Training - Staying ahead of the game

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The Electrical Contractors' Association (ECA) and leading awarding body EAL have   worked together to develop qualifications specifically tailored to meet industry needs. Here, Iain Macdonald (pictured), Head of Education and Training at the ECA, and Ann Watson, Managing Director of EAL, look at issues faced by contractors, and the importance of training to stay ahead of the game

Challenges to Training

Iain MacDonald outlines the challenges to training:
Recent years have seen dramatic and rapid changes to training and skills requirements in the electrotechnical industry, resulting from; advancements in technology, changes in regulation and legislation, and the government's sustainability agenda. To remain competitive, firms are faced with the issue of keeping operatives up-to-date, leading to an increased need for workforce training.

Training is costly and requires a significant investment of time off the job. In light of this, I believe it would be fair to say that many firms only train when they have no other choice; when legislation dictates or accreditation is required by third parties. In an increasingly competitive market, this attitude to improving and consolidating skills may now put the future of businesses at stake. In an era where clients and specifiers are increasingly asking contractors to demonstrate competence and qualifications in the work they carry out, one of the best ways for them to do so is to train their workforce.

Faced with a wide choice of contractors in a highly competitive market, clients are increasingly likely to employ firms with the credentials to satisfy their expectations and legal obligations. Those with a trained and qualified workforce make a statement that they are likely to be competent and up-to-date with industry best practice.

There are, of course, always firms that rely solely on their track record, reputation and experience to win business, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, in a market that is increasingly defined by specialist areas such as fire, security, datacomms and now, sustainability, conventional electrical contractors that would traditionally see such work as ‘their' business are finding that clients are increasingly looking for proof that a firm is ‘qualified' to carry out the work. The result is a rapid growth in the certification of firms, often underpinned by a requirement to prove the skills and qualifications of the workforce.
There are many reasons why contractors should ensure that training remains a priority even in the current downturn, however, the ECA's ‘Incentives and Barriers to Training' report, published last year, identified several significant challenges to training. The two central issues were financial constraints, and a lack of understanding amongst employers of competency requirements and the wide range of training options available. These challenges, and ways around them, will be analysed in more detail later. First, let's examine the main drivers of change:

Sustainability
The government has set an ambitious target of 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. The construction industry plays a key role in this and is experiencing a marked impact in terms of growing legal and technical requirements on projects at all levels from design to completion.

As the demand for intelligent building solutions grows and technological advancements increase, specialist firms will undoubtedly capitalise on the business opportunities their skills and qualifications provide by creating a niche market for a particular discipline, thus presenting ever more competition for the general electrical contractor.

Standards to underpin training and qualifications in support of sustainable technologies are still to be developed and, in the meantime, firms should be careful to obtain qualifications from reputable sources. It is hoped that, once developed, qualifications such as this will provide contractors with quality-assured instruction, assessment and certification, enabling them to comply with increasingly strict environmental legislation, and distinguish themselves from competitors.

17th Edition
Last year we saw the most complete overhaul of the basic industry regulations in sixteen years, in the form of BS7671: 2008 The 17th Edition of the IEE Wiring Regulations.
Significantly, the new regulations now impose a legal requirement on the client to take responsibility for ensuring that any work commissioned is in compliance. The client's duty is no longer to simply go with the best price, but also to ensure competence, safety and quality by contracting those with sufficient technical knowledge of the regulations. As a consequence, we now see clauses in contracts specifying that contractors demonstrate competence to carry out work that complies, with the most effective way of satisfying this requirement being proof of up-to-date industry recognised qualifications.

These changes will have had most impact on those contractors with plentiful experience but little in the way of formal training. New entrants to the sector, and operatives who have not undertaken any formal qualification on the 16th Edition since 2001 require a full course, while those with qualifications taken after 2001 may only need to undertake a shorter update course. The ECA has worked with EAL and other awarding bodies to offer both the full and update 17th Edition diplomas. Another valuable qualification is the Level 2 Certificate for Domestic Electrical Installers, incorporating the necessary knowledge requirements for the majority of Part P Competent Persons Schemes.


Business Benefits of Training

Ann Watson continues on the business benefits of training:
We have seen that during times of financial uncertainty, training and the additional associated costs become less of a priority for businesses. In the current financial climate, many companies will be tempted to slash training budgets. But during a recession, companies investing in training are 2.5 times less likely to go under. So, however difficult it might be to sustain investment in training during this time, to do otherwise could lead to substantial problems in the long term.

There are significant business advantages associated with investment in training. Whilst it may be tough to secure the required budgets during the recession, if training can be sustained, the return on that initial investment will include benefits for both employers and employees alike. For example, certain qualifications and training courses can help improve business knowledge, performance and productivity, making companies more robust and successful. By increasing efficiency and effectiveness in the workplace, training can aid turnover and reduce business costs, as well as boosting employee confidence, morale and motivation, therefore assisting with recruitment and retention. Similarly, demonstrating the high quality performance of a skilled and motivated workforce to existing and potential customers could lead to new or repeat business.

By providing employees with the opportunity to work towards nationally recognised qualifications and obtain transferable abilities, skills and knowledge, training will aid employees' career development opportunities. With the future of the industry dependent on training as a method of easing the skills crisis, investment in training is crucial in order to secure the future strength of the industry.

Funding & Advice
Government funding to undertake training programmes may be available to employers, regardless of their business size, through initiatives such as Train to Gain. Further information and advice on these initiatives, including details of how to apply, are available from Sector Skills Councils such as SummitSkills. Members of the Electrical Contractors' Association (ECA) may also be able to access the ECA Training Fund, a £10m fund created to help member firms by reimbursing the course costs of approved adult training programmes. Level 3 and Level 4 Electrotechnical NVQs approved by SummitSkills are included in the ECA's list of qualifications that are available for funding, such as EAL's Building Service Engineering Technology and Project Management NVQs at Level 3 and 4, along with NVQs focusing on management and in-company career development programmes.

In Summary
I believe that through sustained investment in high-quality training relevant to business objectives, employers can ensure that their organisations are equipped with a competitive edge in preparation for eventual economic upturn. High standards of skill and expertise remain very much in demand in the electrical industry. By undertaking the necessary training and striving to deliver best practice, electrical contractors of all sizes can remain competitive. Firms that face the challenges brought about by changing training requirements and turn them into business benefits will be best placed to survive difficult times and prosper in the future.

Securing the future of the industry is of paramount importance, and this can only be achieved through sustained investment in training. We will continue to work with industry bodies such as the ECA, along with our own specialist in-house experts, to ensure that our qualifications are fit for purpose, flexible and of the high quality required. Doing so will enable us to assist businesses and the industry as a whole to remain strong, despite the current downturn.