Electric dreams fail to shine

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Working time regulations are restricting the number of apprentice electricians taken on by businesses. Joe Clancy reports

Less than a tenth of school leavers keen to become apprentice electricians eventually find training opportunities with employers, figures from a leading training provider reveal.

Now a recruitment expert is warning that the lack of places for apprentice electricians could short-circuit efforts to plug a skills gap in the construction industry.

Iain Macdonald, head of education and training at leading industry body the Electrical Contractors Association, estimates that 6,000 electricians a year need to be trained to meet future demand.

That is the same number of applicants who passed a selection test for apprenticeships last year. But the industry was only able to offer training places to less than a third of them.

JTL is the principal training provider charged with generating recruits to the building engineering services industry.

It says that of the 23,411 young people who applied to become electrical apprentices with it last year, 6,195 were deemed suitable for training. But only 2,027 actually found apprenticeship places with employers.

In addition, 40 per cent of electrical apprentices do not complete the required four years of training. Mr Macdonald said a mass of red tape and burgeoning legislation is a major reason why firms are reluctant to train young people as electricians.

He said: "New legislation, aimed particularly at governing working hours for young people below the age of 18, together with new Health and Safety regulations, results in barriers to apprenticeship recruitment in the electrical contracting industry."

He cited the example of ECA member firm, RT Harris and Son, based in Oxford, that was unable to take an apprentice on a London-based job as the travelling time would have taken him over the number of hours he was allowed to work under the EU's Working Time Directive.

As a result, he said, the firm was unable to use the apprentice on the contract.

He said: "If a team sets off in a van at eight in the morning with a young apprentice on board, they will all have to be back at base by four in the afternoon as 18-year-olds cannot work longer than eight hours a day, even though the rest of the team might be willing to work a lot longer."

As a result, he said, the industry is placing greater emphasis on the importance of adult trainees who are not so limited by the Working Time Directive.

Adult trainees are also perceived as having greater commitment and a more responsible attitude to their development. Mr Macdonald suspects that the reasons behind electrical contractors' reluctance to create apprenticeship places differ depending on business size.

He said: "Small firms with no human resources function may be intimidated by the red tape surrounding the employment of apprentices, as well as the challenge of managing them.

"Conversely, medium-sized electrical contractors, while employing the most apprentices, do so cautiously for fear that once they are trained they will lose them to larger businesses."

He said changes in the structure of the industry had hit the number of apprenticeships in recent years, with the consequence that a high proportion of qualified electricians are due to retire within five years.

"Electricity boards used to employ hundreds of apprentices, but since privatisation they don't.

"And, in many instances, the larger firms that historically used to recruit large numbers of apprenticeships have moved away from direct employment towards agencies.

"If an employer takes on a large number of apprentices, that could make him uncompetitive in the world in which he works.

"Most of the firms that now train apprentices are in the small-to-medium range, employing between 25 and 250 people.

"We have an ageing industry. If the Government is going to build 250,000 homes in the South-east alone it is going to need more skilled people.

"We may find that in five to 10 years' time we have too few young people coming into the industry to plug the skills gap."

He said the industry is supportive of the Government's 14-to-19 strategy enabling 14-year-olds to take vocational courses.

"If a young person has the opportunity to try vocational trades at an early age they can make informed choices about their own aptitudes and ambitions," he added.

He said all electricians are deemed qualified if they hold an NVQ level 3 qualification, which is what an apprentice gains on completion of training, and the industry is self-regulating to ensure only qualified electricians are used on major construction sites.

He said: "Contracts on, for example, the new terminal building at Heathrow airport will only be awarded to companies that can show their workforces are fully qualified. But the domestic end of the business is unregulated.

"Anyone can put an advert in the Yellow Pages and call themselves an electrician, and providing they are neat and tidy and don't blow anything up they can get away with it."

It is, however, about to become more difficult for unqualified electricians. From next January "Part P" of Building Regulations aims to ensure all electrical work must be carried out or supervised by qualified electricians to satisfy building controls, said Mr Macdonald.

WHY THE INDUSTRY IS FALLING SHORT

* Estimated number of electrical apprentices needed annually...6,000

* Number of applicants for JTL apprenticeships last year...23,000

* Number considered suitable for training....6,000

* Number offered apprenticeships with companies...2,000

* shortfall of supply to demand...4,000

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