Security experts debate the impact of Brexit on the industry’s ability to provide high-quality manned services in the challenging times to come.
Demand for manned security services is growing, according to research by Mintel. Unfortunately, it’s coupled with increased emphasis on low-cost delivery. Providers of security services have to balance these expectations with the fallout from Brexit, and what Britain’s departure from the EU will mean for recruitment.
David Mundell, Managing Director of Axis Security, is particularly concerned about the potential shortfall in high-quality staff. “Following the UK vote to leave the European Union, most of us in the manned guarding industry are wondering what Brexit actually means,” he says. “We are not exporters of our goods and therefore do not face the myriad questions regarding being in or out of the single market. We don’t have to wonder who we will be trading with and under what terms. However, our product is people – and any impact that Brexit has on the availability of labour will be a significant challenge to companies such as ours.''
“Unemployment might be at a record low, yet finding and recruiting high-calibre, customer-services oriented officers is already difficult,” Mundell says. The best SIA-licensed officers are already employed, and unlikely to move since they command a premium. That leaves a pool of poorer qualified applicants with less experience, or no experience at all. “Historically, like many labour-intensive industries, security has welcomed a broad mix of individuals from overseas. If entry into the UK is to be made more difficult, or the number of immigrants is limited, we will all have to recruit more home-grown talent.”
Which poses two linked questions for the industry: how to make security more attractive as a career, and how to go about raising salary and benefit levels to attract people in the first instance. Mundell believes the second question poses a real conundrum, as site-based remuneration is in the hands of customers. “Unless we see a universal shift across the industry, a low-price option will still be a choice to end users in their race for the bottom.”
TRUTHS, HALF-TRUTHS AND LIES
According to Mundell, many operators felt that licensing represented a new dawn for the industry, hoping that cowboy operators would be exposed, standards raised, and a positive move made towards the successful Scandinavian model where security is viewed as a career of choice. “Unfortunately, this has not been the case,” he says. “It has been up to individual companies to make tough choices over pay levels and benefits, with one eye on ever-decreasing margin levels, and for customers who recognise the value of their security to up the ante in terms of contract rates.”
What effect Brexit will have in reality is anyone’s guess. “During the lead-up to the Brexit vote, we were all inundated with truths, half-truths and lies to try and win our vote. At the moment, it all feels pretty much the same. We all have our opinions of what might happen and we all want to remain optimistic about our future prospects, but one thing is for sure: if we are to get a positive outcome for our industry, we must put company interests aside and all pull and work together for the greater good.”
Brendan Musgrove, Managing Director at Cordant Security, foresees numerous challenges in the post-Brexit world. He points out that the past year has already been dominated by political, economic and social uncertainty, “which has had a largely detrimental effect on UK businesses and industry”. On the morning of 24 June 2016, the UK woke to see the pound slump from $1.48 to $1.36 in just a few hours, falling to as little as $1.22 on 11 October – a 31-year low. “The knock-on effects of this economic turmoil were obvious,” he says, “with any UK businesses importing goods or utilising services from overseas providers seeing their costs rocket overnight, and continuing to increase over the following months.”
As the Managing Director of a company providing manned guarding services, Musgrove is, like David Mundell, concerned about a potential skills shortage. “Much like the construction industry, where the industry body RICS recently revealed that the sector could lose almost 200,000 EU workers post-Brexit should Britain lose access to the single market, the security industry will also face a skills shortage of its own,” he warns.
A weaker pound has already resulted in large numbers of Eastern European workers returning to their countries of origin. “We are already seeing that many service providers are having to pay their staff more to keep them, thereby risking a further reduction in their margins. In addition, a hard Brexit could also result in security firms having to replace the many thousands of European workers who are yet to depart the UK’s shores, which will certainly be a hard task for an industry that is not necessarily seen as an attractive proposition to the younger generations.”
With the Millennial Generation making up more than 1.8 billion of the world’s population, Musgrove points out that it’s hard to ignore their rising influence. “With the countdown to Brexit well under way, attracting these individuals is key to the future of the security industry, so it’s crucial for us to understand their needs.”
