A collective failure to address diversity means the heating and hot water industry is missing out on crucial skills and putting its whole future at risk, the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) maintains.
Just 2% of the sector’s workforce are female, and only 5% are from an ethnic minority background, according to new research from Energy Systems Catapult, which is working with the Association to address skills shortages across the building services sector. BESA says the failure to develop a more diverse workforce is ‘undermining attempts to accelerate the decarbonisation of heating and hot water production in buildings, and meet government targets for scaling up heat pump installations and replacing gas boilers’. “These figures are an absolute scandal,” said the Association’s director of training and skills,” Helen Yeulet (pictured). “We appear to have made no progress on diversity at all. The industry needs new approaches to meet its skills gap, and embrace the technologies that will help tackle climate change. A different workforce brings diversity of thought that will be essential if it is to grow and develop.” Helen Yeulet points out that many other industries have already reaped the benefits of recognising that people from different backgrounds bring economically vital diversity of ideas and approaches.
The online BESA Academy training facility is focusing heavily on encouraging greater diversity of opportunity in the building services sector, but the Association believes the industry needs to make its employment and training models more flexible to attract a wider cross-section of the UK population. “It is crucial that we shift the ‘male, stale, and pale’ image so that we can recruit the multi-background, multi-talented workforce our companies need to play their part in future economic growth,” said Helen Yeulet, “Otherwise, it is hard to see how the industry as we know it can survive.
“We are not fishing in the right pools for our skills,” said Yeulet. “Other industries are heavily focused on the BAME population because they see so much innovative thinking and new ideas emerging there, while unconscious bias means we continually return to stereotypical ideas of what a heating engineer should look like.”
BESA adds that heating has a rapidly ageing workforce, with a high proportion of employees over 55, and has seen a sharp drop in the number of workers under 30. It believes apprentices will be a crucial part of the solution, so employers are being urged to sign up to its ‘Future Skills’ pledge, and commit to taking on at least one apprentice this year.
“Apprenticeships are not just for young people, but are suitable for those of any age looking to learn a new skill and for people from all backgrounds who might not have seen our industry as an attractive career destination in the past,” said Helen Yeulet.
The Catapult’s report argues that ‘inherent societal stereotypes’ perpetuate the perception that the heating trade is only for men, resulting in ‘a flawed recruitment process that prioritises employing more men’.
Women had also reported that they were not encouraged to join technical training courses at school age, as these were ‘only for boys’; and later in life financial barriers and lack of flexible working limited access for women and ethnic minorities.
So-called ‘banter culture’ is a further disincentive to people who feel they may be exposed to sexist and racist behaviour in the white male dominated heating sector, says BESA. “The median age of heating engineers today is 55, meaning many professionals will – over the coming decade – leave the workforce,” said the report’s co-author, Dr Vivien Kizilcec, consumer research manager at Energy Systems Catapult. “This, coupled with the large skills gap, means the heating sector is on a cliff edge. We must tap into a broader talent pool and bring more women and ethnic minorities into the fold.”