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Stuart Lowden on 'Building the Future'

The contract guarding industry is one that has improved itself slowly and gradually over the years, writes Stuart Lowden. Early on, the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) received much of the credit for improvements made with, in recent times, the Security Industry Authority (SIA) adding further weight to that process by way of licensing and regulation.

Unfortunately, it’s a hugely fragmented industry wherein standards vary from company to company and often within companies themselves (in particular where these companies operate across a variety of business sectors). The buying process is hugely varied, too, with great inconsistency of experience and commitment to quality among buyers and sellers alike.
The SIA’s Approved Contractor Scheme (ACS), which should have simplified the process, has probably improved things at the very lowest level (assuming, of course, that buyers take any notice of it), but confused matters at the higher level, implying that all companies are equal and that buyers can simply purchase on the basis of price.

Feeling proud, but also ashamed
We have an industry that we can sometimes be proud of, sometimes be ashamed of. We're capable of matching the best that in-house teams can offer, but rarely have the confidence to sell at a price to match that quality of service.
Though there are a few notable exceptions to this rule, the industry appears to accept the edict that caring for people, developing and nurturing them is a province of the in-house structure not the contract guarding sector.
In many respects, this ‘mixed economy’ approach suits lots of security buyers extremely well. Generally speaking, a customer receives what they’re willing to pay for. There is always someone keen to deliver the service and, more often than not, hungry to engage in a bidding war to win it.
Very rarely do you hear of suppliers refusing to supply because it’s the wrong solution for the customer (or for the poor officers, who’ll be asked to perform thankless tasks at low wages over long, unsociable hours). Our industry seems totally incapable of saying ‘No’. “We have an industry that we can sometimes be proud of, sometimes be ashamed of...” I seriously doubt that this failure to say ‘No’ will ever disappear. Indeed, it would be naive to assume otherwise. Commercial pressures – whether on shareholders, managing directors or branch managers – will regularly create occasional, sometimes sustained periods of ‘pricing madness’. Heaven knows we’ve seen enough evidence of that since licensing came in. In that regard, the new legislation has changed nothing.

Treatment of our employees
Even if one accepts the principle of market forces, why does this mean that we cannot attempt to improve the industry, most importantly in relation to how we collectively treat our employees?
One of the biggest obstacles to positive change is the way in which we abuse the opt-out to the Working Time Regulations, coercing staff into 56 and 60-hour shift patterns rather than granting them any genuine choice. Only when this practice is removed – by regulation, if need be – will the industry change its perception among the outside world and the employees currently working within it. It can never be seen as a career of choice when a living wage is dependent on working over 50 hours every week!
A further significant obstacle is the way in which management support and training is being stripped out of prices to gain new work. We are rapidly moving towards a position where we supply bodies, nothing else. As an industry, we appear to spend less and less on our employees, with support management handling more and more accounts and therefore spending little or no time managing and mentoring staff.
In our headlong rush for market share, we appear oblivious to the harm we’re doing to our industry’s reputation. We seem to be set on reinforcing the views of cynical buyers that our service is little more than a grudge purchase, adds no value to their business and should, therefore, be bought on price and price alone.
Where do we go from here? The one obstacle we could remove is that of ‘old-style’ working practices. Irrespective of the ethical arguments for changing our industry (and, yes, forcing some customers into this change), there’s a strong and compelling case for doing so. It runs as follows… “In our headlong rush for market share, we appear oblivious to the harm we’re doing to our industry’s reputation...”

The Challenge
The security industry is in fierce competition with other service industries to recruit and retain good people. Most service industries have better working conditions, either with a higher preponderance of day working or fewer hours (or both). Employing these recruits is becoming increasingly expensive, through licensing and through this increasing competition for resources.
The industry’s working practices are bad for the body, with a very unhealthy cocktail of long hours and shift work. Those wishing a decent work/life balance stay away from the industry, or rarely hang around for long.
The industry is becoming increasingly dependent on itinerant labour willing to work very long hours, with increasing risk to themselves and their customers (whether through HSE or Corporate Manslaughter legislation). None of this is becoming any easier, yet the margin for error is slimmer and slimmer as buyers capitalise on the industry’s panic to grow market share.

The Solution
Sign up to a new voluntary standard of social responsibility that embraces modern working practices (outlawing the current abuse of the opt-out). By doing so, we reduce staff attrition and, ergo, recruitment and training costs.
Improve the quality of service, reduce the level of contract attrition and improve internal development (thereby further reducing recruitment costs). “The solution? Improve the quality of service, reduce the level of contract attrition and improve internal development...” Then, we can aggressively market the new standard to enlightened buyers, migrate current customers to it and be willing to walk away from buyers who’ll not embrace this Charter. Think long term rather than short term. Watch the market separate into good and bad work. If there is enough support for this standard, even those buyers who don’t embrace it may have little choice but to accept its principles. Will that be such a bad thing?
Make realistic margins and, in turn, improve vastly the perception of this industry.

Where does the ACS fit in?
Where does the ACS fit in? I don’t know. It largely depends on whether the ACS is intended to revolutionise the industry or provide a basic level of comfort for the public.
What’s much more important is that the key industry leaders – most particularly those running the major guarding companies – embrace the principle. Only if they commit to a Brave New World will it actually happen. This can only be realised through a unified approach to standards and working practices.

My questions for the industry’s leaders are: “Do you have the appetite for such radical change? Will you remain within your comfort zone, trimming prices still further to gain (or retain) market share? Or might you look further into the future and decide that, within a re-modelled industry, you could make better profits by improving the lives of your employees?” Or maybe I’m just being naïve?

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