He cites research by PwC showing strong similarities between Millennials and the generations that preceded them. “However,” he adds, “there are several ways in which they remain different. For instance, this demographic is attracted to companies with a strong and vibrant social media presence, coupled with relaxed working environments. PwC research also reveals they want to experience as much training as possible early into their careers.”
He believes the manpower issue offers the industry an opportunity to widen the profile of potential recruits. “I am a firm believer that security firms should be looking to deploy diverse and multicultural workforces, to fit evolving demands and the changing nature of the industry,” he says. “The security sector still suffers from an image problem and the perception that it mainly employs security personnel that are male, burly and macho, with a background in the military or police force. The reality is very different, and the diverse requirements of our industry require a diverse workforce.”
Musgrove welcomes the fact that more women are joining the industry, and that customers can see the benefits of a more gender-balanced workforce. “For instance, a diverse security team that reflects your visitor profile is more welcoming. In addition, there is a practical need as men are not allowed to search women, and so female security guards are needed to search female patrons when necessary. To attract more women applicants, security companies must proactively do their part to tackle the UK’s existing gender pay gap.”
He points out that security firms deploying diverse workforces will also be in an advantageous position to tackle another key challenge – image and customer service. “Over recent times, the role of a security team has evolved to encompass front of house duties – therefore it’s important to find the right balance between providing a no-nonsense image that prevents any threats, while also ensuring those entering the building are met with a welcome. The ability to satisfy the client”s demands for both elements by deploying diverse, multicultural teams should be dictating how security firms recruit in the future.”
He concludes that while a Brexit-driven skills shortage is likely to drastically change how the security industry operates, “it also offers an exciting opportunity for security firms to re-evaluate how they recruit, and who they must attract, in order to provide a modern proposition that best satisfies the needs of the ever-demanding client.”
John Ford, Head of Security for Tenon FM, agrees with Mintel that demand for affordable, high-quality manned guarding services has increased exponentially in the last two years. “What’s interesting is that this rise in demand represents something of a U-turn by clients, stakeholders and customers,” he says. “Previously, technology solutions such as CCTV systems and movement tracking systems have outweighed a more traditional ʻboots on the ground’ approach. What we are seeing now is a demand for a more personal approach when it comes to the protection of a customer’s workforce, premises and products.
“CCTV systems and similar are excellent for information and evidence gathering,” he says, but do not afford the real-time assistance supplied by a fully trained and motivated security officer. Demand for this kind of personal service is on the rise – but it is difficult to accommodate due to the pressure on price. “It’s no secret that right across FM, margins are squeezed and have been falling steadily for many years. It’s the same in the security sector, but with expectations around quality, skills and compliance for officers on the front line rising as well, it is making market conditions very tough. Prices are being pushed down and it makes competitive contract bids difficult for small manned guarding companies.”
However, he believes the pressure on margins has created opportunities for FM companies able to provide manned guarding as one service among many, most of which offer higher margins, enabling the delivery of a high standard of service. “FM companies can provide customers with greater economy of scale and have a built-in price advantage. The trick is providing the right level of service. Security cannot be an add-on for an FM service provider. It must be done right. If it isn’t, then it’s not worth doing at all.”
He reckons that the true effect of the Brexit vote on the industry has yet to be seen, but points out that the working directive, equal pay, maternity rights and TUPE regulations all came into play due to the EU. “The loss of some or all of this legislation could have an adverse effect on the industry as a whole. Time will be the deciding factor.”
So what can a security provider do to stay ahead of the game? Tenon FM/Peregrine intends to maintain a personal approach with its customers, creating bespoke solutions and providing well trained and motivated operatives. Ford believes that the company’s Soteria technology gives it an advantage in an ever-evolving market. “What sets us apart is an ability to introduce a technology tool to the UK market – and back it with high-calibre security teams on the ground, giving extra reassurance to our customers.”