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A trade body is helping support the skills for now and the future.

First published:
7 March 2023
Last updated:
Solar panels on houses being built

ECA is leading the charge

ECA is the UK’s largest trade body representing electrical, electrotechnical and engineering services contractors across Wales, Northern Ireland and England. ECA was formed 122 years ago to tackle the challenges of mass electrification. Once again, its members are at the vanguard of a transition. As net zero targets drive a surge in electricity use, innovation and new ways of working are in demand.

In Wales, ECA supports 215 member firms which are predominantly SMEs. It provides advice on business and technical matters, represents the industry to government and helps to shape qualifications and training.

ECA also keeps its members up to date on new technology, the latest regulations and best practice. In 2022, it launched 'Leading the Charge', a suite of videos, podcasts and articles which shines a light on the industry as it adapts to the accelerating pace of electrification.

Andrew Eldred, Director of Workforce and Public Affairs, explains:

'Leading the Charge’ is a shop window for the role of the electrotechnical sector in delivering net zero because without electricians, net zero simply won’t happen. We wanted to raise awareness among young people, employers and decision makers of the full extent of the sector’s role in net zero but also of the huge opportunities that exist.

Featuring in 'Leading the Charge' are two Welsh companies, RDM and EFT Consult, who are undertaking pioneering work at Swansea University, together with academics. This involves installing a combination of a vast roof-mounted photovoltaic (PV) system and solar car port which uses new, innovative solar panels that are 30% more efficient, and capable of generating up to 150 kilowatts power at peak.

The Swansea University campus development also includes a massive 250-kilowatt hour battery storage system and a smart grid system which coordinates energy flow between a solar powered car port and vehicle to grid technology. This is technology at the cutting edge, with big everyday applications:

It means that homes of the future will not only be able to power our cars but there will be a two-way passage of electricity. Our cars will also be able to power our homes.

It is this sharing of best practice and forward-thinking that Andrew says is essential for ECA members:

99.8% of electrical contractors are SMEs. Not all can afford to have a cutting-edge technical team keeping them up to date with all the latest technology news. It’s our job to keep them abreast of what’s happening in the industry.

In recent years, with the rise of solar PV, electric vehicle charging points and battery installation, the demand for electricians has soared:

We carried out a survey in April 2022 and we found that already 72% of ECA members were installing one net zero technology or more. The opportunity for electricians and for the firms who employ electricians are vast because we do have this very broad skill set. It’s not a demand that is likely to diminish.

Supporting this demand are the new vocational qualifications and apprenticeship framework now available in Wales, of which ECA and its members are strong supporters.

Jeremy Parkin, director of Powerlink Electrical Services and Chairman of ECA’s South Wales Region, explains:

The new qualification system in Wales is excellent. The way in which classroom-based courses are aligned with the knowledge requirements of the apprenticeship is fantastic. The system that Qualifications Wales has put in place effectively means there are now multiple, potential entry points into the apprenticeship. It’s really joined-up and will help attract new entrants into the industry.

A spokesperson for Qualifications Wales said:

"A new suite of made-for-Wales qualifications in construction and building services engineering is available to learners in further education and as part of an apprenticeship. These exciting new qualifications allow learners to develop their craft skills in a wide range of occupations and take streamlined assessments. The qualifications are designed to be flexible and accessible for learners, and we are delighted with ECA’s support for the new qualification system in this sector and the progression routes it offers. Learners undertaking the qualifications develop an understanding of the new technologies and techniques that are used in the built environment sector to tackle climate change and reduce carbon emissions."

Currently, the Electrotechnical Skills Partnership (TESP) reports that there are 14,000 electricians in Wales. ECA estimates that the sector needs to recruit 700 a year if it is to keep up with the pace of net zero. Traditionally, apprenticeships, the industry’s preferred training route, were designed for young people, but they are increasingly becoming an option for those wanting to switch careers in later life.

There are also opportunities to undertake full time education and self-funded courses. However, employment or other extensive work experience is then required in order to become a fully qualified electrician.

Existing electrical firms are also able to upskill and can do so for free thanks to the Welsh Government’s Personal Learning Accounts programme (PLAs). Fully-funded, flexible courses and qualifications are available so that people can train around existing responsibilities in order to progress in a current job or change careers altogether.

An additional investment of £2m by the Welsh Government into green PLAs is supporting Wales’ drive to net zero. The eligibility salary cap has been removed for those upskilling or reskilling in the sectors of construction, engineering and manufacturing which means that electricians can access training to install new technologies:

But we do need to see closer coordination between training providers and firms so that businesses can influence training content and are aware of the upskilling opportunities available.

Looking to the not-so-distant future, he believes there is a significant opportunity in not simply the installation of technologies but their integration:

Part of the appeal in becoming an electrician has always been income. Experienced, qualified electricians can comfortably earn £35,000 a year or more. But now the key opportunity is in becoming the expert in how these new systems integrate. To get maximum benefit from net zero, these things need to work together as efficiently as possible. That’s where the real money is to be made.

Becoming a Systems Integrator involves an understanding of not just the electrical aspects of a job but also the mechanical, plumbing and IT elements too:

It takes a holistic approach to a system. These days, electricians at the very cutting-edge are as likely to be in front of a laptop as holding a screwdriver. Apprenticeships will need to develop to provide the progression to a higher level of understanding of systems integration.

Chris Jenkins is director of ECA member EFT Consult and a firm believer in the need to invest in training:

Any companies that are considering investing in training and technology, I’d say go for it. Net zero and the demand for electrification is not something that’s going to go away. It’s only going to grow. Make the commitment and I I believe it’ll pay off.