Opinion

Did anyone call the installer?

The recently released Heat and Buildings strategy makes for thought-provoking reading but it's difficult to ignore the lack of acknowledgement for installers - those who are tasked with resolving decarbonisation problems - and the need for them to focus on upskilling and training to be ready for the challenge.

Heat and Buildings strategy

A recent article posed an important question: ‘Did no one call the plumber?’ As the UK’s plan to achieve net zero through the replacement of millions of fossil fuel heating systems, the report overlooks a vital ingredient – the workers. There is little, to no, reference to the workforce. Installers, heat, gas and engineers and engineers are not sufficiently considered in the findings and suggestions. 

The industry needs reassurance 

Financial barriers have not been considered when it comes to the costs of the upskilling and training needed to enable those in the profession to be capable of taking on the challenge. With many installers running their own businesses this could be a cost too far with the potential impact of lowered income and potential earnings. 100,000 of the current 130,000 Gas Safe registered engineers are sole traders (there is no definitive number), which means a large chunk of the industry will need reassurance before investing in a strategy that appears to be a little woolly. 

KEY POINTS  

• The UK’s Net Zero plans mean decarbonising the heating of buildings, including homes, which account for 14% of carbon emissions. This will mean replacing millions of domestic fossil-fuel-burning heating systems with new ones, including heat pumps.  

• The government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy (HBS) is meant to address this challenge, but it largely overlooks a vital element of decarbonising heat: training the workers who would carry out the installations and modifications required.  

• Evidence around this workforce – plumbers, installers, heat, and gas engineers – is worryingly thin. Neither government nor industry even knows how many people are currently trained to install heat pumps, for instance.  

• Many of the workforces are likely to be self-employed sole traders, responsible for their own skills and training. Such workers may face greater costs than others from undertaking training, so heat policy needs to address the financial barriers to training.  

• The HBS largely fails to do this, leaving the delivery of training to the market and trusting that growing demand for heat pumps will incentivise workers to pay for their own training.  

• This approach is unlikely to succeed since the HBS does not provide adequate stimulus for consumer demand for pumps and creates uncertainty about their future and the adoption of hydrogen as a potential alternative.  

• Ongoing SMF work with the workforce suggests that, without further policy intervention, many workers will hold off spending time and money on training for heat pump installation. 

Sceptical and holding off investing in training 

Following the failings of previous schemes, installers are sceptical and are holding off investment in costly training programmes until the strategy offers more in the way of stability. After all, the green homes grant was a learning curve for many businesses and sole traders in the industry with many installers caught up in late payments by the grant and impossible paperwork causing delays in all areas. 

Mark Krull, from Logic4Training, said: “The emphasis from many people is that we need lots of heat pump installers. This completely ignores the fact that, for householders, most new installations for a central heating and hot water system arise because the existing appliance has broken down – usually a distress purchase. 

“In this scenario, the end user’s first response will be to see if the appliance can be fixed and will call on a registered boiler engineer, not a heat pump installer. It is vital that all strategy writers understand this and consequently support the 140,000 Gas Safe engineers to become multi-skilled, adding heat pumps to their existing qualifications and experience. 

“Multi-skilled heating engineers are best-placed to help householders make the right choices, whether an emergency or more long-term demand. For the next 30 years, these are the types of installers we need to meet the UK’s heating and hot water requirements.” 

Griff Thomas, from GTEC, said: “The Boiler Upgrade Scheme does not give much, if any, recognition to the labour shortage. There are simply not enough installers to meet the target of 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. 

“Let’s look at the figures. At the moment, there are roughly 125,000 gas installers, responsible for installing around 1,600,000 boilers annually. To install a gas boiler, on average, takes one or two days. If we take the upper estimate, that’s 3,200,000 person-days per year taken up installing gas boilers. 

“Even once we reach 600,000 heat pumps a year, there’s still 1,000,000 gas boilers that still need to be installed, and heat pumps take a lot longer to fit. A heat pump takes approximately 8 days to install, so that’s 4,800,000 days of work required to meet the government’s target. If we add this to the 2,400,000 days required to fit the remaining 1,000,000 gas boilers, that’s 7,200,000 person-days to fit heat pumps and gas boilers. 

“To meet this uplift we need an extra 30,000 full time dedicated heat pump installers. Not only do we need to upskill our existing plumbing and heating workforce, but we also need to quickly grow the installation labour force to meet these targets.”