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Skills demand will hit us like a train

Efforts to create a more diverse building services workforce must speed up dramatically following the unveiling of the Government’s 10-point plan for a ‘green revolution’, according to BESA’s director of skills and training Helen Yeulet

BESA’s director of skills and training Helen Yeulet

She told a recent BESA webinar that the Prime Minister’s announcement of a £12bn plan to create 250,000 new jobs linked to low carbon and renewable projects was both an opportunity and a challenge for the sector.

“This is going to hit us like a train,” she told the webinar. “We must attract different talent to stimulate innovation and must not miss this opportunity to appeal to school children who are more motivated than ever to do something about climate change. They need to realise that our industry offers them a chance to make that big difference.”

Decarbonising the heating industry sits at the heart of the 10-point plan, which includes a pledge to tackle energy efficiency in hospitals, schools and other public buildings through the £1bn Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme. The Green Homes Grant has also been extended by a year until March 2022.

Heat pumps were highlighted by the Prime Minister as a key technology for delivering many of the Government’s decarbonisation goals, including removing new homes from the gas grid, and he wants the industry to be installing 600,000 a year by 2028. 

Landscape for jobs

Rebecca Lovelace from the BuildingPeople community platform said the Government’s plan would change the landscape for jobs right across the sector.

“I can’t see how it wouldn’t,” she told BESA chief executive David Frise, who chaired the webinar. “The heating, ventilation and plumbing professions have an opportunity to do something clever with this and really make use of the innovations that are coming through.”

However, she said there needed to be more progress at the grassroots. “We can’t keep relying on these ‘top level’ initiatives – we need to see change happening further down.”

Wider adoption of digital tools could help the industry appeal to the wider demographic it needs, the webinar heard. “We must attract people with different ideas who can make use of the potential in digital,” added Yeulet. “Otherwise, we will just keep reinventing the wheel.”

Lovelace added that the industry would have to embrace digital systems to deliver the transparency required by the Hackitt building safety reforms. “We must get better at tracking things and being able to review work by making it more accessible,” she said.

Frise commented that having a diverse workforce drawn from a range of social backgrounds was the best way for building engineering contractors to gain a “competitive advantage” in the years ahead.

In a further skills development, the BESA Academy, in partnership with affiliate member Mitsubishi Electric, has launched an online training course so refrigeration and air conditioning engineers can renew their professional accreditations remotely.

‘The BESA F-Gas Online Renewal’ course is future proofed against any repeat of the shortage of physical training facilities experienced during the COVID-19 crisis and the sector’s rapidly changing competence and compliance requirements.

Head of technical Graeme Fox unveiled the online training and certification process during another BESA webinar and hailed it as a vital step towards avoiding the kind of registration ‘pile up’ experienced by the industry last year.

The RAC sector was hit particularly hard by the first lockdown period as restrictions were imposed just at the point in the three-year cycle when hundreds of companies were preparing to renew their REFCOM registrations. It also coincided with thousands of engineers needing to renew their F-Gas certificates. 

DEFRA denied the industry a legal extension that would have allowed engineers to continue working without renewing, leaving contractors and their customers in a difficult position.

“We had a mandatory certification scheme with an expiry date, but no way of renewing qualifications because all the training centres were shut,” said Fox. “So, we looked urgently into how we might address this as part of the development of the Association’s new online service.”

The BESA Academy now makes it possible to renew an F-Gas qualification in under six hours from an engineer’s home or workplace. 

No more hassle

“That means no more hassle booking a test centre, travel expenses and time off work. This will save engineers and employers time and money, while ensuring they meet the mandatory F-Gas requirements and can continue to work even during a pandemic,” added Fox.

Candidates do still have a ‘physical’ option by using one of BESA’s approved training centres around the country, but having an online option gives the sector unprecedented choice. 

Also, the safe working arrangements put in place because of the COVID-19 crisis have reduced physical capacity at many centres so being able to have some students studying remotely is increasingly important. As a result, the BESA Academy is working in partnership with several colleges and plans to grow this throughout 2021.

Some critics have suggested that the online approach is open to abuse, but BESA says it has put in place a robust verification process or ‘proctoring’, which guards against plagiarism.

“The process still finishes with an assessment under exam conditions even if you are at home – so you need to make sure your environment is set up for that. This will be verified by our proctoring agency before you can sit the exam,” explained Yeulet.

Refrigeration engineers will also need to upload prerequisite documents that prove they have been working regularly on RACHP systems at Cat 1 or Cat 2 over the previous five years. These include a signed Statement of Eligibility from their employer or self-declaration if self-employed; along with two commissioning log sheets and a current or recently expired F-Gas Cat 1 or Cat 2 certificate.

“The Academy is a brilliant solution for small companies like ours as it helps us to plan and manage our training arrangements,” said Jason Canning, managing director of NBC Air Conditioning and chair of the BESA RACHP group. “It really is the missing link that the industry has been looking for and we now have a one stop shop for all our training needs,” he told the BESA webinar.

The F-Gas renewal course, supported by Mitsubishi Electric, costs £295 plus VAT, but BESA, REFCOM F-Gas and REFCOM Elite members receive a discount of £45.

Mitsubishi Electric’s product marketing manager Mark Grayston said the launch of the Academy course was extremely timely as the number of new products coming onto the market was accelerating in line with the F-Gas phase down. “It is really important to have these online training modules as we can respond more quickly and flexibly to changing requirements such as the increasing use of mildly flammable refrigerants.”

Richard Merritt, managing director of AC Solutions and vice chair of the RACHP Group, added that employers should have full confidence in the quality and robustness of the process.

“Proctoring gives us the confidence that people are actually doing what they say they are doing and being properly assessed,” he told the BESA webinar. “I have more confidence in this course than many of the classroom ones. The quality of the Academy slides and other training materials are better than we have experienced before.”


He added that online training would become more popular because it made business sense: “The problem with physical training centres is that you depend on them having availability at a time that suits your business,” said Merritt. “It is much better to be able to do this online at a time that works for the engineer and the employer. If a project gets cancelled, you can jump on and use the time to do some training.”

He also pointed out that many engineers were not comfortable in a classroom environment and would feel happier being able to complete the course remotely and work at their own pace.

“It is a convenient and lower cost way for employers to ensure their installers have the right competence and evidence in line with the more demanding standards that will be required in the wake of the Grenfell inquiry,” said Yeulet. 

“The Academy is geared up to help employers satisfy the forthcoming competence and compliance requirements that will be enforced by the Building Safety Bill and policed by a new regulatory framework.”


20 January 2021


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