The ongoing debate about skill shortages within the plumbing trade and wider construction industry looks set to rumble on for years to come as it’s not something that can quickly be addressed by short-term solutions.
Concerns about the ramifications of Brexit have brought the issue in sharper focus, but the roots of the problem go much further.
Generations of school leavers have been encouraged to think that the road to status and success lies in further academic study and working with your hands is something to be considered only if all else fails.
Recent efforts to raise the profile of vocational learning and encourage schools leavers to take up apprenticeships might be a move in the right direction, but challenging the expectations of an entrenched educational establishment is no easy task.
We need more students who recognise the value of becoming a fully qualified heating and plumbing engineer
The benefits of modern apprenticeships
Teachers and career advisers who have come through the university system are naturally inclined to persuade others to follow a similar path.
Studies have suggested that while schools are keen to promote the options available to students who want to pursue a degree level course, relatively little is being done to highlight the benefits of a modern apprenticeship.
Surprisingly, the spiraling cost of attaining a degree doesn’t appear to have had a significant impact on the number of people aspiring to go to university and even the potential to ‘earn while you learn’ has not enticed enough school leavers to think again.
So what more can the industry do to appeal to the younger generation and prevent the average plumber’s age climbing ever higher?
A future-proof career
Trade bodies and industry representatives need access to schools during those critical decision making years to provide a better understanding of what working as a plumber actually entails and the potential it offers to specialise in related disciplines.
If further persuasion is needed, it might also be worth pointing out that while advances in automation and artificial intelligence threaten to take over the workplace in many walks of life, the work of a plumbing and heating engineer should be relatively future proof.
The rise of robotics might well make many traditional jobs redundant, but the skills of a plumber are too varied and dexterous to be readily replicated by a spanner carrying cyborg.
A long awaited scheme
Getting more school leavers to recognise the potential rewards of working in the industry is one challenge, but the other is to ensure that the apprenticeships and courses they sign up to are capable of providing them with the necessary knowledge and experience.
January this year saw the launch of a new long awaited apprenticeship scheme for plumbing and domestic heating technicians.
Devised largely by employers and contractors with the aim of providing a future workforce that will better reflect the needs of the industry, the three-year course has a greater emphasis on regular assessments and encourages better communication between colleges and the companies who pay the apprentice’s wages.
As college funds have largely been reliant on enrolling sufficient numbers on courses, some might argue that too much leniency has been given to struggling candidates and there has not always been enough incentive for course providers to ensure that students are of the right calibre to see things through to completion.
Now, with more assessments and a limited number of re-sits, there is a good reason for colleges to filter out prospective students who might be lacking in ability or enthusiasm. While the country clearly needs youngsters coming through to help bridge the widening generation gap, it’s important that plumbing apprenticeships are not viewed as an easy ride.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but raising the bar and providing a greater sense of achievement might ultimately lead to more students who recognise the value of becoming a fully qualified heating and plumbing engineer.