Jump on board the solarcoaster with EDA

Northern Ireland’s electrical sector has been urged to embrace renewables, the EDATA data pool, and support services aimed at attracting and retaining staff at an EDA Regional Business Forum in Belfast…

Electrical businesses failing to embrace renewables could be out of business in five years, according to ECA Head of Technical Standards Gary Parker.

Among speakers at an Electrical Distributors’ Association (EDA) Regional Business Forum, held in Titanic Hotel Belfast on April 17, Gary said the electrical sector is seeing its biggest upheaval since World War II.

“Ten years ago, this industry didn’t exist,” he said, highlighting huge opportunities for wholesalers in green technologies such as electric vehicle (EV) installations, solar PV and battery energy storage systems. 

Urging the sector to get on board the “solarcoaster”, Gary said those failing to upskill in renewables could follow the fate of gas light operators in the 1880s and be out of business within five years. “Electrical contractors are changing into energy contractors,” he said.

EV sales have rocketed since 2019 to more than 1 million vehicles now on UK roads, while almost 1.5 million small-scale PV systems have been installed in the UK since 2009, including 29,000 in Northern Ireland.

Competence is key for contractors and wholesalers, said Gary, highlighting EDA’s online training modules as a resource.

With the NI Climate Change Act setting a target of 80% renewable electricity consumption by 2030, “that’s very, very soon,” he said. “Don’t get left behind selling gas lights.”

Attended by 123 delegates, including representatives from 15 wholesalers and 38 affiliated businesses, the Forum also heard from EDA CEO Margaret Fitzsimons.

EDA has 261 member companies, 55% of which have only one branch, she said, outlining the growing threat from Amazon and other online retailers as well as builders’ merchants moving into renewables such as heat pumps.

Further challenges identified in EDA’s latest State of the Sector Survey include pressure on margins and pricing, late payments, supply chain delays, downturns in demand and staff shortages, said Head of Marketing and Communications Anne Vessey. 

Data as a “silent sales team”

Another focus of the Forum was encouraging delegates to support the EDATA data pool, a digital resource allowing wholesaler members to access and download product information without charge. 

Named Innovation of the Year at the Trade Association Awards 2024, EDATA is funded by manufacturers, which own and manage their product information hosted on the portal.

EDATA already hosts data from 85 brands, covering over 250,000 products, said EDA Head of Digitalisation Richard Appleton, and acts as a “silent sales team,” saving users time and money.

Data is presented in a standard format, offering easy comparison between products for wholesalers and end customers.  

Extolling its virtues were Ian Hunter from Electrium Sales Ltd, a Siemens company featuring its products on EDATA, and Robbie McEnteggart from Intact Software in Dundalk, who conducted a live demo of the EDATA and Intact’s ERP system.

“Everybody in this room has to get on board with using data to the best of their ability,” said Robbie. “It makes life easier for you, and it makes life easier for your industry.”

Delegates also heard from Matthew Boutros of Derry Bros Customs Clearance, who offered practical customs guidance for NI businesses facing the new Windsor Framework red and green lane system from September.

Firms hoping to use the green lane to import goods from GB not regarded as ‘at risk’ of entering the Republic of Ireland/EU should apply to the UK Internal Market Scheme.

Green lane goods are exempt from full customs declarations, requiring only risk-based, intelligence-led controls. 

More complex declarations and EU tariffs may apply to red lane goods, and firms should maintain detailed records to support potential relief claims through customs duty waiver and duty reimbursement schemes.

Attracting and retaining staff

Three speakers addressed the issue of a staffing shortage at the forum, with EDA Head of Education and Training Tracy Hewett offering the sobering statistic that losing a staff member on a £25,000 salary can result in a £30,000 dip in turnover.

Companies were urged to use EDA’s upskilling resources, including its 12 product knowledge modules, classroom courses, 30-minute masterclasses, and various apprenticeship, training and recruitment services. 

“If you don’t stretch them, if you don’t use that talent, if you don’t show them what the future could be, they’re not going to stay with you,” said Tracy.

Tom Jones from Kempston Controls outlined his company’s journey from zero to eight apprentices in two years, expected to climb to 12 by the summer. 

Kempston Controls uses EDA Apprenticeships Plus for shortlisting and interview management, while successful applicants move around different departments to find their best fit and devote two hours per day to learning, with financial incentives offered for completion of modules.

Clarity of purpose is key to keeping employees, said Jo Creed of J&S Development Services, as are “intrinsic” rewards such as acknowledgement, autonomy and personal growth. 

A sense of belonging is important, and employees should feel they are part of something and making a difference, while leadership style should be consistent. 

Offering an overview of the NI economy, Stuart Anderson from NI Chamber of Commerce said, “Having the right people with the right skills is unquestionably the biggest issue that comes across our table.”

While NI effectively has full employment now, long-term sickness is overtaking caring responsibilities in keeping people out of the workforce. 

However, NI’s young population represents an opportunity for the electrical sector, he said, as do the region’s dual market access, regional city deals and its Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre.

Negatives include the legacy impact of Stormont’s continual collapses, including stalled progress towards net zero targets and a lack of subsidies in comparison to other UK regions. 

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