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Assuring competency

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Qualification, licensing, and professional registration are all terms used when describing competence assurance. But what do these terms mean and why is competency important?

In the UK, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require an employer to appoint competent people to help them implement measures to comply with the legal requirements. Well-respected organisations, which want to provide a robust and well-regarded service or product, also need to be able to demonstrate that their staff are competent.

Competence is the ability to undertake responsibilities and perform activities to a recognised standard on a regular basis. It is the combination of knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviours. Knowledge is information developed or learned through experience, study, or investigation. Skill is the result of consistently applying good knowledge and ability. Ability is performing the right mental and physical actions when required. Behaviours refers to the way in which an engineer behaves in response to a particular situation.

Competent engineers and technicians will recognise the risks in their activities and apply appropriate measures to control and manage those risks, and good, competent people will know the limits of their competency and when to stop and ask for help.


A qualification is a lifetime achievement that an engineer or technician holds indefinitely and requires no additional actions to maintain. A certification, or licence, is a competency-based achievement with an expiry date. To maintain their licence, an engineer or technician must be able to demonstrate continued competency in the area applicable to their licence. This can be demonstrated through recorded Continuous Professional Development (CPD) activities, relevant work experience, and periodic reassessment. If these requirements are not met, then an individual cannot get a new licence.

The UK’s railway signalling and telecoms industry is fortunate to have an excellent third-party, independently run, licensing system. The IRSE Licensing Scheme was established in 1994, following the inquiry into the Clapham Junction rail crash. The inquiry into the crash discovered that the fault lay with poor quality wiring changes, which led to an incorrect signal aspect and, ultimately, a collision. One of the recommendations from the inquiry was the creation of an independent certification scheme that could provide competence assurance of the signalling and telecoms staff undertaking safety critical and safety related work.

With over 50 different categories of licences, the IRSE Licensing Scheme provides confidence to employers and clients that licensed individuals can carry out work safely and deliver a product and/or service that meets quality and regulatory requirements. The IRSE certification body is accredited by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) to ISO/IEC 17024, the international standard for personnel certification. The licences enable individuals to demonstrate quickly, and easily, their knowledge and/or competence in the specific area that they are licensed for. 

Acquiring a licence

To obtain an IRSE licence, individuals will be assessed to check that they have the relevant skills and knowledge and are competent and safe to carry the licensable work. Each licence category has a Competence Assessment Checklist (CAC) and applicants will need to prepare a logbook containing evidence of their work experience, training, mentoring, and qualifications to cover the CAC.

An approved Assessing Agency is then selected for the required licence category, which will assess the personal statement on the CAC. This will include examples of work, including when and where the work took place. It should describe the practice, not the theory − or what was done, not what should be done − along with evidence to support work carried out, such as photographs of work completed, work plans written, or designs produced. 

The Assessing Agency will arrange a workplace assessment, where an independent assessor will observe the licensable work being carried out. They will then write up their assessment against each requirement on the CAC and complete an overall statement. A competence assessment will then be carried out, where another assessor will meet the applicant to discuss and question the logbook and the workplace assessment. They will write up their assessment against the criteria on the CAC and complete an overall statement. The application will then be received, checked, and logged by the IRSE and one of IRSE’s authorisers will review the application and decide whether to award the licence.


There is also a complaints process. Complaints are normally made to the IRSE by a stakeholder such as an employer, client, or infrastructure manager, but they may be made by others. The IRSE will record the complaint on the licence holder’s record and instruct the licence holder to enter it in their logbook, pending investigation. The IRSE complaints sub-committee will consider the complaint and the evidence and decide if the complaint should be upheld and if the IRSE will revoke the licence category or licence. They also agree any remedial actions that the licence holder must take.  

The IRSE Licensing Scheme may appear complex, costly, and ‘resource hungry’ to some, but the important point is that it is independently assessed to a third-party standard. This is not the case in other industries and an article in the IET’s E&T magazine identified that inadequate inspections on the safety of wiring in buildings across England are increasing the risk of fires. E&T said this has been made possible by an unchecked voluntary competency assessment system that gives incompetent businesses “a veneer of respectability”.

A law first introduced in 2020 − following the Grenfell Tower disaster that resulted in the death of 78 residents, and which was initiated by an electrical fault in a fridge − requires that landlords must have an inspection known as an Electrical Installation Condition Report (EICR) carried out on their properties every five years. However, E&T found that many electricians were carrying out inadequate tests. In some cases, contractors are incorrectly passing unsafe properties while others are mis-selling unnecessary upgrades. E&T found evidence of ‘drive-by inspections’, with contractors filling out paperwork without entering the properties at all to save on costs, cut corners, and undercut competitors.

