Is there a UK shortage of heating and building maintenance engineers?

advert for skilled labourTrying to book a good heating engineer when the domestic heating system goes wrong is a challenge and invariably involves a lengthy wait for an appointment.

The majority of such services at local level are supplied by independent SME traders, who invariably seem to be mature workers. Even Pimlico Plumbers are self-employed.

This would suggest that fewer people are coming into the industry and may indicate that there is a skills shortage. On the other hand, it might be that younger, qualified engineers are looking for direct employment with larger companies.

A closer look at the situation

Heating system breakdowns invariably happen in the depths of winter, often when the system is first switched on when the weather turns colder. In a climate like UK effective and prompt heating and maintenance services are essential.

How many domestic users remember to have the heating checked and the boiler serviced ahead of the onset of cold weather?   Even if they did think ahead there are still likely to be peaks and troughs in the demand for heating engineers since breakdown will be more common when a system is in intensive use.

The age factor may give us better clues as to whether there is a skills shortage in this sector.

Certainly, the Construction Industry has for several years been warning of shortages for all types of skilled and qualified engineers, and this has been used to account for the numbers of qualified engineering workers being recruited from Eastern Europe.

But there is more evidence available to support this claim.  The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) commissioned research into the industry’s labour market, which was carried out by a Dr Mike Hammond, Director of Education and Research at Hammonds Enterprises Ltd. His findings were published in a BESA report ‘Future manpower and skills availability’ for its conference in late 2015 on the issue of skills shortages.

Dr Hammond’s findings predicted “massive” under supply in every sector apart from plumbing up to 2018, particularly in the heating and ventilation professions. He also suggested that many new entrants into the sector during and in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis had missed out on formal training.

However, we would argue that the problem has been building for much longer than that and in part originates in Government emphasis on and efforts to increase university graduate numbers, which had the effect of devaluing the more practical skills and qualifications.

The combination of factors has led to a “generation gap” of suitably qualified and experienced people. While the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement of 2015 announced a levy on large companies to pay for its new three million new Trailblazer apprenticeships, the levy is not due to even start being collected until April 2017.

Even if suitable apprenticeships were immediately available from then, factor in the time it will take to recruit suitable candidates as well as the length of training and it is likely to be several years before there is any noticeable narrowing of the skills generation gap.

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