Education: Championing change

The skills gap, which includes both installers and lecturers, is an issue that is continuing to get wider. In the last three years the construction industry has lost around 230,000 self-employed and specialist contractors. The reasons behind the drop include Covid-19, IR35, supply chain issues and materials shortages, and professional indemnity insurance.

“When you lose SMEs you lose the ability to train apprentices,” points out Kevin Wellman, CEO of the CIPHE. “The fact that only one third of people who achieve Level 2 go onto Level 3 has exacerbated the problem. This is why it is vital that the government makes it mandatory for all apprentices to work to Level 3 and ensure that lecturers who teach this standard are also qualified to this level.

“The current standard is a good place to start but, as we move towards the Future Homes Standard in 2025, we should be reviewing the apprenticeship again. There is a strong argument to say the standards should be reviewed every two years.”

Part of the issue with recruiting people into the plumbing and heating industry lies in the perception of trade jobs as being inferior to following a more academic career path.

“There is still a need to create real parity between academic and vocational training,” asserts Neil Collishaw, CEO of BPEC Group. “Becoming an apprentice should engender the same level of esteem as for someone going to university.

“The current plumbing and heating apprenticeship has been developed by employers across the industry and provides a thorough and robust programme of learning and assessment for new entrants. We need to attract many more plumbing and heating apprentices and provide positive guidance to employers, particularly SMEs, to encourage them to be aware of the business benefits of taking on an apprentice.”

Barriers to recruitment

Recruitment to the plumbing and heating industry isn’t as healthy as it could be, a problem that is attributed to a number of factors including an ageing workforce and academic elitism.

“It is well known that we have an ageing workforce – I am a classic example,” says Jerry Whiteley, technical manager at CIPHE. “We have lost many hardworking individuals to retirement. At the other end of the scale, we replenish the workforce with apprenticeships, don’t we? But there’s a problem with this. There has not been anything like enough apprentices employed across the UK in our sector for far too long. Going to university has become the default choice for many young people and, going a bit further back, we had a push for everyone to learn digital skills as this was [perceived to be] the next generation of jobs.

“Careers advice in schools has aligned with these messages, with little or no mention of the possibilities available in building trades, or a last resort posting. Almost every school has removed its workshop facilities and replaced them with computers, so no opportunities have been available to look into trade skills unless you attended a workshop at a local college on the 14-16 programme. The people that followed these paths became the parents of the next generation and, as they had learnt very little about what an apprenticeship was, they were unlikely to encourage their children to take one on. Careers advice for trades has suffered because those in advisory roles lack the necessary knowledge and ability to inspire.”

It’s therefore important that the government helps to change this view as plumbing and heating engineers play an integral role in ensuring and maintaining public safety, health and welfare.

“The Department for Education recently launched a promotional plumbing and heating leaflet, which has been widely circulated,” says Wellman. “However, it is too early to know the impact it has had through careers advisors.”

The complexity and bureaucracy surrounding apprenticeships is another reason that has been put forward to explain why employers are reluctant to take on new recruits. Not only that, insurance has also become a barrier for some businesses.

“There are still many rogue training providers offering fast track non-apprenticeship plumbing and renewable energy courses to vulnerable new entrants,” adds Collishaw. “Care needs to be taken when selecting a training provider to ensure you receive appropriate training and gain industry-recognised qualifications.”

There is a good level of financial support for employers in England for training apprentices. However, levels of funding are not quite as attractive in other areas of the UK.

“More employers should be given tax breaks for taking on apprentices, and there needs to be more mentoring support,” says Wellman. “The CIPHE and the Worshipful Company of Plumbers (WCoP) have agreed a plumbing professionals’ development scheme that will support emerging talent throughout their early plumbing career.”

Those entering the scheme will need to have the equivalent of a Level 2 qualification, which will give them membership to the CIPHE, career opportunities, links with award schemes and agreed mentoring to help each individual. There is currently a pilot scheme supporting up to 10 individuals a year, which focuses on people who will be ambassadors to the future of the industry and will have every support to make their plumbing and heating careers successful.

Government support

Lack of regulation in the sector has resulted in the skills shortage getting worse and the consequences of that are serious: for example, an increase in the number of people being scalded through poorly installed systems, and in escaped water insurance claims (£1.8m).

“All these things could be minimised with licencing,” says Wellman. “The government needs to introduce mandatory training to ensure a level playing field, meaning the only way to get into an engineering discipline is to have mandated training and lecturers qualified to the level to which they are training people. With the government’s net zero aspirations there are even greater opportunities for those who want to make plumbing and heating a true and long vocation.”

Defra is particularly concerned about leaky toilets and is looking at amending water regulations to minimise that problem. Even so, without licencing it will be a difficult issue to resolve without intervention from manufacturers modifying their products to help the situation.

“If we look at the Gas Safe model, an essential part of maintaining gas registration is to undergo periodic mandatory training,” says Wellman. “In the plumbing and heating industry this mandatory training could be introduced for unvented hot water systems, low temperature heating systems and home health checks for water efficiency, to name just a few. If we keep doing the same thing, we will keep getting the same results, if not worse. Not enough has been done to ensure that people stepping over the consumer threshold are competent and qualified to do the job at hand.

“The government recently supported a 15-year campaign to improve skills in the NHS. We should have exactly the same in the plumbing and heating sector. Ultimately, we need quality products installed and designed by quality people, but this needs to be underpinned by quality training.”

Positive action

The technological advancements in the plumbing and heating industry provide the perfect opportunity to promote the sector and raise the profile of a career in plumbing and heating. Apprenticeships are available to people of all ages, not just school or college leavers, so it’s an important message to get out there.

“The concept of learning on the job, gaining real work skills and getting qualified while being debt free is currently being undersold – we all need to do more to promote the benefits of apprenticeship,” says Collishaw. “Let’s learn from other countries that have already achieved this and ensure that an apprenticeship is seen as a great career option moving forward. It’s important that the whole industry gets behind upskilling the existing workforce. We must ensure that our plumbing and heating engineers have the knowledge and skills to act as expert advisors to their customers on the most appropriate and energy efficient heating and hot water options for their homes.

“A fully qualified plumbing and heating engineer is a highly technical skilled individual, who can design, install and maintain complex heating and water systems in our homes. For too many years we have accepted lower levels of skills into the industry. We need to raise the bar and get back to ‘mastering’ our craft.”

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