Why our industry will never be the same again

Controversy and threats of strike action over a new working agreement only emphasise that the way building services projects are delivered is changing forever, says HVCA President Bob Shelley.

The recent protests against a new, single working agreement for mechanical, electrical and plumbing operatives were politically orchestrated by the radical arm of trade unions and it is still a minority of workers who are unhappy about the proposed changes.

There is no doubt, however, that many employees in our sector are concerned about their futures, but most recognise that there is more to the agreement than the union seems to have realised.

The new agreement is all about establishing a framework for the future of our industry and is designed to reflect the new modern, multi-skilled and multi-disciplinary industry in which we all work. The old agreements were drawn up in an age when the demarcation lines between traditional ‘trades’ were clear and relevant – those days are gone. Most firms are now trying to work in a more collaborative way and most employees are already multi-skilled.

The twin challenges of sustainability and our new austere economic circumstances mean there is no going back. The vast majority of M&E and plumbing workers realise that their future depends on our industry embracing modern methods of construction.

The Government also wants projects delivered for 20% less money despite the fact that raw material costs continue to rise steadily. The pressure on the public purse is such that we simply must meet this target and the coalition’s proposed Construction Strategy has highlighted the importance of the industry working in a more collaborative and integrated way to achieve it.

Sustainable projects

By the same token, clients will no longer tolerate any other way of delivering their projects. Integrated project teams get started on site, on average, six months before conventional project teams; they deliver sustainable projects on time and to budget giving far better value for money. The post-handover experience is always better too. They do this by working in a coherent team from the very early stages of the design right through until commissioning and beyond.

The growth of modern methods of construction, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), is creating an environment that encourages collaboration. BIM will be mandatory on all public sector projects from 2016. If you are not playing by the rules by then you might not be playing the game at all.

In these economically challenging times, clients are rapidly running out of patience with a sector that cannot organise itself to work in this way and produce the improved quality and cost savings inherent in cohesive project teams. They are frustrated by delays and quality issues, particularly when they know there is a better way of doing things.

For our part, construction supply chains are being hammered. Specialist sub-contractors are under intense pressure to cut costs as our margins are already non-existent – we have to work in a smarter way to survive. Failing to adapt and modernise is the real threat to jobs.

New systems

Clients expect their buildings to be more sophisticated in terms of controls and energy saving technologies. This requires M&E operatives to have the range of skills that allows them to integrate new systems into existing buildings; and to manage the crucial part of sustainable design – the controls and hydraulics that make all the carbon saving designs come to life and actually work.

The country’s largest M&E contractors have been arguing for some time that the industry needs a modern, integrated employment framework with common criteria for engagement as the basis for forming an integrated workforce. The Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA), developed on behalf of the companies by the HVCA, is designed to harmonise operatives’ pay and terms and conditions of employment across all three disciplines. 

Benefits

Under the BESNA, operatives will continue to be directly employed and their rates of pay will be standardised across the workforce. Many operatives will enjoy improved terms and conditions and existing pensions and welfare benefits will be maintained. For the firms that adopt it, the BESNA would become the single, unified agreement (replacing the five existing agreements that have grown up since the 1960s) so allowing employers and workers’ representatives to create a more integrated workforce. 

Clients increasingly expect us to be capable of adopting a ‘design/manufacture/ install’ approach – so a training and apprenticeship programme is being developed alongside the proposed BESNA that will give existing and new M&E specialists the skills they need.

The sector’s biggest trade union Unite has accused M&E employers of using the proposed agreement to introduce a new grade of semi-skilled workers to cut project costs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reducing skill levels on site would increase costs by undermining project delivery leading to costly overruns and quality problems.

The new draft agreement is also designed to increase direct employment across the industry, which ensures better continuity for workers and greater job security.

The funding model developed by the Government to support the uptake of renewable technologies and sustainable solutions is absolutely dependent on us having a multi-disciplinary workforce to deliver projects. The Green Deal; the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI); and Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs) all rely on installers having a complete grasp of how a technology fits into a complete building services system as well as the skills required to make it work in practice.

For example, the Green Deal loans will have to be repaid from a monthly charge on the consumer’s energy bill. However, funding will only be made available if the planned energy saving improvement meets the Golden Rule that the charge is either equal to or less than the resulting energy savings.

So, our industry’s job is to turn expected savings into real ones or face a huge backlash if homeowners, businesses and landlords find they are paying back more than they are saving.

Deliver

The RHI payments are dependent on readings from the heat meters installed with every project. The amount of heat generated will be continually measured and monitored – and if they don’t deliver the RHI payments won’t come in. Similarly with FiTs, if systems are poorly installed or not properly integrated into the building the results will be disappointing and the payback period on the microgeneration system extended.

Again it is back to multi-skilled operatives and integrated teams. There is no other way to deliver the required quality in the required time to this reduced budget. This is not just the future; it is the now. Sustainability and the low carbon agenda are driving integration and multi-skilling – so are the new breed of young engineers who can’t imagine any other way of working and who are the ones leading the way on sustainability.

The skills required are not radically different to those the existing workforce already has, but sustainability requires a broader approach and an enhanced skill set, including an appreciation of how building fabric improvements, low carbon technologies, controls and user training must work in harmony to produce results.

Our business environment is extremely tough and we have at least another year of this to get through so now is not the time to be looking backwards. We have no choice, but to modernise and streamline so that we can survive the next 12 months and then thrive in the future.

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