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Overcoming barriers for newly trained heat pump installers

Across the UK, a range of schemes have been put in place to provide free or reduced cost heat pump installation training to gas heating installers. This is a smart move. Encouraging existing heating engineers, who have valuable expertise in plumbing and heating, to make the switch to low-carbon heating is the most effective way to get the workforce we need right now to begin the UK’s heating upgrade. The Heat Training Grant is the UK government’s flagship scheme in England. There are similar training schemes from devolved nations and English regions too.

But does this training lead to increased participation in the home retrofit market? We had a hunch that it wasn’t leading to the step change in that sector that we know is needed to meet the UK’s heat decarbonisation goals. So we partnered with Surrey County Council who were funding a training programme in order to conduct a small trial of incentives that aimed to grow participation.

What did we do?

We offered the trainees either a bursary of £1,000 towards any capital expenditure that might help them move into the retrofit sector, or regular payments up to a similar maximum value for each retrofit heat pump they installed over the six months following the training (further information is in our original project page).

We attended training courses that took place in Spring 2023, told the trainees about the programme and invited them to interviews with us. At the outset, there was a good level of interest with around half the cohort attending an initial interview. Soon after, though, many of the trainees became disengaged as our early reflections showed.

Ultimately, we gave out only two of the bursaries; one company claimed one monthly payment out of a possible six while another company claimed five of the six monthly payments. One company had sent two employees on the course thus making it eligible for both the bursary and the monthly payments. Thus we only made financial payments to three companies. We then invited those companies that had participated to exit interviews, which one company agreed to attend.

What did we learn?

We generated three key findings.

Training and financial incentives aren’t enough to get heating engineers working in retrofit

For those who are highly motivated to enter the retrofit heat pump sector, the move from gas, while doubtless challenging, is achievable. However, while attending a week-long training course demonstrates considerable motivation (for many, this meant a week of lost earnings), the fact that so few then went on to install retrofit heat pumps indicates there are other significant barriers to entering the sector.

These barriers are multifaceted and often overlap with one another. Broadly, heating engineers remain uncertain as to the direction of the heating industry in the years to come (confusing messaging from government has not helped here); and, in spite of receiving training, many heating installers still subscribe to certain myths such as the view that heat pumps are not suitable for older homes or are otherwise not ‘right’ for their customers.

Small, gas-focused businesses have challenges finding heat pump customers

Businesses specialising in heat pump installation report being overwhelmed with work yet gas-focused heating businesses moving into heat pumps have found it hard to tap into that seam of work. Largely, this is because their existing customers are not prepared for the significant upfront cost that heat pump installation currently requires, while customers of companies specialising in heat pumps are prepared for the cost and upheaval.

Growing the heat pump retrofit side of a business is hard work. Given these businesses already have an existing pipeline of work in gas, the risk and effort to identify and market to a new customer cohort is understandably a relatively lower priority.

Not all trainees wanted to get into retrofit in the first place

There were a range of motivations for undertaking this heat pump training and not all attendees wanted to move into home retrofit. A few attended simply to keep abreast of developments in the sector, while many more attended to upskill in order to do heat pump installations in new build homes or, in the case of more junior staff, to cement skills they were already learning from colleagues on the job.

The motivations of the interviewees that did not attend even the initial interview are naturally unknown, though it is assumed that they didn’t go on to work in heat pump retrofit as they didn’t seek to take up the financial payments.

Conclusions and next steps

This project tested whether relatively small financial payments would help encourage motivated gas installers to move into the heat pump sector. We found, ultimately, that it did not. We suspect that the three companies that engaged with our financial payment programme would probably have acted similarly were the payment programme not in place. We also found that many of the participants did not engage at all which, given the financial payments were easy to access, implies that they did not then go on to install heat pump home retrofit after training.

At Nesta, we’re keen to learn from failure. The project didn’t achieve the aims we’d hoped, but it also taught us more about the sector and the needs of the gas heating engineers we intend to continue working with. Building on evidence from this project and other work, we are working on two ideas that we think could help make progress in this area.

  • Growing installer confidence by providing them with heat pumps to install in their own home. We believe that newly-trained installers lack confidence in the technology and would benefit from doing the first installation in their own home, allowing them to gain familiarity with both the installation and running of a heat pump and so better serve their customers. We’ll be running a project to test this assertion in 2024.
  • Growing installer confidence by helping to develop networks that connect new installers with expertise from peers, industry experts, or highly trained AI. We hope to run a project in this area later in 2024.

We also think there is work that local authorities and related bodies can do to help encourage installer growth in their area. This should be tied with wider efforts to promote decarbonisation and the heating transition that could include the following.

  • Acting as a source of reliable information for the future of home heating to make training offers more attractive. Partnering with trusted sector voices, such as local heating engineers who have already made the switch, will give such messages more weight.
  • Helping installers through known hurdles early on in their transition. These include becoming MCS-certified or finding a suitable MCS umbrella scheme, or handling the paperwork involved in hiring more staff either on contract or permanently.
  • Pairing new installers with work to help establish them in the sector and build a portfolio of successful work. This could be able to pay householders, social housing or with other publicly owned buildings with suitable heating systems such as offices or public amenities like community centres and heritage buildings.

We’re keen to work with bodies interested in trying out innovative approaches, so if that’s you then please do get in touch. We may be able to provide advice based on our industry knowledge or help develop, pilot and scale projects in different areas of the UK.

Additional writing by Luke McCarthy (Surrey County Council)

This project update is part of our policy library for decarbonising home heating

Explore the library to learn more


Oliver Zanetti

Oliver Zanetti

Oliver Zanetti

Senior 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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