With the 2016 deadline for zero-carbon new homes looming ever nearer, concern is growing that implementing sustainable technologies into the home could backfire unless proper checks and balances are applied to installers.
Given that much of the sustainable technology being suggested for zero-carbon homes will require electrical connections – such as building management systems, photovoltaic panels and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery – the Electrical Contractors Association says that training will have an important role in keeping electrical contractors competent.
ECA head of training and education Iain MacDonald says electricians who are coming through the qualification system at present should find the transition fairly easy. “We’ve worked closely with SummitSkills to ensure that the National Occupational Standards for electricians take into account sustainable technologies, so those who are qualifying now will have the broad knowledge required to take up the challenge and contribute to the sustainability agenda,” he says.
However, Mr MacDonald warns that the low-carbon transition will increase demand for qualified electricians and that the capacity to meet that demand does not exist at present. “The burden of training apprentices falls largely on SMEs and there are limits to how many they can take on, especially in a challenging economy,” he says.
A capacity gap
Before the recession, the ECA estimated that each year around 3,500 people entered into electrician apprenticeships, with around 2,700 fully qualifying. However, Mr McDonald says that to keep up with future demand, around 5,000 apprentices need to pass each year, meaning if pass rates remain constant, the electrical industry needs to absorb around 7,000 trainees.
Mr MacDonald says that the skill level required to install green improvements is NVQ Level 3, and that very short courses on electrical installation won’t be enough. “If undertrained people enter the industry, that has implications for reliability, maintenance and client confidence,” he says. “The UK has carbon reduction targets it needs to meet for 2050 and client confidence will be what drives the uptake of sustainable technologies. We’re facing the same problem that the cavity wall insulation industry did in the 1970s. Many installations were done poorly, companies went bust and there is a whole generation of people who refuse to have it installed. We can’t afford to make mistakes of this scale.”
Meeting the challenge is vital. “If we get this wrong, we’ll have even less capacity to train people sufficiently. We need to see beyond the short-term gold rush. Training can pay for itself repeatedly, and companies that cut down that skill base will damage the industry’s capacity,” says Mr MacDonald.