Engineering skills crisis

Why the fire industry desperately needs a formal engineering qualification

MD, Sunfish Services

Author Bio ▼

John Battersby is MD of Sunfish Services and an FIA member. Sunfish is a specialist fire company based in Melbourne, Derbyshire that supplies fire detection and protection products across the UK and operate a service and maintenance division covering the East and West Midlands, including Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
February 22, 2017

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Right now, there is a real issue in the fire industry: the skills gap is still growing.

Quite simply, there aren’t enough skilled fire alarm engineers to go around. I’m recruiting for an experienced installation engineer right now and I’ve only had a handful of enquiries.

Time is ticking and you need to get those positions filled in order to do the job. It’s frustrating that there is such a large pool of unskilled workers – who may or may not aspire to doing this level of work – but not a big pool of experienced people.

The bottom line: unemployment is at its lowest level for who knows how long. Being in a fire alarm business, being a fire alarm engineer, is not something you can walk into and start work tomorrow. The guys need to be trained over several years, like teachers and doctors.

Few job applicants can even answer the most basic questions correctly

Recruiting would be so much easier if there was an engineering qualification. Not that training is bad, but a formal qualification would set a benchmark to distinguish the level of knowledge that you’d expect applicants to have.

Education is so vastly underrated. You can have a fire alarm engineer who has been a fire alarm engineer for 20 years, but he might just have been completing simple maintenance work.

When I do interviews, I ask them: “Can you tell me the different categories of a fire alarm system?”. I can count on one hand the amount of people that have got that right. Applicants just don’t know the differences – the basic stuff. It adds to my frustration with recruitment agencies.

You tell them your requirements but they just send over anyone they can find. There is just no quality control of candidates out there. There is no way of knowing how much a candidate knows until he or she is in front of you.

Knowledge gaps

If there was a qualification, it would fix that. An actual formal qualification that covers all the fundamentals would improve your chances of attracting the right level of applicant.

There is so much truth in the stories one hears about recruitment: interviewing people and understanding how they are going to perform is extremely difficult.

Generally, you get about three months down the line before you know what type of person you’ve actually hired, and by that point, it might be too late. But it’s not always a lack of skills; it could be a lack of technical knowledge or simply attitude towards the role and the customers, and by that point you’ve already paid your commission to your recruitment agency.

Some candidates might have done a course here, or a course there, but there is no uniformity, nothing to show that they have a full level of end-to-end knowledge

In theory you want more rigorous education, a rigorous qualification, to have a higher level of knowledge and understanding. It raises the bar for the industry.

The problem is that candidates have gaps in their knowledge. And not everyone has had the same training.

So some candidates might have done a course here, or a course there, but there is no uniformity, nothing to show that they have a full level of end-to-end knowledge. Having a qualification would ensure that those elements are covered.

You wouldn’t hire a taxi driver without a driving licence. At the moment, there is no formal entrance requirement to becoming a fire alarm engineer (legally speaking).

I see it sometimes. Someone will phone me up and tell me “I’ve got a qualified fire alarm engineer for you”.  What does that even mean?

What is a ‘qualified’ fire alarm engineer? How do you define that? You can teach someone to maintain a fire alarm system easily enough, but in terms of having an understanding – knowing the how and why and applying those things based on standards, as well as simply having the level of knowledge that you’d expect from a fire alarm engineer – not every applicant has that.

As an additional headache, the salary band that fire alarm engineers operate within is very small. The truly awful ones can be the same price as the truly brilliant ones.

This is my own personal hot topic at the moment. The trouble is that there’s not really that differentiation in the market at the moment: for a fire alarm engineer, you can expect a salary range of the low 20s up to £30k a year, which means that for employers, it can be very hard to set pay scales to encourage good engineers to show progression.

Maybe if there was a qualification in fire detection and alarm systems, it would be easier for the industry to say: “If you’ve got the qualification, you can have X level of pay,” but right now there is no control, and no way of knowing how good an engineer is – until you’ve actually got them on the team.

Fixing the skills gap

I’ve always been an advocate of the idea of ‘growing your own’. You may have noticed other blog posts about the growing and rather worrying lack of ‘new blood’ coming into the industry and everyone wondering how on earth to fix the skills gap.

On top of that there is the new EN standard that sets out the minimum level of education for those in the fire safety services industry. It’s getting quite challenging to get the industry to come together to find a solution.

Engineers only leave when they can’t see a way to progress, and giving them a qualification would be giving them something they can actually work towards

There’s quite a small supply of engineers. That we know. But if you ‘grow your own’ right from the start, you can educate them. Get them fresh from college, give them the proper training. Educate them. By growing your own, you get people who fit better with your business organisation, your culture, the way you want to do things.

One of our guys I recruited when he was 18. Now 10 years later, he’s managing the team of engineers. He’s one of the ones that knows how we work and he’s had a good education through us.

Recruiters can cause problems when they send over applicants that don’t fit your company structure and culture. But it just lends more truth to the argument that you should grow your own: recruit, train, and retain your staff.

Imagine if a qualification existed. You could get the applicants in whilst they’re young, have them sit the exams, and keep growing their skillset through experience.

Train and retain, that’s the goal at the end of the day: to keep your staff and keep them motivated. Engineers only leave when they can’t see a way to progress, and giving them a qualification would be giving them something they can actually work towards.

After all, part of being a good company is about leadership, and allowing your staff to grow and develop.

Let your staff be proud of what they can achieve by giving them a chance to succeed at becoming qualified engineers, and suddenly your engineers will become the biggest advocates of your brand. And when you’re trying to grow a business, that’s what it’s all about.

Consumer confidence and BAFE

BAFE schemes have come a long way in giving consumers confidence in what they are buying. When BAFE came out there was no other way of managing quality.

Now, 12-14 years later, BAFE SP 203-1 is widely recognised as a standard for fire alarm companies to be accredited to.  And whilst the BAFE schemes are a great way to recognise the company itself, a qualification to prove the competence of the individual engineers employed by that company is long overdue.

In a service-based industry, quality of delivery is everything. And your engineers are out there on the front line, representing your brand.

How do you stand out from the competition? Have great engineers. But the real issue is: how do you know that the individual engineer is up to the standard required to do the job?

If qualifications existed, it would give consumers even greater confidence about what they were buying. Being recognised by BAFE, and an FIA member, and being able to say that all of our engineers have a qualification in their specialist area would make us stand out head and shoulders above the competition.

These days consumers look not just on price, but for services they can trust. And that really is the key thing: can you trust your engineers to provide great service?

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Jon Powell
Jon Powell
February 23, 2017 12:45 pm

John,

Very good article and I totally agree

Jason Bolton
Jason Bolton
February 23, 2017 12:57 pm

John Very compelling argument and I totally agree with what you say. I agree that a education is always the way forward, but with companies who are very profit driven; would they pay to have employees on day release at college or even take the hit at having an employee away from work and losing profit, work or even a client. Most people in this economic environment, just want a job that pays a wage and hassle free. I think the whole fire industry needs a massive shake up, as there are some very shady characters out there selling their… Read more »

lesdodd60
lesdodd60
February 23, 2017 2:09 pm

as a possible solution why not consider setting up a modern apprenticeship where your company trains people to your high standard using the en standard as a basis. and then have other levels where the engineers can obtain better qualifications and therefore an increase in pay.

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[…] The shortage of fire alarm engineers is a real issue – and it’s one that needs to be addressed as a matter of some urgency, according to a recent report on the IFSEC Global website. […]