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Leading the Charge
The days of thinking an electrician is an electrician is an electrician might be gone, says ECA's Andrew Eldred.
The Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) contacted The Green Edge recently to tell us about Leading the Charge, a major new multi-media series exploring the electrotechnical sector’s pivotal role in realising the UK’s net zero ambitions. ECA told us that Leading the Charge will launch on 13th September and we were naturally keen to hear more. So we jumped onto a Zoom with Andrew Eldred and Jane Dawsonof ECA, to talk about Leading the Charge and the outlook for the electrotechnical sector in general.
ECA was founded in 1901 and officially incorporated in 1916. Representing the interests of contractors who designed, installed, inspected, tested and maintained electrical and electronic equipment and services, the Association played a particularly important part in the 1920s and 1930s when electric power was introduced to most houses. Fast-forward to today, one of ECA’s priorities is the transition to net zero and the opportunities and challenges it presents for the sector. And one of those key challenges - like many other sectors we talk to - is attracting new people.
Talking numbers with Andrew and Jane, we learn that ECA has 2,700 member firms, ranging from small to medium enterprises (SMEs) to Tier 1 companies. With a combined turnover of £4 billion, many ECA members are at the forefront of the electrification of transport, of heat and the whole of the built economy. In terms of numbers of people in the sector, Andrew tells us, “we're talking about a skilled electrical workforce of about 230,000 across the UK within the electrical contracting industry, and if you broaden it out to electrically-skilled people working in other sectors, that number goes up to 340,000. From a UK point of view, that's a strategic national resource that probably needs a bit more attention than it's receiving at the moment, or indeed has received historically for a very long time.”
The reason for this need for attention is obvious: electricity is critical for net zero. Skills in photovoltaic (PV) solar, batteries, building energy efficiency and other low carbon electric technologies are firmly on the list for the future electrotechnical workforce. And right at the top of that list comes electric vehicle (EV) charging. IfATE’s main electrical apprenticeship for Installation and Maintenance Electricians in England is currently up for review and while the final shape of it has yet to be determined, the changes proposed unsurprisingly incorporate low carbon and smart technologies, of which EV charging is a key part. Likewise, ECA has been heavily involved in the development of a new City and Guilds EV Charging qualification as a top up for existing, competent electricians. Going back to apprenticeships, there’s also a new Domestic Electrician standard, for which the incorporation of low carbon technologies in homes was a key driver. Recruitment for Domestic Electrician apprentices starts this month (September 2022) and Andrew tells us “This is quite a departure for us. It's been an article of faith within the industry for generations that an electrician is an electrician is an electrician. But as the market has evolved, particularly over the last 15 years or so, many employers operate purely in the domestic market. And the new domestic apprenticeship incorporates a full EV charging qualification for domestic premises.
“So [across the board], EV charging is now being seen as core, not peripheral to what electricians do”.
So, are there enough new electricians coming into the profession? Well, no, it seems not. The Installation and Maintenance Electricians apprenticeship we mentioned earlier - which, incidentally, is consistently over-subscribed and has the highest take-up of any construction trade apprenticeship in the UK – has around 7,500 new recruits this year in England. But England needs more like 10,000 new recruits each year. Scotland, where apprentices make up around 20% of the skilled electrician workforce (in England, it's more like 10%) looks somewhat better. But while England, Scotland and Wales have all seen upturns this year in numbers of recruits, there’s still a shortfall of quite a few thousand, especially when dropout rates - historically around 25% - are factored in.
According to Andrew, London has a really serious problem. As he pointed out in our recent podcast, many - perhaps most - of the people who supposedly are being trained in electrical installation in London are actually doing it as full-time college students. They may get a technical diploma, but they come out with only a tiny amount of practical experience and as far as the industry’s concerned, they’re not recognised as competent. Andrew says, “the issue in London and elsewhere in England, and also to a certain extent in Wales and Northern Ireland, but less so in Scotland, is we've got very large numbers of people being sold the idea that going to college for a couple of years is going to give you a ticket to becoming an electrician. But very few of these are going to find their way ultimately into legitimate skilled employment.”
So, the case for raising the Spark’s profile is clear and Leading the Charge is ECA’s programme aiming to do just that. Jane tells us that Leading the Charge will tell the story of the transformative moment for the UK as we move into the green electric revolution.
Developed in collaboration with Content With Purpose and ten industry partners, Leading the Charge will tell that story from different angles: apprentices going into that world; firms doing it; educators; and the policymakers. It will cover key themes like innovation, the opportunities in the Net Zero world, safety, skills, decarbonizing power, and the regulatory framework. And the key point it wants to get across is that electricians and electrical contractors are pivotal to the realisation of a net zero future, and a safe and effective transition to net zero simply cannot happen without those contractors and those professionals. The Green Edge agrees.
It’s a comprehensive digital programme, including a 30 minute documentary, a six-episode podcast series, six interviews with experts in the field, six articles for media outlets, six short videos for social media, and ten films from the content partners. There’ll also be a dedicated edition of the ECA Today magazine coming out at some stage
Leading the Charge will launch on 13th September to an invited audience at the Royal Society with the first showing of the documentary, which will then be available online. New releases of films, podcasts and articles will be made every week up until Christmas. All the details, including where to find it, are here.
In The Green Edge’s opinion, Leading the Charge is highly significant for the UK’s net zero future and if Government is not taking notice, it should. We commented back in May that the Green Jobs Delivery Group seems to have some significant gaps in it and, from what we’ve seen and heard since, we’re getting more and more of a feeling that it simply reflects the Government’s fixation on big business and misses out some parts that are key to actually making net zero happen. When we put this to Andrew Eldred of the ECA, he agreed and pointed out that there is nobody on the Group from the engineering services sector. He added, “You ask the question, why is that? And I suspect the answer is that we are SME sectors and Government tends to like to have the so-called big players in the room, which for them tends to mean big companies.”
With or without Government help, and with an education system that still seems to favour academic qualifications over training people to be ‘good with their hands’, greater numbers of properly-qualified people need to come into the electrical sector if the targets for net zero are going to be achieved. And Leading the Charge addresses that need. Andrew concludes “From our point of view, I think we're better off than many sectors in that we do have a very sizable workforce and then there is the workforce outside as well. But all sorts of people are going to be competing with that.”
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At ECA, Andrew Eldred is Director of Workforce and Public Affairs, and Jane Dawson is Head of Public Relations and Public Affairs.