When it comes to addressing the skills gap in the heating and plumbing industry, there are a number of factors to consider.
Society’s perceptions of the careers on offer in this field, gender bias, and obstacles to upskilling are just some of the issues involved.
Taking a deep dive into these topics, Resideo hosted a roundtable with Becky Bates, founder and owner of BB Plumbing, Phil Mason, Head of Regulatory Engagement at Trustmark, Mark Krull, Director of Logic for Training, and Sarah Hobbs, Business Development Manager for Resideo, South.
There is no doubt that action needs to be taken so that there will be sufficient
heating and plumbing engineers to meet demand now and in the future. As the country makes the transition to decarbonise heat in our buildings, more installers will be needed to deliver the technological solutions on the ground. But what should be done to address the skills shortage? What are the barriers to attracting and retaining a skilled and diverse workforce, and where do we hope to be in the distant future?
Although heating and plumbing is a widely-known trade, all the panellists agreed that it was not presented as a career option at school. “It stems from school,” said Becky. “I wasn’t told about apprenticeships, I don’t think they really knew what to do with me, so I had to find my way on my own. Luckily, I had supportive parents who encouraged me to try.” Mark too, felt that young people who may not wish to go down the traditional academic route can sometimes be left to explore what they want to do, and questioned whether enough was being done to broaden aspirations whilst children are in the early stages of their education. “When I was young, I wanted to be an architect or GP because they looked really attractive jobs in terms of what you do and the salary, until I discovered other occupations later. Busting myths about our occupation and giving young people access and insights early on would help.”
One of the myths which everyone agreed was an age-old perception that plumbing and heating is a ‘job for the boys’. Becky, who has been running her own business for 11 years, recalled the challenges she faced when she first entered the industry as a trainee. “I’ve had to deal with a lot with sexism through the years and prove myself. Having to do this can wear you down and it’s not easy. It puts women off.” Reflecting on the start of her career, Sarah also felt that she had to work hard too to get opportunities to learn. “I started working behind a trade counter. As a girl, it was rare for people to ask me questions.” What’s more, because plumbing and heating wasn’t considered as a suitable option for girls, she was often steered towards administrative roles by careers advisors.
Is the reason behind heating and plumbing’s attractiveness as a career down to image? For Phil, the importance of plumbers as an essential occupation is not conveyed enough. “If my computer doesn’t work, it’s pretty inconvenient but I’ll get by. But if your shower, kitchen sink or toilet doesn’t work, it’s a real issue.” Not only do plumbers have a key role in everyone’s lives, it was also agreed that there is more to being a plumber than many people realise. The fact that there are many different facets to working as a plumber is something that Becky was keen to emphasise. “I think it needs to be introduced as something that can be successful and viable career. I’m not just a plumber. I run and manage a business, so I’ve had to learn about finance and customer service.”
Phil acknowledges that perhaps part of the image problem is down to a ‘rough and ready’ approach to customer service. “There are lots of fabulous businesses out there who do great work and meet, if not exceed standards. But not turning up to appointments for example, those are the experiences consumers have that influence their opinions of our industry,” he explained. “So it’s more than about the quality of the work. It’s about looking professional and dealing with customers in that way right from the start. Doing business is challenging. It’s how those are dealt with and the softer skills that are also important to give an overall professional, polite and courteous service.”
An attractive prospect
Considering the misconceptions about the industry, how these can affect young people’s enthusiasm to become heating engineers, and why they may not even consider it in the first place, how can heating and plumbing be transformed into a vocation sought after by people of all ages and backgrounds? With a shortage of skilled engineers to install low-carbon heating systems that will help the country to decarbonise, Phil felt that practitioners in the industry need to fully embrace different types of innovative technology and adopt modern practices. This way, consumers would be enthused to move towards a more sustainable way to heat their homes, whilst more talented entrants would join the industry and remain. Indeed, as people look for jobs and careers that align with their own values, could manufacturers be at the forefront of demonstrating the industry’s key role in sustainable living and make it more appealing?
“Traditionally, our industry has been all about the standard boiler, radiator, and kitchens and bathrooms,” Sarah said. “But it’s getting more high-tech, and manufacturers are driving the adoption of new technologies like app-based and voice-assisted controls, and making them heat-pump compatible, to help consumers save energy. We’ve got to come away from that old-school way of working and show that we are modern and keeping ahead of trends.”
To complement this approach, Mark felt that it was essential for heating and plumbing engineers to deepen their knowledge and upskill, so that consumers can have full confidence in their expertise, and hold it in high regard. “This is why ongoing training and development is so important. We need to get away from just wanting to get the next certificate, it’s also about continuing professional development. It’s about achieving an ongoing professionalism, and aspiring to become a recognised, qualified engineer, whether you want to put the letters after your name or not. A lot of people use Dr. in front of their name, so why not aspire to be able to use ‘Eng’ as an attainment you can be proud of?”
If it’s about having something to aspire to, so that potential entrants to the industry are not limited by the same old perceived routes to success, would having charismatic heating and plumbing ambassadors provide helpful role models? Both Becky and Sarah have been invited to schools, via friends and family, to talk about their experiences and successes to inspire students. “If a one-woman band like me can do it, perhaps bigger companies can do it too,” said Becky. “If I can inspire a couple of girls to get into the industry, I’d be happy.”