It’s time to solve the skills shortage in the plumbing industry

For years, the skills shortage has been a cause for concern. What needs to be done to adapt to the growth of the industry and the significant changes expected over the next decade?

It’s no secret that big changes are coming to the plumbing and heating industry. With the vast technological advancements of the past decade and the new environmental goals to be achieved in the years to come, the future of the heating and plumbing industry has changed with the expectations of the modern installer.

Plumbers will need to embrace the installation of innovative solutions, such as heat pumps, which are increasingly seen as the new standard for heating systems in homes, while also being able to integrate new technologies into the intelligent ecosystem of a home. This will require additional training for those already in the industry and will influence how new apprentices are taught.

On top of that, the government has set targets of 300,000 new homes per year by 2025 and 600,000 heat pumps installed in existing homes by 2028. Although sweeping targets are needed to achieve net zero by 2050 there is already a noticeable skills shortage. within the industry, which means that significant recruitment and change is needed in the heating and plumbing industry to begin to prepare for the inevitable demand expected over the next decade.

Understanding the skills shortage

Several factors have contributed to the current skills shortage in the industry, the first, and possibly the most important, being the lack of participation of the younger generation in vocational training. Very often, schools present the university as a model pathway for students, ensuring that they obtain the highest level of education. This has an impact on the attractiveness of taking less conventional paths such as training in a specific trade, discouraging students from considering alternative career paths available to them.

This problem is exacerbated as COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the ability of aspiring plumbers and heating engineers to learn from professionals experienced in the field. Understandably, some homeowners feel uncomfortable having two people in a house to solve a problem that could be solved by one person, which has limited opportunities for young professionals to learn on the job.

Combine the slow adoption of young installers with the retirement of skilled workers and the problem is further catalyzed; Not only are the young, aspiring plumbing and heating engineers less interested, there is also the limited number of skilled tradespeople to pass their knowledge on to the next generation.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the average age of a plumber in the UK is in their mid-forties – a worrying statistic when the pool of skilled workers is not fully replenished by young professionals. plumbing.

The new expectation of qualified professionals

For those already in the industry, rapidly changing legislation and technology often leaves existing installers with the key skills and knowledge needed for essential jobs. Taking the example of the rapid adoption of smart devices, it’s not just a plumber hooking up a boiler to a central heating system; they must also be able to integrate the boiler into the existing smart ecosystem of the house.

It is now more crucial than ever that heating engineers and plumbers ensure that skills are continually updated. Not only will this maximize the opportunities, but also position them better for the expected changes to come in the industry.

With the government’s Future Homes Standard preventing the use of conventional boiler systems in new construction from 2025, heating engineers will need to learn how to incorporate sustainable alternatives, such as aerothermal and geothermal heat pumps, into their new construction projects. . As a result, this will put additional pressure on the industry, as existing and new engineers will need to figure out how to successfully install heat pumps in residential and commercial heating systems before the 2025 deadline.

Along with the adoption of sustainable heating technology, underfloor heating is also expected to gain popularity due to the comparability of the two solutions operating at low temperatures. In fact, underfloor heating is 40% more efficient at distributing heat than conventional radiator systems when paired with an air source heat pump. Although this technology is still quite expensive for the end user, UFH solutions are becoming more and more affordable and are easy to integrate at the construction stage of new constructions.

Therefore, the industry must prepare for a new standard in heating systems that aligns with the country’s net zero targets and with the government seeking to achieve a 78% reduction in emissions by 2035, new practices and technologies must be encouraged now before goals. become unrealistic.

Encourage learning

In order to encourage a larger pool of young qualified plumbing and heating engineers over the next few years, we must continue to support the adoption of apprenticeship. While it is true that the learnings have already been tried and tested, there are fewer ways for professional installers in training to gain practical and real experience that cannot be replicated in a school environment.

Over the next several years, the adoption and encouragement of apprentices by the sector will be critical to the success of revitalizing the industry with qualified installers. The problem we face is the availability of learning; with most employers being independent traders or micro-SMEs, companies simply cannot afford to hire apprentices.

To start tackling this problem, the government is now offering grants to companies wishing to hire apprentices ranging from £ 3,000 for an apprentice of any age to £ 4,000 for an apprentice aged 16-18. On top of that, employers can benefit from an additional grant of £ 1,000 by providing a place to work for an unpaid intern before starting their apprenticeship. However, some of these grants are set to expire in September 2021, so employers should act quickly if they plan to take advantage of government grants accessible through the Learning Services Portal.

As an example, we have partnered with colleges and universities to expose students to innovative plumbing knowledge by providing materials and content, further supporting the practical side of their learning process. In addition to this, we will offer our own engineering apprenticeships to provide hands-on experience by attracting a diverse pool of young people who have the potential to follow suit. Future talent within the industry is a major concern for all of us.

Help craftspeople develop their existing skills

Crucially, existing tradespeople must also be able to expand their current service offering to meet the ever-changing demands of today’s installer. To help plumbers acquire the skills needed for the next decade, the BEIS Skills Training Competition is a government initiative to train artisans in energy-efficient home renovations and low-carbon thermal insulation. As the industry seeks to move away from traditional gas boilers, plumbers are expected to start training in more sustainable heating systems as the market turns to renewable energy technologies.

Along with the effort of learning new solution applications, installers should ensure that they meet any missing qualifications or skills through continuing professional development (CPD) courses. RWC’s Reliance Valves brand offers CPD courses through existing bodies such as CIBSE and CPD UK, helping plumbers and heating engineers expand their service offering, especially where knowledge is critical to safety.

However, sometimes it is only after an installer is on the job that they realize that they are not aware of the best practices for a specific task. To assist engineers on site, we will offer qualified technical support both in person and over the phone / online to help the installer gain the specific knowledge needed for the job at hand. It is essential that expert advice is shared with installers to ensure they have the skills to confidently install critical plumbing and heating parts.

John Kerr is Marketing Director at RWC

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