The regulations state that inspections must be carried out by a ‘qualified and competent person’ and the government suggests landlords and other businesses use electricians that are registered on competent body schemes. The two major schemes are NICEIC and NAPIT, which are paid for each report bearing their logo. However, these bodies do not independently assess every individual, instead each contractor has one ‘qualified supervisor’ who is assessed by the competency bodies to a standard known as the Electrotechnical Assessment Specification (EAS). The qualified supervisor is meant to ensure their employees are competent and adequately supervised for the work they undertake. In practice, E&T said it has learned this does not always happen, with the qualified supervisors very overworked and with no independent checks.

From the employee point of view, an IRSE licence is an independent assessment of their ability to perform the tasks asked to the standards required. It demonstrates that, as an individual, they can complete certain activities as required and to the required standards. In addition, because the licence needs to be renewed at intervals it proves skills are current. That means the licence holder can offer their skills to other parts of the industry and develop their career.

Professional registration

Professional registration as a technician or engineer on the UK Engineering Council (EC) register is another way of demonstrating competency. The EC is the UK regulatory body for the engineering profession, and it holds the national registers for Engineering Technicians (EngTech), Incorporated Engineers (IEng), Chartered Engineers (CEng), and Information and Communications Technology Technicians (ICTTech).

Registration is an important milestone in an engineering career. It verifies that applicants can meet the engineering and technological requirements of the EC standard for registration (UK-SPEC4) and gives employers, government, and society confidence in the engineering industry. It also demonstrates that applicants have reached a standard of knowledge, understanding, and occupational competence, together with a commitment to professional standards, and to developing and enhancing their Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

To gain professional registration, applicants must first join a relevant professional engineering institution licensed by the EC to assess candidates. In the rail industry this includes the IET, IMechE, ICE, IRSE, and PWI. Once applicants apply for professional registration, the institution will look at their qualifications, training, and experience, then advise which title they may be suitable to apply for and whether any further learning or experience is required.

To gain and maintain professional registration, applicants will need to record their professional development. This provides the body of evidence on qualifications, activities, and experience. The written application may vary depending on the requirements of the institution and, for IEng and CEng registration, a professional review interview is required. Once the institution has verified that the registration criteria is met, it will submit a registration recommendation form to the Engineering Council. Once this is verified the applicant will be added to the national register.

Once confirmed successful applicants can use their post-nominal letters to emphasise their professional status, and use the relevant registrant logo on business cards, email signature and stationery.

Recognised standards

Whichever title is gained, it assures employers, colleagues, customers, and society that the internationally recognised standards of engineering competence and commitment have been met. The EC also works closely with their international partners to ensure that the standards in the UK are globally recognised, which helps to facilitate the international mobility of registrants.

By becoming professionally registered, engineers and technicians make a commitment to maintaining their competence through CPD. Many of the institutions have systems for recording CPD and this includes the EC’s ‘mycareerpath’ system. The professional commitment also includes complying with an applicant’s institution’s Code of Conduct, and the EC provides guidance for registrants on sustainability, risk, and ethical principles. 

The professional titles are protected under our Royal Charter. To remain on the national register and retain the right to use the post-nominal letters, registrants must ensure that their annual subscription fees for membership and registration are paid to their institution, and that they maintain and record their CPD. Professionally active registrants who persistently do not respond to or engage with requests for CPD records by the institution through which they registered risk removal from the register.

For the employer and line manager, licensing and professional registration provides an independent check to recognised external standards on the people they task to undertake safety critical and safety-related work. If things go horribly wrong, a manager may one day be in a court answering questions. These are likely to include how they comply with the law and ensure that the people working for them are competent. How would you answer that question?

Paul Darlington CEng FIET FIRSE
Paul Darlington CEng FIET FIRSEhttp://therailengineer.com

Signalling and telecommunications, cyber security, level crossings

Paul Darlington joined British Rail as a trainee telecoms technician in September 1975. He became an instructor in telecommunications and moved to the telecoms project office in Birmingham, where he was involved in designing customer information systems and radio schemes. By the time of privatisation, he was a project engineer with BR Telecommunications Ltd, responsible for the implementation of telecommunication schemes included Merseyrail IECC resignalling.

With the inception of Railtrack, Paul moved to Manchester as the telecoms engineer for the North West. He was, for a time, the engineering manager responsible for coordinating all the multi-functional engineering disciplines in the North West Zone.

His next role was head of telecommunications for Network Rail in London, where the foundations for Network Rail Telecoms and the IP network now known as FTNx were put in place. He then moved back to Manchester as the signalling route asset manager for LNW North and led the control period 5 signalling renewals planning. He also continued as chair of the safety review panel for the national GSM-R programme.

After a 37-year career in the rail industry, Paul retired in October 2012 and, as well as writing for Rail Engineer, is the managing editor of IRSE News.


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