Heat pump installation

Social justice implications of the skills gap in the UK heat pump sector

Zoe Branford & Jen Roberts

The UK heat pump sector is a big player in the transition to net zero, but significant scale up is required. Over the years factors such as inconsistent policy support and lack of consumer demand has led to a current and growing skills gap in the industry. In 2019 there were 35,000 heat pumps installed in the UK and the UK heat pump sector employed around 2,000 workers. These numbers are far below where we need to be: in 2011 the UK Renewable Energy Roadmap estimated that 150,000 jobs could be supported by the UK heat pump and biomass heat sector by 2020, and the UK Government has set an ambitious target to install 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028Our research explored the implications of a skills gap in the UK heat pump sector on a just transition to net zero, and identified routes to a fairer future.

Implications of a skills gap

The research found that the impacts of a persisting skills gap in relation to installation in the heat pump sector reached far beyond simply jobs, employment and emissions reduction and onto workers and households – and particularly low-income groups.

Younger and older generations of workers are most exposed to the risks of an industry skills gap, including in the following ways:

  • Young people could benefit greatly from growing job opportunities in the heating sector but only if problems such as low wages for apprenticeships, inconsistencies in quality of training and lack of routes into the sector were addressed.
  • Older workers must pay to be re-skilled, and take unpaid leave to complete training. Lack of long-term government signals, or plans to put policy into practice, have made investment in training too high risk to workers.

The skills gap could also pose significant negative implications to consumers, including:

  • Consumers installing heat pumps could face a significant financial threat from an industry skills gap, specifically lower income households, through high capital costs, and high running costs if not installed to industry standard.
  • Given the high capital costs, higher income households are more likely to be early adopters, and so more likely to take advantage of any government grants which are typically wound down over time.

Closing the gap

A skills gap is just one of several barriers for the UK heat pump sector, including high capital cost of installations, lack of consumer demand, and little government clarity or support. The relative levels of threat posed by the skills gap compared to other barriers for the sector is unclear, making it trickier to coherently address the problem.

However the research identifies the following recommendations for UK Government, the heat pump sector and training providers.

UK government must provide:

  • Longer-term funding towards apprenticeships, enabling employers to take on apprentices, pay a living wage, and provide longer term employment routes.
  • Incentives for upskilling for all age groups to ensure that training is affordable and worthwhile.
  • Long-term financial incentives to support heat pump uptake in such a way that does not widen social inequalities.

The heat pump sector and training providers must:

  • Place equal importance on the existing skills gaps as well as potential future gaps. Without this, the skills gaps risks becoming a self-perpetuating cycle; where a poorly skilled existing workforce trickles down to the next generation of installers.
  • Design programmes in conjunction with installers to ensure that the training provides appropriate skills
  • Set up a system similar to a ‘competency card’ to ensure high quality installations following training, and to develop trust in the sector.

Read more about the research and its outcomes