Helping mid-career gas boiler engineers to retrain in heat pumps

To meet the government’s aim of 600,000 home heat pump installations annually by 2028, the number of engineers working in the sector needs to increase by a huge amount. Recent Nesta research about skills in the industry demonstrated that we’ll need to grow from the estimated 3,000 installers we have currently to around 27,000 in five year’s time.

This growth is a major challenge but luckily we have a huge talent pool to draw from. There are currently around 130,000 gas heating engineers registered with Gas Safe. These people have much-needed skills and experience in plumbing and heating system engineering. Compared to new entrants to the field, existing gas engineers need comparatively little training to start installing heat pumps – just knowledge of the heat pump kit itself and in the system design required to work at low temperatures (which can be acquired in about five days).

Qualitative interviews with existing heat pump engineers show that consumer demand for heat pumps is high. They report receiving more enquiries than they are able to respond to and are turning down potential work due to overfilled order books. This echoes findings from our own research on consumer demand for heat pumps. In a study run in conjunction with the Behavioural Insights Team, we found that up to 25% of consumers would be willing to pay the full up-front cost of a heat pump installation in current market conditions. Rising energy bills, concern about climate change and growing awareness of heat pumps is leading to action from consumers.

Given this context, why aren’t more gas heating engineers developing their skills and moving into the sector? Certainly, even though the heat pump transition is gathering pace, there will still be gas heating in many homes for some years yet. This means gas engineers later in their career might regard retraining as being relatively high cost compared to the benefits they are likely to get from it. But for those earlier in their career, adding heat pumps to their skillset will create opportunities for potentially lucrative work, either by working on heat pumps alongside gas boilers or fully converting their business to heat pumps. However, gas engineers face barriers to doing this. Our research explored these barriers.

Common barriers to retraining in heat pumps

In conjunction with a heat pump and gas boiler manufacturer, we recruited gas installers who had shown an interest in retraining in heat pumps but had yet to make progress in doing so. We contacted ten installers of whom four agreed to be interviewed. Though the sample size is small and this is a recognised limitation of the study, our informal research with other actors in the sector indicate that the findings do echo sentiment felt by a significant number within the wider cohort and our own previous research on scaling the heat pump sector. As such we are confident in the following barriers.

While gas engineers believe it likely that gas heating will be phased out in the coming years, they’re uncertain about what will replace it. They see hydrogen presented as a potential future solution even though independent scientific studies show the opposite.

Even the cohort we recruited who are interested in the potential of heat pumps are not completely convinced by them yet. They see them as costly to purchase and as potentially capable of increasing customers’ bills. Engineers worry that the technology isn’t right for their customers as their low-temperature operation means householders have to use their heating differently to the ways they are used to.

There is also uncertainty about the potential for innovation in heat pumps. Our interviewees imagine that heat pump technology could soon evolve to become a high-flow temperature plug-and-play replacement for gas boilers – which would make current training obsolete. While high-temperature heat pumps are a reality, their low efficiencies and consequent high energy costs make them unlikely to be adopted for home heating.

Finally, there is uncertainty around the pathway to incorporating heat pumps into their work. Engineers don’t know how to find customers, what the steps are to becoming MCS certified, or how to select an umbrella scheme should they choose not to become MCS certified.

The consequence of this uncertainty is inertia. Potential experienced gas engineers who are interested in working in the sector see too many open questions and too many choices to make, while they find it hard to identify trusted voices explaining how to move forward.

This cohort is also put off by the perceived complexity of working in the heat pump domain. They are aware that the system design element is more complex for heat pumps than they are accustomed to in the gas boiler field. They also foresee more complexity in the installation process, noting that radiators must often be changed and that it can be challenging to work a heat pump installation around householders’ internal decorations. Installers have a lot of experience of working with customers. They are wary of having to resolve complaints from dissatisfied householders.

The engineers also expect that working with heat pumps will entail a far higher admin burden than they are used to. This is the case not only in the system design but also in meeting the requirements for MCS, a necessity if they wish to benefit from government support such as the Boiler Upgrade Scheme.

Again, this perceived complexity leads to inertia as gas engineers, who are currently not short of work, have little incentive to increase the complexity of their work.

Though there is considerable consumer demand for heat pumps, this is not detected by gas heating engineers. For the gas engineers we spoke to, a perceived lack of demand reduced their motivation to retrain as they were not receiving the market signal to do so. For instance, none of the engineers we spoke to had received a heat pump enquiry, though some report having had informal conversations with customers.

Though engineers recognise that householders looking for a heat pump are more likely to search for and contact a recognised heat pump specialist, they regard the lack of demand visible to them as an indication of low demand for the technology as a whole. This dissuades them from upskilling in the domain and, consequently, exposing themselves to this consumer demand.

Opportunities for change

The heat pump market is in its infancy in the UK and, as such, it would not be desirable for all gas heating engineers to move into the sector immediately. However, it is important that pathways are made visible that allow interested and motivated engineers to make the transition now. It is also important that, as heat pumps become more commonplace, making the transition becomes increasingly easier.

The present priority is in demystification and we see three potential opportunities in this area.

Currently, in some quarters, hydrogen is presented as a likely future scenario for all UK households. While some areas, such as those with heavy industry nearby, may be connected to a hydrogen network, this is unlikely to be more than a small minority of households. There is an opportunity in the formation of a myth-busting alliance to counter the narrative that currently circulates and demonstrate to installers the advantages in gaining skills in heat pumps. Similarly, there is an advantage in demonstrating the effectiveness of heat pump technology to engineers to show that it can be feasibly retrofitted to existing homes without the need for expensive or impractical insulation measures.

Gas installers regard the journey to upskill in heat pumps to be complex and opaque. There is an opportunity to clarify the routes available to installers to help them make decisions and to not be overwhelmed by an excess of choice or lack of clarity as to the consequences of each option.

For many new heat pump installers, particularly those who wish to avoid the complexity of system design and MCS registration, umbrella schemes offer an important service. They can help engineers who want to work on both gas and heat pumps, and they can help those who aim to fully transition their business to gain skills incrementally. The choice of which umbrella scheme to work with is complex, so there is an opportunity in offering independent advice to help new entrants to the field make decisions in this important area.

As a result of this research, the team will enter the demystification space and produce some content on the journey to becoming a heat pump engineer. This is expected to be launched in January 2023. We are also increasing our work in this area, with more projects to be explored and scoped in the new year.


Oliver Zanetti

Oliver Zanetti

Oliver Zanetti

Mission Manager, sustainable future mission

Oliver Zanetti is mission manager for Nesta’s sustainable future mission, which focuses on home decarbonisation and economic recovery.

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Dimitris Sarsentis

Dimitris Sarsentis

Dimitris Sarsentis

Analyst, sustainable future mission

Dimitris joined Nesta’s sustainable future mission as an analyst after graduating from his MSc.

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