Too many plumbing students?

Nathan Gambling (@betateach on Twitter), a plumbing and heating installer/lecturer, has responded to recent claims that there are too many apprentices in the sector. Here, Nathan provides a different point of view. 

A recent article was published in the plumbing and heating trade media which sparked a bit of an outcry on social media. I was involved in this. The article stated that the industry needs to encourage more young people into the trade, otherwise we face a skills shortage of unprecedented consequences.

This seems to be a common notion. I recently attended the Homes 2017 event at Olympia London where I listened to a talk given by Kier Group who also take the position we need to encourage more young people to choose trades rather than university. 

At first glance this all seems a reasonable proposition. Why not encourage young people to learn a trade? Well the truth is that already in colleges up and down the country hundreds of thousands of young people are already doing just this and learning trades. Most of them, however, never enter into the industry they are studying. 

Who are these vast numbers of young people? They are called full-time students and they dramatically outnumber the apprentices who also go to college. 

Both apprentices and full-time students learn the same theory and undertake the same practical tasks. At the end of the academic year most full-time students will pass their course (currently they have been allowed to take their exams as many times as they want) but when they leave college they never enter the industry. Why?

Well, for a start they are not sufficiently qualified. Even though they have some lovely new certificates (which effectively you as the tax payer have paid for) they only have a diploma; they do not have an NVQ. To be qualified in most of the construction trades you need an NVQ and this, of course, is what their counterparts, the apprentices, receive.

The real shortage is not young people wanting to learn a trade – we have hundreds of thousands of them – the real shortage is job opportunities and employers willing to take an apprentice on.

So why do I and other duel professionals (those of us involved in a trade and in education) get so frustrated when we keep hearing this relentless call to train more people?

Well I am the one who has to deal with the disheartened, dispirited full-time students (and their parents) when they realise the likelihood of them ever managing to compete with all the other thousands of full-time students and find an employer willing to take them on as an apprentice is very slim. In fact, go on the government apprentice website right now type in ‘plumbing’, your post code, and a 40 mile radius and you will see the lack of apprenticeships being offered.

Some full-time students go to great lengths to try and find an employer for an apprenticeship. To me, this proves just how willing and resilient some young people truly are. One such person is Jacob Hoyes (@HoyesJacob). Jacob started college on the Level 1 City and Guilds plumbing course and worked his way up through level 2 and 3 as a full-time student. He is now well-known in the industry on social media and is one of the Heroes of Heat (@Heroes_of_Heat) team. 

Jacob spent an incredible amount of effort in securing an apprenticeship and knows full well how hard it is for other full-time students, such as Liam, to do this.

Liam Bielby (@BielbyLiam) is another young person well known on the plumbing social media circuit and is using this medium, as well as others, to try and obtain an apprenticeship. Despite being an award-winning student he is still trying to find an employer and exemplifies just how difficult it is for these young people on plumbing courses.

So please, before building companies and industry bodies beat the drum of a shortage of young people choosing to consider construction and building services trades, have a thought for all them thousands of young people that you have funded to be trained at colleges who will never enter industry.

Of course the real winner is the company getting paid to issue all these hundreds of thousands of certificates – perhaps that’s the real reason for the cry of a skills shortage. Awarding Bodies have some fantastic people working for them, but as an entity maybe it is time for these certification bodies to take stock and wonder if they have actually created the problem they try to solve.

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