the UK electrical contracting industry?

6 August 2019

On the plus side

Before tackling the question, we should say that there are many positives in the contemporary electrical contracting industry. It’s not all bad! We’ve got to take care that we don’t allow the negatives in our trade to completely dominate the narrative of modern electrical contracting in the UK. The industries institutions, associations and trade organisations are firmly committed in their efforts to promote and develop the quality and performance of their membership and the wider sector.

Lots of individuals and enterprises have prospered by building sound reputations on foundations of good practices and excellence in customer service. Annual industry awards for outstanding construction projects indicate that many Clients are recipients of high-quality work and value for money.

Across the board, micro, small, medium, and large enterprises have exercised outstanding behaviours and values towards Clients, workers, suppliers, and sub-contractors. Investment in training, technology, and soft skills distinguishes quite a few at a personal and corporate level in our industry. The evidence for these views lies with repeat business patterns, long-standing partnerships and the all-important customer testimonials.

On the downside
However, like many of the foundational UK Construction trades, the trend in the electrical sector is downward. Shoddy work, lengthy defect and snagging lists continue to erode the reputation of the broader industry throughout the UK. The industry is not attracting high-quality new entrants and is dependent on the inconsistencies of recruitment agencies and the hit or miss performance of over-extended labour supply chains. A long-standing deficit in the recruitment of fresh talent combined with an over-reliance on an aging workforce has imbedded an unconscious acceptance of mediocre productivity and standards in the sector.

Symptoms are the visible signs of an underlying illness. Examining the illness of the electrical contracting industry gives rise to the risk of being misunderstood and an accusation of always being negative. This article is not intended to conjure, convey, or solicit an exaggerated take on the faulty state of the current industry. However, if we are to address the accepted and recurring problems in our industry, we need space to identify, describe and define them through open, inclusive and honest commentary and dialogue.

Unintended consequences
Historical leadership, administration, policy and structural issues harbour some of the principal causes of the industry’s current illness. Conscientious, well-intended and highly regarded organisations and their leaders have struggled over the period to deal effectively with the flux and fragmentation of the industry. Industrial, political and economic strategies have often been out of sync with the conditions on the ground.

Some past government procurement policies have maimed and hindered the progress of the specialist trades. For example, the shift from “Nominated Form” to “Domestic Form” of contract, empowered parts of the construction industry to wield a bigger than intended commercial stick over the specialist trades.

However, by creating win-win outcomes, responsible main contractors have learned to make the “Domestic Form of contract” arrangements work for everyone.

Nevertheless, the convenience of dealing with one “main” contractor tends to shield Clients from the unpleasant negative commercial drivers (e.g., Dutch auctions) that are often over-exercised by some on the Main Contracting side.

Such practices have impoverished parts of the industry and made construction careers much less attractive to public perception. The outcomes from the domestic form of contract have been detrimental to the trades and ultimately counterproductive to the wider industry and its Clients.

Insolvencies of supersized enterprises, extended debtor days, poor cash flow, retention abuse and other negatives have stifled the resolve of the industry in its efforts to attract and retain high-quality apprentices and fund workforce development.

Signs of further decline?
The electrical industry has also been culpable in failing to guard its brand. Tens of thousands of electrical workers operate outside any UK regulatory system or body. Some under-qualified workers are undoubtedly capable of providing a satisfactory or better service.

However, the exception doesn’t beat the rule. The impact of high numbers of unqualified and under-qualified workers accessing projects with safety passports undermines apprenticeship training and lowers the reputation and morale of the industry.

The root cause of extended and repeat snagging, defects, delays and other pre and post-handover difficulties for the Client in the modern era, can often be tracked to workforce ratios that are deficient of qualified go to workers.

Client demand, lack of skilled labour, accrued weaknesses in the gate-keeping system, and commercial pressures oblige the industry to tolerate and even turn a blind eye to the use of unqualified, underqualified, and self-determined electrical workers.

The consequence of these negative factors means that many UK private and public sector projects are set to be increasingly serviced by a disproportionately high number of unskilled or semi-skilled workers going forward.

The virtuous loop of traditional apprenticeship and adult training is replaced by a vicious circle which undermines electrical safety, conceals latent defects, compromises value for money, triggers Client remorse and weakens the social benefits of the industry to the community.

A forecast of further decline in the reputation and performance of the industry is arguable. Some will contend that things “aren’t that bad”! Others and this perhaps is the majority position, are reconciled to the idea that serious intervention and reform is required now to revive the failing brand of the electrical trade in the UK.