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.
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.