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The Skills Challenge: Griff Thomas, founder, GTEC and Heatly

Griff Thomas started out in the industry as an installer of mechanical and electrical systems, before turning his attention to training: “I tended to work on all the systems that nobody else wanted to – back then it was mostly solar thermal with an odd heat pump here are there (it was over 20 years ago).”

The training career started in 2007 when Griff spotted a gap in the market to deliver training to help encourage the take-up of renewables, In the intervening years, it has gone from strength to strength and it now delivers around 4,000 places a year in low carbon technology.

He notes that he still can still be found back on the tools: “I can’t resist keeping up to date with the latest systems – but it also helps ensure that I keep a practical edge when talking to others about the technologies.”

When asked about the challenges around industry skills, Griff points first to the need to scale up: “We need installers to fit the low carbon tech; we need to hit our targets; but installers need the demand or the reason for getting trained. There is nothing worse than spending money on training and then not getting any work from it afterwards, I think this will come but it’s likely to be a rocky road until the demand is more constant.”

The second biggest challenge, he believes, is to give the installers the right information to fit efficient systems: “There is loads of information out there, but often there are key pieces of information missing that can make a big difference to a system design – for example, manufacturers’ data on heat pump outputs at different outdoor temperature ranges and the minimum outputs (what the compressor provides on its minimum settings), can make a huge difference to the efficiency of the system.”

It will be essential, he believes, is to stabilise demand by developing deployment models that work for all walks of life and for all contractors, whether they are the “Big Six” who can offer a heat pump for no upfront costs and ten-year lease, or a one-person company who wants to install heat pumps but can’t provide the same level of support to the upfront costs.

“Industry is making some great steps towards this,” he says, “In particular the Heat Pump Association is doing great work on bringing together lost of different parts of the sector to try to crack some of the bigger issues. So long as this collaboration continues it will deliver great results.”

Both Griff’s companies are working towards this goal, he notes – GTEC is delivering training across the UK, while Heatly has developed an App to makes the whole heat pump journey more accessible and simplified, including the survey and automated design.

Griff believes the policy landscape is currently uncoordinated, with some good initiatives such as the heat pump training grant from DESNZ, but some areas that aren’t well thought-out: “It’s great that there is a lot of Department for Education funding for skills bootcamps, for instance, but installers typically have to go through three or four courses to rack up the hours they need to get the funding. Actually they probably only want one of those courses. This makes it very unattractive, due to the time they have to take off work and money they would lose. If that budget was rolled into a series of training vouchers like the DESNZ pot, that would make a lot more sense.”

Having said that, Griff can see some silver linings: “Having been around the industry for 20 years now, I can honestly say that I have never seen such a combined push towards deploying low carbon tech and reducing emissions. This is great news and when you also look at some of the offerings that are out there which are independent of any government policy, such as dynamic tariffs etc. this gives great hope for a future where these technologies become the norm.”

The task ahead, he says, is to ensure that the low carbon industry is exposed to those who aren’t already in it: “That’s actually really difficult, as most installers are really busy – why would you go into something you know very little about when you are earning good money doing what you do? I think that InstallerFUTURES can really help here, due to the big audience it has with the ability to offer bitesize information on different aspects of the sector.”

The digital journey is also a vital aspect of this, he stresses: “Almost every heat pump or solar PV or battery system now requires a good-to-excellent understanding of how to digitally commission a system through an app or similar. I don’t think this is ever talked about to those thinking of entering the industry but I can’t help thinking it would make it a bit more appealing for those who wouldn’t have naturally thought about it.”

And one important aspect of widening that exposure, he adds, is to increase the industry’s appeal to women. “We are missing a huge piece of the recruitment jigsaw because we have 50% of the population that we just don’t seem to be appealing to.”

Griff leaves us with a final thought: “We are moving to a world of ‘Why wouldn’t we?’ rather than “Why would we?” So make sure you get the skills you need and don’t get left behind!”

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