Building a 21st century workforce

Published:  05 October, 2011

Working rule agreement, HVCA
Encouraging integration and collaboration — Blane Judd

A rapidly evolving, multi-skilled workforce needs to modernise the way it negotiates pay and conditions, says Blane Judd. Hence the development of a single working-rule agreement for mechanical, electrical and plumbing operatives.

Everyone is talking about integration and teamwork, alliances and partnerships, multi-skilling and flexibility. We have been talking about these things for a very long time. We all recognise that integrated project teams are the way forward, but they are still the exception rather than the rule.

Construction clients are frustrated by all this talk. They are fed up of encouraging and cajoling the M&E sector to work in a more collaborative and flexible way — and they are starting to insist on it.

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 to end clients. 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 to commissioning and beyond.

The Government’s Construction Strategy has highlighted the importance of the industry working in integrated teams, and 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 in the team by then, you will be staying on the sidelines.

Frustrated

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.

Clients expect their buildings to be more sophisticated in terms of controls and energy-saving technologies. This requires M&E operatives to be multi-skilled and able to integrate new systems into existing buildings. They must also be able 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.

We simply have to move with the times to make sure our workforce is equipped to handle these modern challenges. It is, therefore, crucial that we also have a slick, modern, flexible and fair way of negotiating our workforce pay and conditions that does justice to a sophisticated, 21st century profession.

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.

So, in September this year, eight of them (NG Bailey, Balfour Beatty Engineering Services, T Clarke, Crown House Technologies, Gratte Brothers, MJN Colston, Shepherd Engineering Services and SPIE Matthew Hall) put their weight behind a proposed single working-rule agreement for mechanical, electrical and plumbing operatives. Other contractors are expected to follow shortly.

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. 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 eight firms, the BESNA would become the single, unified agreement replacing the five existing agreements (north and south of the Border) that have grown up since the 1960s — so allowing employers and workers’ representatives to streamline the industrial-relations process and create a more integrated workforce.

Modern

Streamlining the process will improve long-term direct employment prospects for all operatives as well as enabling future recruitment to reflect the multi-skilled nature of modern contracting. The existing agreements will remain, but over time it is expected that more employers will see the benefit of a unified approach.

Clients increasingly expect us to be capable of adopting a ‘design/manufacture/install’ approach; the old trade divisions are no longer standard and are no longer appropriate on many projects. The major contractors and the HVCA are developing a training and apprenticeship programme alongside the proposed BESNA that will give existing and new M&E specialists the skills they need to take advantage of the many opportunities presented by the sustainability agenda.

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. The BESNA is designed to support the growth of a multi-skilled workforce. Reducing skill levels on site would increase costs by undermining project delivery, leading to costly over-runs 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.

More detailed commitments on health and safety are also being written into the new agreement.

We can no longer support a system that means three operatives could be travelling in the same van to the same site to carry out work on the same job — but all on different hourly rates, different travel allowances and different holiday and sick-pay entitlements.

It doesn’t make sense; it isn’t fair; and it doesn’t encourage integration and collaboration — and without integrated teams we have little chance of meeting our economic and sustainability goals.

Blane Judd is chief executive of the HVCA.

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