England and America, the old George Bernard Shaw adage goes, are two nations divided by a common language. For the two nations' electrical contractors, the differences run a bit deeper than words.
U.K and U.S. electrical contractors seldom work together on international construction projects. Obstacles to joint efforts include the Atlantic Ocean, different electrical codes, different household voltage, different measurement systems, different currencies, dissimilar wiring devices, different building codes and different construction methods. Even work ethics are different-though who's to say which nation's electricians work harder?
So what common ground do English and American contractors share? Wiring's wiring-right, governor? Well, yes, when it comes down to it, contractors on both sides of the Atlantic speak the same English when talk turns to the bottom line. Yanks and blokes alike aim to do quality work, to meet codes and regulations, to get work done on time and to get paid on time.
A tale of two countries Looming large on both contracting horizons are similar economic and technological trends: Contractor consolidation, contractor franchises, electrician certification, burgeoning technology, booming economies and datacom-cabling opportunities.
Like U.S. contracting, electrical contracting in England is a fragmented industry with many small firms doing residential and light commercial work, and a handful of large firms doing big commercial and industrial jobs. More than 20,000 English businesses call themselves electrical contractors and employ about 150,000 electrical workers, according to the English Electrical Contractor Association (ECA). Most of these firms provide a domestic service for small jobs at a local level. In comparison, about 70,000 electrical-contracting firms do business in the United States, and employ about 650,000 electrical workers.
The majority of U.S. firms perform medium-sized commercial jobs. A problem common to all these business on both sides of the pond is the skilled-worker-pool shortage. "We've got the same skills shortages in our construction industry," said Martin D. Gratte, chairman of Gratte Brothers, one of London's largest electrical contractors. "Contracting's not a sexy business. Most students are more interested in information technology and dot-com companies."
Gratte also contrasted the two contracting cultures. "I think the biggest difference is that U.S. contractors don't allow the client to change his mind during the construction period," he said. "Traditionally, over here we've allowed the client to change his mind during the construction-and that slows the whole bloody process down. And arguments over money flare up. In the United States, if the client says he wants extra luminaires or extra power, you say 'Fine, we'll do it when the contract's finished.' You're in, you're out, you get your money-and hopefully you get the tenants fit out.'"
Gratte finds differences in details between the U.S. and British electrical codes, but believes that the intent of English and U.S. rules and regulations are basically the same: "We just want to make sure nobody gets killed or shocked.I would have said 10 years ago there were huge differences. We always thought your construction was a little flimsy. We'd see pictures of hurricanes and houses flattened. Also, five years ago modular wiring didn't exist over here. We thought it was Mickey Mouse stuff. But now we realize that the time you save is incredible." Recently, British and U.S electrical contractors met to explore similarities and differences. It started when members of the English Electrical Contractor Association (ECA) crossed over to meet with the U.S. National Electrical Contractor Association (NECA) contractors in Orlando to explore some common ground. NECA members returned the favor by holding a national meeting in London. The intent of these meetings was not so much to work together, but rather to learn from each other.
Recently, this editor spent some time in London and Birmingham talking with English contractors, ECA officers and manufacturers about the electrical construction and maintenance industry. Issues that dominate English contracting are some of the same issues that dominate in the United States, including contractors certifications, the skilled-labor shortage, fast-track construction and datacom work.
Rounding up cowboys: The competency scheme
Unlike the United States and unlike all other European countries, English electrical work is not regulated. Any English worker can open shop and call himself an electrical contractor. There is no statutory requirement for these individuals or businesses to be qualified or registered in any way.
A proposed English competency criteria requires electricians to carry a card that states their level of competence. The front of the Enhanced Identification Card shows the main occupations and up to four additional occupations in which the holder is certified, together with the JIB Grade where the holder has been graded by the JIB. On the reverse of the card the route, which the cardholder has obtained the certification is documented, i.e. through a registered or other apprenticeship; by NVQ Awards or historic technical and practical qualifications.
In January 2000, the British NICEIC (National Inspection Council for the electrical installation) published the draft criteria for the proposed "industry-wide scheme for the assessment of the technical competence of electrical contractors to carry out work in compliance with the relevant installation standards, codes of practice and regulations." The proposed scheme will cover all aspects of electrical-installation work, including security, fire-alarm and process-control systems.
The scheme ("scheme" has the same connotation as "plan" in England) is designed to offer a one-stop technical assessment that avoids the need for multiple certification from different assessment agencies. Customers seeking the services of a contractor assessed under the scheme will be assured that he or she has been satisfactorily assessed, is technically competent and working to all relevant national standards, regulations and codes of practice and is full able to carry out the work.
"In England anybody can set themselves up as an electrical contractor," Martin Gratte said. "We're probably the only European country that allows that. If we w ork in France or Germany, we have to present our credentials to appropriate authorities. Anybody can come over here and set themselves up as electrical contractor.We're trying to get over that by registering labor-so at least when a guy shows up on site with a card, we know he's at least a registered electrician...and he's competent."
The ECA proposal requires assessments at least every three years. Contractors are expected to pay about 500 pounds (about $800) each year. In addition, the JIB National Board's identification card shows holders JIB Grade, thus eliminating the need for operatives to be in procession of two cards.
