Total Contractor sat down with James Talman, Chief Executive of the NFRC, to talk competency, skills, Government initiatives and the role of NFRC going forward…
“I’ve got nothing against NVQs from the point of view of new entrants and those that can follow that route,” explains James Talman, Chief Executive of the NFRC, “but for the vast majority of the workforce (in roofing), to expect them to be doing an NVQ is an impossibility – and in some cases a disservice to skilled people who have not had the chance to go through what I call the ‘traditional route of education.’”
James is discussing the developments around CompetentRoofer, the government-backed Competent Person Scheme for roofing companies and RoofCERT, the accreditation for individuals, which when you consider the path the government is on with regards to demonstrating competency within construction, should see roofing well-placed to meet future demand.
In the August issue of Total Contractor, when discussing RoofCERT, James explained: “Operatives across all parts of the construction industry will, therefore, find themselves being asked to demonstrate their competency to satisfy employers and clients. It is no longer enough for an operative to just rely on the number of years’ experience they have or to have an NVQ; further accreditation is needed to demonstrate ongoing competency.”
Experienced worker route
In our meeting, James explains NFRC is in the final stages of securing an approved experienced worker route for acceptance to the RoofCERT accreditation – a move which he describes as “a big breakthrough for us”, and it’s clear to see why. He explained: “The experienced worker size of our market is over 75% of our workforce. Before, this part of the market would have had no route to accreditation but through proper assessment, through upskilling where necessary and CPD, we now have a route to accredit the vast majority of the roofing labour force; that’s been a sticking point for years.”
Whilst RoofCERT and CompetentRoofer are undergoing a rebrand to be brought more firmly under the NFRC banner, both remain open to the wider market. This, James feels, will crucially help raise awareness with other industry bodies and enable more interaction with housebuilders and main contractors.
Green Homes Grant: ‘where’s the capacity?’
Referring back to the path government is on with regards to demonstrating competency alongside meeting its environmental targets through green initiatives, the conversation inevitably moves to the government’s £2bn Green Homes Grant (GHG) Scheme. Under the GHG, homeowners in England can apply for vouchers worth up to two thirds of the cost of hiring tradespeople to upgrade the energy efficiency of their home – the maximum contribution is £5,000, or for those on lower incomes a 100% grant up to £10,000 is available for certain work, with insulation being one of the main primary measures available. The vouchers, which will be issued from the end of September until March 31st 2021, will help pay for energy efficiency improvements and the works “must be completed by a TrustMark Registered Business” to give householders quality assurance. But, like many, James feels we’re in danger of repeating mistakes of the past. Indeed, at the time of writing in late August, no organisation has yet even been appointed to administer the scheme. But more importantly, James stated: “Where’s the capacity to deliver it? – we have all the dangers of the Green Deal and worse again, it’s been rushed through.”
He feels it’s up to the individual sectors to make sure the GHG works: “We’ve got to make sure it works. We can only do what we can for our sector, so we’ve got to make sure the elements of a properly designed, well insulated roof is absolutely imbedded in the scheme and is being installed by competent and accredited organisations – naturally, we hope they’re members of the NFRC – but as our custodial duty to the industry, we have to ensure we’re helping and assisting government to ensure it’s happening. And if it’s not happening, we have to bang the drum!”
James points to the lack of a “true conduit” between Government and construction; someone who “understands the specialist sectors” and “knows the full competencies.”
Without that conduit, James recognises the importance of “raising the influence of NFRC”, to further develop that link between external stakeholders and government to benefit NFRC members and the wider roofing sector. He explained: “My role has become increasingly policy focussed due to the importance of ensuring NFRC is supporting where necessary and challenging policies proposed by Government.”
This was highlighted quite clearly around the issue of operatives within construction returning to work during the Covid lockdown, which turned into a very divisive topic. “Professionally that was a very challenging time for us,” explained James. “You’ve got some individuals on social media making very strong comments about putting people’s lives at risk, when the government had made a quite ambiguous statement on who should return to work – but the government didn’t prioritise or give key worker status to construction workers.”
