Call to action on low apprentice numbers

With the current skills shortage across Europe, and more notably within the plumbing and heating sector, Lindsay Talks, product manager at JTL – the work-based provider in England and Wales – discusses the urgent need to attract more talent into the industry.

For many years now we have seen increasing numbers of school leavers opting for a university education, whilst the value of taking up an apprenticeship to learn a trade has been somewhat overlooked and often dismissed as a potentially rewarding career.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, all too many university graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to find a job at the level that they were hoping for and are emerging from their studies with a significant debt to pay off.

Contrast this to an apprenticeship in which a plumbing or heating engineer apprentice will earn a wage, whilst learning practical ‘on-the-job’ training and combining this with studying for relevant qualifications. Essentially, an apprenticeship helps provide a solution to the ‘education over experience’ debate, as it allows you to do both!

Why is there a shortage?

There are a number of factors that have led to, and will continue to contribute to, a shortage of workers in the plumbing and heating industries. In the 1960s, serving an apprenticeship was seen as an excellent option for both the employer and employee. Then, in the 1970s, came an acceleration in the decline of Britain’s manufacturing industries. This led to a reduction in the demand for goods and services produced by those trades – the ‘knock-on’ effect of this being a fall in apprenticeships being offered by companies.

With many of the qualified apprentices from the 1970s having already retired or planning to do so in the next few years, we now face an even greater need for people to train-up and take their place.

JTL has seen a marked drop-off in the number of apprentices opting for courses in domestic plumbing and heating following changes to the apprenticeship system. The system reform made by the sector sought to ensure the quality of apprenticeships available to prospective learners led to the popular Level 2 apprenticeship being scrapped. The changes mean that the shorter course is no longer accessible to prospective learners. Today learners have to commit to a four-year apprenticeship in order to become a qualified plumber. Whilst the reform has happened to ensure apprentices receive comprehensive and thorough training, the level of commitment puts some prospective learners off the idea of exploring a career in plumbing and heating.

Looking forward

In recent years, the government has put in place initiatives to encourage more apprenticeships, recognising the need to rebuild our manufacturing base, as well as stimulate housebuilding and construction projects.

The push for green energy to meet the government’s environmental target of net zero by 2050 will further exacerbate the current shortage of heating and plumbing installers. Therefore, there is a huge opportunity for roles in low carbon heating. The contents of the government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy signals developments over time that will bring about significant changes to the plumbing and heating industry. These include phasing out the installation of new and replacement gas boilers by 2035, as well as a consultation on ending gas grid connections to new homes from 2025.

With around 26 million of the UK’s 28 million homes currently heated by gas, it is therefore no surprise that most of the current workforce work with gas. The upshot of this is that a challenge lies ahead transitioning the workforce to a future where heat pumps and hydrogen provide the majority of domestic heating.

Keeping up with new technologies, and installing them, will become part and parcel of the work involved in integrating these into a home’s ecosystem, as well as meet a growing need to fit heat pumps.

Add to this the prospect of a massive house building programme over the next decade, the demand for plumbers and heating engineers will become ever greater and so will the need to bring a new generation of trainees into the sector. Last year the government announced a funding programme of £11.5 billion pounds to build 180,000 affordable new homes by 2026, just one of the housing initiatives planned going forward and that means that thousands of additional trades people will need to be trained across various sectors to meet the demand.

Why take on an apprentice?

Companies can increase the efficiency of their business by hiring an apprentice, upskilling the current workforce by enrolling on one of JTL’s short courses, or by taking on a young person for work experience through our traineeship scheme.

JTL is an established training provider within the building services engineering sector. The apprenticeships we offer have been designed by the sector for the sector. An apprenticeship is a work-based, government-funded training programme for people aged 16 and over that leads to a nationally recognised qualification. The apprentice will work with a company, whilst providers like JTL will provide the practical training.

Training for 16-to 18-year-olds is fully government funded, so an employer pays nothing towards it. However, if the apprentice is over 19 years-old, the company may need to pay 5% of the total training cost over the whole duration of their apprenticeship. However, this is reviewed on an individual basis.

Reputable training companies will ensure that the right person is found to meet the needs of a business, and, at JTL, we provide dedicated training officer support for both the company and the apprentice throughout the training period.

Apprenticeships will increasingly become the future lifeblood of the UK economy as we seek to grow our manufacturing base and regenerate regions through construction projects. Without many more training scheme opportunities and companies signing up to them, there will be a shortage of trades people. It is vital the government does all it can to ensure this situation gets resolved over time.

For more information about JTL please visit jtltraining.com.

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