The serious concerns about training in the plumbing and heating sector in Northern Ireland will continue to be addressed after a high-level Ministerial meeting in the Legislative Assembly this week (October 6) attended by the Scotland and Northern Ireland Joint Industry Board (The SNIJIB – which is made up of members of SNIPEF and Unite) and other industry bodies.
The industry has raised strong objections that the Department for the Economy (DfE) in Northern Ireland intends to go ahead this Autumn with plans for a two-year Traineeship which, it is feared, will create first-class and second-class qualifications which will be detrimental to safety, skills and quality.
The proposals have no support within the industry because of the danger that they will dilute skill sets at a time when plumbing and heating is becoming increasingly complex, and when recognised qualifications will be vital in the transition to net zero carbon, where plumbers will play a crucial role.
However, after discussions between Gordon Lyons, Minister of the Economy, and his team and SNIJIB, the Electrical Contractors’ Association, Unite the Union, the Scottish and Northern Ireland Joint Industry Board and the Joint Industry Board, it was agreed to hold a further meeting.
Stephanie Lowe, Secretary of the SNIJIB and Industrial Relations Manager for SNIPEF, said: “It is a positive development that there is another meeting to be set in the diary.
“It is a step in the right direction and the industry looks forward to working closely with the Department to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution. The key point about the current proposals is that the sector is safety critical and Traineeships do not fit in with that model.”
The DfE also indicated that the Department wished to explore further a proposal from the industry which has the potential to satisfy all parties.
“The BSE Skills alternative envisages a one-year pre-apprenticeship course which would provide young people with a taste of all three trades in the building services, and we are pleased that the DfE is giving it serious consideration.
“This option reduces government unemployment figures, provides a steady income for colleges and meets the expectations of young people by doing a course which leads them into their chosen apprenticeship with the prospect of a true career.
“It also provides employers with a steady supply of potential apprentices to employ, is more likely to keep employees and the public safe and, importantly, supports the future of a high-skill industry.”
The issue has arisen because, while an undersupply of Level-3 qualified plumbers is anticipated in Northern Ireland, the DfE argues that the shortfall must be balanced against the need for pathways for “those who have not reached their potential” in school.
Fiona Hodgson, Chief Executive of SNIPEF, said: “SNIPEF wants to support young people on their pathway into the industry, but they must be properly trained and qualified in the interests of safety and the maintenance of skill levels.
“While the DfE proposals may reduce government unemployment figures and provide income for colleges, they raise unrealistic expectations among young people and their families that it is possible to become a plumber after a two-year college course with very little on-site practical training.
“If these young people then start up their own business, they may be putting themselves, their colleagues and the public in danger. It is simply the wrong road to take.”
SNIPEF has been at the forefront of support for companies in order to ensure a vibrant and dynamic industry staffed by professionals versed in the complexity of the technologies which are underpinning renewables and meeting the demand for clean energy in an age of climate change.