James feels this put construction workers in a very difficult position and the industry didn’t help itself. NFRC actually wrote to Andy Mitchell at the CLC regarding construction workers being afforded key worker status, but this was not progressed. James explained: “I think the industry should have lobbied much harder for key worker status. CLC is doing a lot of fantastic work but it should have been absolutely adamant that if you want our buy-in, you give us that status or recognition. That happened in most countries, but it didn’t happen here.”
James continued: “We were a little concerned by some of the direction of the early introduction of operating procedures – we weren’t clear on the way they were being developed and how the specialist could input into those procedures. If you’re saying clearly you want the industry to work, how are you supporting industry to work? There was a little bit of a disconnect – particularly when you’re getting down to the granular level of bricklayer, window fitter or roofer – it’s all very well in policy up there, but for the person having to carry out the work, that’s where the disconnect was.”
But going forward, should there be a second wave, James feels “industry’s got its act together with the way it’s operating” and construction should not be significantly impacted. However, he cautions we must not be complacent and industry, alongside HSE, must continue to review industry infection data and introduce measures that reduce the risk of future outbreaks.
‘Member engagement & support’
I ask James what he’s learned from the recent Covid pandemic, a situation with so many sensitive pressures: “Covid has taught me to continue to have faith in the two core objectives of member engagement and support, and raising the influence of NFRC.” Going forward, James feels NFRC is very well placed to have its say and really make an impact: “One of the good things for our sector is we are very broadly based; we’re in new housebuilding, we are in RMI, we are in commercial and infrastructure, so that’s helped us a lot in terms of influence.”
The themes of influence, raising awareness and engagement run throughout our discussion, and will clearly be at the heart of James’ plans for NFRC moving forward. NFRC recently announced its fourth President of James’ tenure as Kevin M Taylor has taken over from Steve Revell. And whilst James was very clear about the “transformational change” that was required within NFRC when he entered the role of Chief Executive, he’s just as certain about the best path for the Federation as the sector looks to navigate what will no doubt be a tricky period for all: “My ambitions are very much related to influence and the acceptance of NFRC in the marketplace – it’s all about growing influence.”
But how will the Federation go about achieving that? James points to the “three strands of quality, professionalism and social and environmental values.”
Taking each individually, James feels training is the crucial factor in ensuring quality is raised, but also points to further digitalisation within the NFRC, innovation and support through guidance.
With regards to professionalism, James says this links heavily back to the CompetentRoofer Scheme and RoofCERT accreditation. “We want the brand CompetentRoofer and RoofCERT to reflect NFRC”, and as mentioned earlier there are moves to bring both further under the NFRC banner.
James says the social and environmental values aspect links to inclusivity and most importantly, safety: “I said early on my fundamental obligation is to do my best to ensure that those who are in our industry can work safely in it – and that’s obviously become even more critical since Covid – you’ve now got a relatively dangerous occupation, combined with new working practices, and a rush to get jobs completed – it has to be a case of health before wealth.”
Off the back of meeting and maintaining those three core values, James says it will “definitely help our member retention and growth.”
Looking to the future
There’s no doubt there are more difficult times on the horizon for the roofing sector and wider construction industry, whether it’s further delays on projects due to poor weather, adapting to changing building regs, or the issues around supply of materials and lead times as manufacturers delay getting back to full capacity for fear of further lockdowns and wider economic impacts.
But looking to the future, James feels the environmental focus could offer some real benefits for the roofing sector. Indeed, NFRC has joined the UK Green Building Council in an attempt to “help drive policies to encourage environmental change”, and it’s “collaborating with the Solar Trade Association to encourage innovation” and focus on the use of energy producing roofing materials to ensure they’re installed correctly. So, whilst the hard work has been progressing throughout lockdown at the NFRC to ensure it’s positioned well to grow and maximise opportunities for members, James says “we’re not going to take our foot off the gas.”