Industries which innovate and adapt to changing circumstances have a fighting chance of survival in a fiercely competitive commercial environment. That is one of the fundamental reasons that the plumbing and heating sector is now more buoyant than it has been for many years.
From an employers perspective, business in Scotland is riding a wave, with new build housing, City Deals and private contracts all adding to a significantly increasing workload and a demand for new skills.
From an employees viewpoint, there has seldom been a better time to become involved in a vibrant and dynamic industry at the forefront of new technologies which are showcasing renewables and meeting the demand for clean energy in an age of climate change.
And, at a time when the advance of robotics is generating disturbing headlines for working people across the spectrum, the exponentially-increasing complexity of the skills required by plumbers and heating engineers, the need for dexterity, hand-eye coordination and flexibility, mean that their services will still be in demand long into the future.
The challenge for those with the interests of the industry at heart is maintaining a pipeline of these highly-technical skillsets, in order that their knowledge can be passed on in turn. And that means one thing: apprentices.
In this area, Scotland is still recovering from the 2008 recession, when the number of apprentices dropped from 1800 in training to 700, a collapse which had serious implications for the sustainability of the profession.
The numbers have since recovered with just under 900 apprentices currently in training but there is still a long way to go if we are to meet the demands of the sector. What is heartening is the quality of the young people coming through out of the eight plumbing apprentices competing in the WorldSkills UK competition in Birmingham recently (November 2019), five were from Scotland taking home gold and silver medals and two being eligible to compete in China in 2021.
It is vital that we maintain this level of quality and increase the number of apprentices coming through the system. However, to do this we must address one of the issues facing the sector which is how to improve the perception of employment within it, and to have it recognised for what it is challenging, rewarding, worthwhile and socially useful.
Of immediate help would be support from the Scottish Government for adult apprenticeships, which are denied the same levels of funding and are therefore less attractive to employers, who also pay adults higher pay rates.
Such career opportunities would be very attractive to the many people who are seeing their jobs disappear in sectors such as retail, and in other employment areas which are about to be ground under the wheels of the juggernaut of automation.
It is also important to emphasise that, apart from take home salaries which would be the envy of many graduates, the plumbing and heating industry can be a springboard for careers in management, sales, lecturing and entrepreneurship.
Of course, as well as maintaining the quality of intake, the sector has to ensure the capability of the existing offering.
Governmental announcements on climate change such as that of former Chancellor Phillip Hammond who said that gas boilers were to be phased out in new build homes by 2025 present opportunities but also challenges for the sector. Many firms have welcomed the opportunity and have enthusiastically moved on to ground and air source heat pumps.
Mixes of hydrogen and natural gas are being trialled for use in homes in conjunction with existing wet heating systems, again reducing our reliance on fast-diminishing carbon-based resources. However, we not only need to ensure that only qualified, skilled labour undertake this type of work but also that they are sufficient in numbers to do so.
Scotland has even more ambitious carbon reduction targets than the rest of the UK and, as well as phasing out combustion heat in new homes, there is a wealth of work to be done in retro-fitting existing stock with the latest energy-saving technology.
We are experiencing a sea change in attitude to energy use, with the wish to restrict carbon consumption moving quickly into the mainstream. Plumbers and heating engineers will be in the vanguard of this very necessary revolution.
Fiona Hodgson is chief executive of the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers Federation, the trade association for plumbing and heating businesses.
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