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Heat is on to improve training

A lack of gas engineering apprentices is threatening ministerial plans to improve the state of the nation's homes. Sue Jones reports

PLANS to improve the nation's home comforts are under threat from a training crisis in the gas industry. The Government's "Affordable Warmth" programme to install central heating in one million council homes will create 13,000 new jobs, but an ageing workforce is heading for retirement, and too few young people are coming in to be trained.

The Gas Industry National Training Organisation (GINTO) has estimated that we need 2,500 trainees a year to maintain the current level of 97,000 qualified CORGI installers - last year 128 people joined the register.

Before privatisation in 1986, British Gas trained workers for the gas industry but the break-up of the utility produced many much smaller companies - nearly 40 per cent of the present gas installers are in one-man businesses - which can-not afford apprentices.

"This created a training vacuum," said David Walker, communications adviser for Transco, the company which handles gas emergencies and the distribution of gas through major pipelines and the pipes under the road. Transco, along with other gas companies and professional organisations, GINTO, the Council for Registered Gas Installers, the unions and the Government, have joined the new Gas Industry Skills Task Force to tackle the impending skills crisis.

Young people currently going into the appliance installation and maintenance side of the industry are usually taken on by an employer and trained to NVQ (SVQ in Scotland) Level 3. This generally takes three years, although Bolton Council runs an example of an apprenticeship scheme which allows four years with the option of further qualifications. Most small-to-medium employers send their apprentices to an FE college on block or day-release.

As a large employer with a core workforce of 14,000 and 2,000 agency staff, Transco organises most of its training internally although it does have affiliations with colleges for courses up to BTec level. Its workers are trained in the gas network engineering NVQ accredited by City and Guilds, but Transco does not usually recruit school-leavers.

Whatever branch of the industry, training goes on throughout a career. British Standards in gas safety for installation and maintenance are being constantly upgraded and CORGI requires its members to take written and practical exams every five years.

Filton College in Bristol serves as an accreditation centre for Wales and the South-west. It provides refresher courses, if required, before the seven-and-a-half hours of written papers and the four hours of practical exams for each appliance that the gas worker wants to remain registered. The cost can add up to at least pound;700.

The expense of training could be one of the reasons for the serious skills shortage in the ndustry. Employers who do fund their apprentices' training can find that their newly-qualified workers are quickly poached by other companies.

Plans for new training loans that would follow the apprentice and only be paid back when he or she was qualified and earning money for the company were announced recently by lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks, but this may not be enough.

Patrick Barret of Lauder College, Dunfermline, would like to see money put in, not loans. "We need proper funding, and not only for young people," he said.

Manchester Training and Enterprise Council has put funding into North Trafford College's course, but it is not yet clear what will happen when the TECs are replaced by the Learning and Skills Council next year.

The industry may also have an image problem. Manual work is less attractive than it was, particularly in the South-east where the aspiration seems to be to wear a suit and work in an office or to go to university. In past times many people expected to get dirty or work out of doors but this is no longer so common. Since the break up of British Gas, the small scale successor companies may have been perceived as less secure employers and poorer providers of a career structure and training.

The 44 colleges, providing gas training and the five-yearly accreditation assessments in England, Wales and Scotland, are working hard to attract new entrants.

Lauder College has a huge catchment area and, instead of offering day-release courses, has had to adapt to two or three week blocks and help students find accommodation. Tutors may also have to travel to do assessments as many small firms will not have their own SVQ (Scottish Vocational Qualification) assessors. The college also customises its training to suit clients and plans to offer a fast-track course for mature entrants.

Although Filton College has previously concentrated on accreditation for CORGI operatives it also plans to start an open access NVQ course this September. North Trafford is already working with unemployed adults who wish to retrain and runs evening classes. This summer it hopes to pick up some of the school-leavers who slip out of the system between GCSE exams and their new courses by offering basic skills and safety courses with additional learning support if necessary. This way they can hit the ground running when they start the full course in September.

But despite the colleges' expansion plans, GINTO doubts that the existing training centres can meet the industry's needs. Far from hitting the Government's home-improvement targets, GINTO estimates that the gas installation and maintenance workforce could shrink to just two-thirds of its present strength by 2005.

The gas industry Skills Task Force faces a substantial problem within the Government's overall programme to upgrade Britain's workplace skills.

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