With the UK government’s target of installing 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028 fast approaching, the heat pump industry is aiming to fill skills shortages with a new apprenticeship scheme which could be ready to launch later this year.
Until now, if you wanted to be a heat pump installer, you had to train as a plumber or electrician first. Now, a Low Carbon Heating Technical apprenticeship is awaiting a funding band allocation and there is interest from a number of colleges, such as Salford College, in welcoming the first cohort of students later this year.
However, there remains concerns about the decline of educational budgets across the UK, with Scottish higher education losing £46 million in pledged funds last year.
John Renwick, section manager at Energy Skills Partnership told Current±: “In Scotland in 21/22, we had 17,500 kids studying some form of construction. In the engineering sector we had 19,000 kids studying. So when we hear there’s a skills shortage, I always question that when we have so many people seeking jobs.”
“What we need to do is to get companies to focus on taking new entrants on. That’s where the skills supply chain really needs to start focusing on changing for the future. The skills shortage and all these reports that are coming out are valid, but their skills shortage is focusing on the experienced workforce, we need to flip that whole model and focus on bringing apprentices in, bringing new entrants into the sector which creates a bigger supply chain,” Renwick says.
Renwick adds: “as a college sector we would welcome a standardised course which was mapped or industry driven”. Industry bodies like the Heat Pump Association (HPS) and Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) have also been pushing for a standardised apprenticeship
The MCS is working with companies in the industry to support a new apprenticeship that’s dedicated to fitting low carbon heating technology like heat pumps. Ian Rippin, MCS’ chief executive, says that companies “were finding that they were sending their apprentices to do domestic heating and plumbing courses and then having to retrain them.”
“So it’s a dedicated apprenticeship. It’s been recognised in the King’s Coronation, one of six apprentices that’s been awarded this sustainability title recognised with the King’s emblem. So we’re hoping that in September this year, the first cohort of apprentices will go through this dedicated route,” he says.
Rippin says that the apprenticeship scheme would probably start small, with 10-15 participating colleges. At the end of the three year course, apprentices will be fully qualified heat pump installers. The government’s target of installing 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028 was ‘audacious’ and ‘visionary’, Rippin says, but “we need a transformational change” to achieve it.
“I think it’s more likely we’re going to reach 250,000-300,000 unless there are more interventions. And that means regulation better stick, as well as so called aid or put to pay able to contribute market, they’re going to need government incentive for a while. Yeah, in the same way we saw with solar PV market feed in tariff. I mean, now solar PV is flying off the shelves,” Rippin says.
As well as the apprenticeship, there are also a number of heat pump installer courses that existing plumbers and engineers can take, according to the HPA. Members of the HPA have worked with LCL awards to develop three Ofqual approved heat pump courses. IEMA has also set up a Green Careers Hub to provide resources and information for green jobs seekers.
The HPA says that “our members have the capacity to train up to 40,000 individuals a year to install heat pumps, so there are courses and training provisions available. We are supporting the Government’s Heat Training Grant which will provide support to 10,000 trainees over the next two years with grants of up to £500.”
“Our desire is to see consumer demand grow in order to incentivise installers to choose to re-skill. We appreciate the upfront cost and the time taken away from revenue generating activities to re-train, can be prohibitive, especially if there is low consumer pull,” the HPA adds.
However, according to Alok Dubey, UK country manager at EV charging company Monta: “The UK is facing a significant green energy skills gap, with a current shortfall of around 200,000 workers according to a recent PwC report.”
One reason for this is that “the education sector has struggled to keep up with the sheer pace of technology innovation,” according to Dubey. “To try and reduce the skills gap, the first priority should be to invest in the development of the existing workforce.”
With apprentices set to take three years to train, the UK government should also look at incentivising businesses to retrain existing staff. The funding band for heat pump apprenticeships will be decided in the next month, and those in the industry hope that it is given adequate funding to incentivise people to train as heat pump installers.
Charlotte Lee, chief executive of the HPA, says: “There’s no doubt that we don’t have the capacity of trained installers in the market to get to 600,000 [installations per year] and we are falling short, but there are policy enablers which government are working on which will unlock consumer demand and increase supply.”
The UK government started a Green Jobs Delivery Group in May 2022, and there are a number of groups looking at the green skills shortage, like IEMA and Energy and Utility Skills, whose members both spoke at a Westminster Employment Forum event this week on green skills.
Graham Hasting-Evans, chief executive of National Open College Network (NOCN Group) told the forum: “Bits are starting to happen but most of this is aimed at new jobs which are only 10% of the occupations and don’t take account of the major workforce – 90% of the impact will be people already working in occupations that need to be ‘greened’. Most of our skills policies to date have been built around the medium term. The biggest impact today is in the short term.”
Questions remain about what other levers the government can pull to increase skills and training, such as increasing the apprenticeship levy charged to larger employers with a pay bill over £3 million. The pathways into vocational education in the renewables sector are becoming clearer, but the uptake remains too low. There remains a perception issue in the UK that vocational qualifications are only for less academically successful students, and this is a long term issue which needs more effort to change public perceptions.