Many of us are aware that the current Plumbing and Domestic Heating Technician standards (apprenticeship) have recently been reviewed and approved with some new changes set to be introduced, including a ‘non-domestic’ route, which itself is a bit of a contradiction given we have ‘domestic’ as part of the main title.

As an apprenticeship company, we have had to turn several companies away, due to the fact their proposed apprentices won’t be able to achieve the criteria for the current standard as they don’t undertake some of the work required to cover the scope. Some can outsource their apprentices to other companies to cover this issue, but not all.

We always send the companies a skills scan that shows the range of expected tasks they would need to cover to ensure their apprentices could fulfil the requirements of the standards. We do this for two reasons: one if we didn’t, we would be setting apprentices up for failure, and two, we would be letting the employers down, by not alerting them to the fact that their apprentices aren’t going to achieve. It also safeguards us, by keeping the employers fully informed of such actions.

Then, there is the other side that we encounter, where we have companies who do undertake gas, but the current standard only covers the basic CCN 1 and CENWAT. These companies also want their apprentices to have a fuller scope of appliances, such as cookers and fires etc. so without any form of bridging module to cover the shortfall, they would have to wait for 12 months post qualifying before they can undertake these extra elements.

So, it is worth asking the question: how much do employers in the industry really understand about the current standards to help them identify the correct course to put their apprentices on?

We have had some apprentices that have started on the current standards (gas option), but during their training the sites they work on have turned to greener alternatives to the fossil fuel options, rendering the apprentices' gas option rather worthless. Many would say to simply switch their course to the environmental route, but apart from the fact the learner is often too far down the path to make that practical, the funding would not be there to facilitate this extra training required to make the switch, plus some training centres do not always offer the alternatives anyway.

So, what is the solution?

Last year I asked the CIPHE to run a survey, to see whether employers felt the current apprenticeships were suitable for their companies range of work, what came out of the results showed that around a third of the industry is being let down by current offerings. So, as a result, I suggested what some might think is a bit of a radical shake up for our industry training, a Level 3 core plumbing, heating and sanitation standard, which practically everyone in our industry who deals with the ‘wet’ side can enrol their apprentices on. This is proposed to take place over a 30-36 months on the course, which in effect encompasses everything on the ‘wet’ side within the current standard, but potentially with more emphasis on relevant appliances and elements such as heat interface units, legionella control etc.

But what about those who still want the gas side of the qualification? – their apprentices can be enrolled on a gas engineering diploma, which lasts from around 18 months; either of these courses could be started first, to give the employers some degree of control as to what they would like their apprentices to start first. Personally, I would suggest for the majority that doing the plumbing course first is a better option, as the minimum age for someone coming into our industry is 16, so I’m not sure how many customers would feel safe with someone so young and not much industry experience doing gas work in their house.

The current gas standard gives better scope to also train up on more appliances as part of the standard, so the apprentices would emerge from the course having a better span of knowledge and competencies on appliances they could work on straight away.

So, that also leads on to the ‘blurred lines’, with the qualifications available. The current plumbing and domestic heating course covers the wet side of the heating, in other words, the heat emitters, underfloor heating, and associated components; something which was the case, even on the old level 2 course. But what about the gas engineer? It does exactly what it states on the tin, it teaches the apprentice all the elements of the gas side of fitting, maintaining and fault-finding boilers and other gas appliances, but not necessarily delving into the wet side of the heating systems, unless chosen as an elective unit.

It is little wonder that the companies behind the creation of the Low Carbon heating technician found a way of by-passing the environmental route that is currently one of the pathways on the plumbing and domestic heating standard. It will still need to introduce a substantial amount of plumbing and heating, which will need to adhere to current legislation, but is aimed at producing a more rounded qualification better suited to their industry as it is being designed by employers in that field, including MCS.

It is also classed as one of a few ‘Royal apprenticeships’, which are ‘green apprenticeships’ that have been hand-picked by industry experts to celebrate the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III. That course is proposed to be completed in 36 months, including the training on heat pumps and the like, so again, will take a year from the current environmental route option on the current standard.

When I have asked the trade organisations, who guide the ‘employer group’, as to why there isn’t an option for just core only, to enable companies that only want to do bathrooms etc. their response is that ‘it’s what the employers want and there are courses for those who just want to do bathroom/kitchen fitting,’ i.e. the new Fitted Interiors Installers standard. However, when you inspect the occupational standards for this qualification, it states, ‘Fitted Interiors Installers work as part of a wider installation team to include other trade professionals such as electricians, plumbers, and general builders.’ So, it would seem this doesn’t satisfy the needs of employers that only want to take that direction.

Even the knowledge, skills, and behaviours that must be met for this standard state:

  • K13: The basic principles of plumbing: tools, water and waste fittings, water and waste pipe types, isolating water supply and limits of competence.
  • K14: The basic principles of electrical installation, plug and lighting circuits and ring circuits, fitting facias, consumer unit, isolating electrical supply and limits of competence.

Why are the trade organisations, and the ‘employer group’, so keen on holding plumbing back as an industry, when in reality it is a rapidly changing environment? Is it really what ‘the employers want'?

I have a list of employers that would contradict that point, who are eager to see a core only option to be available; one, in particular, is a very large and well-respected company that employs around 2,000 people but have said they don’t employ plumbers as they don’t have gas in their business. They further said they have tried getting some of their team onto local plumbing courses for site kitchen and temporary site toilets plumbing, but never able to get them on a Level 2 or 3 course. We haven’t scratched the surface with asking all colleges to gather and release their data.

I would be interested to hear other people’s views on this matter at, to see exactly what they think to the current plumbing apprenticeship, whether they think it is fit for purpose, or whether they find it too restricting for any future apprentices they would like to take on.