Focus on action, not tokenistic interventions, says heating sector report 

Women and ethnic minorities represent an untapped talent pool that could address the UK’s labour and skills shortage. Still, urgent action is needed to encourage more workforce entrants, according to a new Energy Systems Catapult report.  

Focus on action, not tokenistic interventions, says heating sector report

With women accounting for only 2% of the heating industry workforce and only 5% of those in the heating sector having an ethnic minority background, the report – ‘Increasing diversity in the heating sector to address the skills shortage and meet net zero’ – argues that real change can and needs to happen to address the industry skills shortage and meet the decarbonisation challenge. 

The research highlights that the key needs for women and ethnic minorities entering or staying in the heating sector are: 

  • Increased availability and awareness of fair job opportunities 
  • The option to train and work flexibly 
  • A healthy and inclusive environment in which they feel a sense of belonging 
  • Implicit bias fuels a lack of diversity  

The report identifies inherent societal stereotypes driving the perception that the heating trade is for men. This implicit bias is fuelling a flawed, sector-wide recruitment process, leading to the prioritisation of hiring men because it is ‘easier’ and employers ‘know what they get’ when hiring white men. 

Predominantly male sector 

With the predominantly white and male sector, opportunities to network are limited for women and ethnic minorities who may not be involved in social media groups where opportunities are promoted or may not have the industry connections necessary to engage with industry recruitment efforts fairly. 

Training flexibility is not universally available  

Access to, and awareness of, training in the heating industry is a significant barrier for women. One interviewee identified the issue of boys being ‘sent into trades and girls…[being]…sent into beauty’. Such bias limits access from the earliest stages of a woman’s career. 

Financial barriers and a lack of flexible working continue to limit access for women and ethnic minorities. Training courses can be prohibitively expensive while awareness of available funding remains low. This can cause financial uncertainty and worry. When individuals take up training, a lack of flexibility in the timing and scheduling of the courses combined with the location of the training centres act as a barrier to take up. 

Discrimination and harassment create unsafe work environments  

A key need from tradespeople was to train and work in a healthy and inclusive environment. The research paints a different picture, with male educators dismissing female trainees, training facilities not being gender-inclusive, and being able to handle racist and sexist ‘banter culture’ continuing to be perceived as vital to surviving and succeeding in the industry. 

There is an inherent blame culture within the industry, with tradespeople regularly looking to shift the blame, which drives unhealthy interactions and relationships. The research notes that female tradespeople routinely feel a need to have to prove themselves. “You have to work a long time for people to be convinced that you know what you’re doing…” said one female industry expert. 

Focus on action, not tokenistic interventions  

The barriers in the heating industry for women and ethnic minorities are numerous but not insurmountable. Instead of focusing on tokenistic interventions, real change can and needs to happen. 

The report calls for employers, industry bodies, training providers, and political bodies to: 

  • Increase availability and awareness of fair job opportunities 
  • Tailor training to individual’s needs, prior experiences, and ambitions 
  • Tackle discrimination to achieve a healthy and inclusive environment 

Such steps can spur individuals from an untapped talent pool to enter the sector. “More women are getting in, especially on Instagram. A community is being built…Even ‘girly girls’ get in, [which] goes against the stereotype”, said one female tradesperson. 

Dr. Vivien Kizilcec, consumer research manager at Energy Systems Catapult and co-author of the report, said: “The latest data indicates that the median age of heating engineers today is 55, meaning many professionals will – over the coming decade – leave the workforce. This, coupled with the large skills gap, means that the heating sector is on a cliff edge. We must tap into a broader talent pool and bring more women and ethnic minorities into the fold. 

“The report points to clear actions we can take to overcome the many barriers to entry that individuals face when exploring a career in the heating sector. From making recruitment content more inclusive and accessible to providing inclusive work environments and physical spaces, there are a number of tangible actions, not tokenistic interventions, that we can make. 

“By employing a more diverse workforce, organisations can gain knowledge and extra skills that can help them reach new customers and offer additional services, as well as drive down implicit bias. Increasing the diversity of the workforce will therefore be crucial in the transition towards low-carbon heating.”