The competency scheme stems from British government-supported initiatives aimed at quelling cowboys in the construction industry. The scheme would not be strictly compulsory, but it would create an environment in which those who do not meet the standard would find it difficult to compete. For example, insurance companies could insist that contractors meet the standards of the scheme before performing any electrical installations.
Solving the labor shortage: the apprentice scheme Typically, English electrician apprentices attend college for two years. The ECA has approved three colleges. In the first year the students attend 24 weeks of classes at the technical college. And that's normally in four, six-week blocks. "The first year we don't see much of them. Apprenticeships are an expensive business," Gratte said. "We get some money back for them-through the government-funded scheme. But sometimes students need remedial help before they're ready to become electricians. That's why a lot contractors here don't take on apprentices."
The ECA has drafted a measure proposing that the English government provide occupational training funds to support adult and management training. The current apprenticeship program requires that apprentices complete apprenticeships by their 25th birthday. The ECA wants to extend the age and is petitioning the Department for Education Employment to support individuals of all ages to consider occupational training and continuous training development. Two areas of prime concern to the ECA are the "upskilling" of the workforce to meet the changing technical requirements and the imminent European harmonization of cable colors.
Gratte Brothers maintains an apprenticeship program that carries 43 apprentices and takes on about 12 to 15 new students a year. "We're quite lucky. We're a family business so we have people who've been with us a long time," said Gratte Brothers Chairman Martin Gratte.
"We have quite a large permanent labor force, which is different from a lot of other contractors that just hire for the contract, but we don't feel there's any stability in that. We're one of the few industries in the construction field that run an apprenticeship. Roofers and carpenters rely on hiring and firing from agencies. We don't believe that's the way to go."
There's also little trouble between trade unions in England. "The ECA pays the union a sum of money to keep in place 10 area officials. We pay their salaries. And in return, any person working for the joint industry board gets free membership of the union. So all of our guys are basically union members. The JIB is 50% owned by the trades union and 50% by the ECA." Gratte maintains that apprenticeships were much tougher 40 years ago when he started. "I suppose today though, there is more emphasis on skills than technical abilities. And I think we're going to end up with a few super-tech guys on the site and a lot of guys who can install conduit and cable and containment systems. That seems to be the way it's going."
Gratte also pointed to a semantic problem common to both sides of the pond. The word "engineer" is much maligned here," Gratte said. "On the continent, you can't call yourself an engineer unless you are a qualified engineer-it's a profession qualification. Here, a plumber can call himself a heating engineer, and frequently does. So the word "engineer" doesn't mean much in this country. I think all engineering in this country is frowned upon. The popular view is a man in overalls with a dirty rag. And he pumps grease into a motor."
Gratte Brothers: Fast-track jobs and one-stop shopping Established in 1937, Gratte Brothers, London, is one of the U.K.'s largest contractors. The firm employs 450 people. "We're probably the largest independent electrical contractor in London," Chairman Martin D. Gratte said. Some of Gratte's biggest current jobs involve electrifying a large switch site for 9.8 million pounds (more than $15 million) and a second switch site for Global Crossing, a U.S. company. Over the years Gratte has worked with large U.S. construction companies such as Bechtel, Fluors and Combustion Engineering. "We've got a whole myriad of 50,000-pound, 200,000-pound, half million-pound projects. We do big and small industrial and commercial jobs," Martin Gratte said. "We like diversity. I think some contractors are too narrow in their outlook."
Gratte Brothers recently set up a network systems division that offers owners and customers one-stop shopping for power and data installation.
"We find the margins are better with data, or at least they have been better so far," Gratte said. "There's always a bit of black magic about computer wire..I don't know why our company kept away from datacom initially..But the last couple of years we've had a datacom division that's doing quite well. And we use the same labor for pulling power wiring and pulling data cabling. The clever bit is the terminations-or if there's fiber involved. But terminations and fiber-pulling is getting easier to do all the time."
Gratte explained that datacom work takes more training for some of his people, particularly the connections and the patching. "But the pulling of the cable from A to B is pretty basic," Gratte said. "Then along comes the specialist who does the clever bits-the terminations and connections." Gratte Brothers also performs security work CCTV fire alarm work. "It's all basically doing the same thing-the only difference is what you hang on the end of the wires," Gratte said.
Perhaps American contracting's biggest ripple on Gratte Brothers is prefabricated fast-track hurry-up building methods. "I'd say 60% of our electrical work, if not more, is fast track. And we tend to run these projects directly from the site. These days we haven't got time to keep coming back to a head office for this and that. We put a guy on site who's competent and has the authority. And he runs it from there. We fit him up with telephone and fax and mobile phone-and all the other gizmos that he needs. And the whole project is run from site."
"My 87-year-old father, who founded our firm, can't understand it. When he ran the company, a building was a battleship. And it was built to last for 50 years. Now we put an installation in that lasts two or three years. One tenant moves out, a new tenant moves in and rips out the old wiring. So everything's got to be done-not so much for cheapness-but for economy. We've changed a lot over the past 10 years-we've changed as the accepted practices of doing things have changed. Most of the new ideas have come from America, but the European manufacturers have adapted those ideas and made them conform. "I think one benefit we've learned from Americans is we're building more quickly now because we are adopting that American ethic of build the bloody thing and fit it out afterwards. And there's a lot of benefit in that. It's a good thing that both sides can influence each other."