Emma Conroy, Proposition Development Director, Wolseley Plumb & Parts

As the world becomes increasingly aware of the urgent need to move to more sustainable heating solutions, the heating industry is likely to undergo significant changes in the coming years. In the UK, the Government’s ambitious target of at least 600,000 annual heat pump installations by 2028, aims to deliver more sustainable heating across more households.

Lofty aims, but what about the men and women who will be responsible for installing and maintaining these systems? How achievable is this goal at the moment? And how might the heating companies of today have to adapt to achieve these targets?

If we imagine the zero-carbon heating company of the future, the first thing we need to understand is that that future is closer than we think. New businesses are entering the market now with a completely different model, focused purely on sustainable technologies from the start. And current business owners are already considering how they can change focus. There are significant material challenges to overcome. How is the sector going to be ready at scale?

The charity Nesta estimated last year that the UK currently only has 11% of the installer capacity it needs to hit the 2028 target. This sobering statistic makes it clear just how much work is needed to put the UK on a net-zero footing. An explicit focus on talent pipelines and apprenticeship schemes is critical to building our workforce into one that can support the future energy transition.

There are also serious structural challenges that the heating company of the future will have to meet. The fragmented, small business environment that is the trade sector will need to adapt in order to meet the needs of customers who seek sustainable heating technologies. It is clear there will be various options available, from hybrid boiler and heat pump combinations, which are already proving a great bridging technology, to fully fledged heat pump solutions, hydrogen and beyond.

Installers are often small businesses made up of 2-3 people with varying levels of qualifications - a senior person responsible for the business side, an apprentice who is developing their skills, and occasionally a contractor. A move to net-zero heating installations will require a reassessment of these qualifications across the business. The installation of heat pumps is, by its nature, a group exercise, requiring a supply chain of skills to facilitate and install: Someone to survey a property to ensure it can properly accommodate a heat pump, someone to plan its installation and someone to assist with the installation of often heavy equipment. These sorts of businesses will need to adapt from the informal style that the traditional installer business often includes.

How can these businesses future-proof themselves? Businesses will need to be prepared across training; upskilling current teams; recruiting new talent, as well as marketing themselves as attractive employers and qualified technically, to meet the expectations that sustainable heating companies will face in the future.

Training programmes that upskill people in new technologies and techniques will be essential to building the installer capacity needed to meet the Government's targets. Colleges are already adapting the curriculum to support Government targets but is this enough? While businesses may well start to see apprenticeships as an attractive route to upskilling current teams and bringing in talent knowledge of zero-carbon technologies at the start, it is clear that companies may also need to invest in training and development programmes for existing staff, including vocational training programmes that specifically focus on net-zero heating solutions, to ensure they are up to date with the latest technologies and best practices.

Given the wider range of skills needed to install sustainable heating solutions, sustainable heating companies will also need to be able to attract and retain a diverse range of talent. This may mean developing employer branding and talent attraction strategies that appeal to people with an interest in sustainable energy and the environment. Companies must also offer competitive salaries, benefits, and work environments that attract and retain skilled workers. This is especially relevant at a time when only 1 in 5 people who are pursuing plumbing and heating qualifications move on to take up apprenticeships.

Product focused marketing will also be crucial for sustainable heating companies. With more and more people looking for net-zero heating solutions, companies that can effectively market their products and services to this growing market will be well-positioned to succeed. This may involve building relationships with online consumer job posting platforms and suppliers, partnering with other companies, and leveraging social media and other digital channels to reach potential customers.

A recent survey conducted by Wolseley showed that only 13% of people trust the Government to provide clear and fair advice as regards their future heating options, with 74% favouring their local independent trader or specialist provider. There are clear opportunities here for installers and providers to step-up and educate their customer base.

The technology that supports the heating industry is also changing. While the sector has been seen as adopting technological advancements more slowly than other markets, there are now numerous job management software solutions that enable installers to work quicker and smarter with both their supply chain, back office needs and their customers, The businesses embracing this type of technology as well as shifting to provide customers with a wider choice of heating technologies, will be the ones giving themselves the best possible start in the UK’s energy transition.

Ultimately, the heating companies of the future will need to be adaptable and responsive to changing market conditions and customer needs. They will need to embrace new technologies, develop new business models, and build strong relationships with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. By doing so, they will be well-positioned to thrive in an increasingly sustainable future.