A rounded education

Durapipe, plastic, pipes, pipework
The industry’s SkillPIPE competition now includes a task using Durapipe’s CPVC pipework system for hot and cold water.

With plastics increasingly taking their place alongside metallic materials for pipework systems, Mitchell Holmes of Durapipe UK discusses the evolution of training the next generation of building-services professionals.

Five years on from the launch of the SkillPIPE competition, it is fair to say that it has helped to influence a more comprehensive training programme for the next generation looking to enter the building-services industry.

Training the next generation in the latest skills and techniques is imperative within any industry — and the building-services sector is no exception. While there are excellent training centres and courses designed to provide a strong grounding in building-services engineering, Durapipe UK has been campaigning for more focus to be put on the individual elements within this, such as pipework.

It is crucial that young people are receiving the correct knowledge and skills demanded of today’s employers, yet traditionally, mechanical engineers and plumbers have only been trained in copper and steel pipework materials. This has then limited their options when they have come to specify and install systems on entering the industry.

As a result, Durapipe UK has spearheaded the training of young people in all available pipework materials. Working with professional bodies, training partners, colleges and employers for several years, we have strived to achieve an integrated approach to training to offer the next generation of building services professionals a well-rounded education.

The last five years have seen a significant step forward from five years ago when apprentices were generally trained in more ‘traditional’ metallic materials, with more innovative systems now playing a part in the education of young people taking their first steps into the HVAC industry.

A major milestone has been the introduction of SkillPIPE, a competition designed to promote standards and skills across the commercial heating pipe-fitting industry, with the aim of developing competence into excellence. Organised by SummitSkills, the sector skills council for building-services engineering, SkillPIPE sits alongside the established SkillPLUMB, SkillFRIDGE and SkillELECTRIC competitions and represents an enhanced focus from SummitSkills to recognise the pipe-fitting industry.

In just five years, the SkillPIPE competition has made huge steps forward to embrace all pipework materials. In the first year, all of the practical tests were undertaken utilising metal pipework systems, with no plans for alternative materials such as plastics to be used.

However, this did not truly reflect installations that are taking place in the industry today. Plastic pipework systems are widely used for hot and cold water, chilled-water and air-conditioning applications within HVAC projects across the UK, and this was being ignored by those representing the industry. This has now been rectified; for the past four years, one of the tasks in the competition has been completed using Durapipe’s specialist CPVC pipework system for hot and cold water.

Commenting on the introduction of the competition and its development over the last five years, Neil Collishaw from Summit Skills said: ‘We launched SkillPIPE initially to recognise and promote the pipe-fitting industry, but we only considered using metal systems, as that is what students were being taught by their training providers. We wanted to test the students on what they were learning, but realised this wasn’t helping to prepare them for entering the industry.

‘It is important that not just the students, but the training providers and employers that are involved are educated as to all of the available pipework systems used within the industry. By utilising plastic pipework systems in the SkillPIPE competition we are ensuring we set contestants tasks that truly reflect installations that are taking place in the industry today.’

It is not just the SkillPIPE competition that has embraced the use of plastics, the training providers within the industry have also listened to the needs of the ever-changing market. From no mention of plastics five years ago, most training colleges now include plastics and other modern systems as core components of their HVAC modules and courses.

This year’s SkillPIPE finalists also agree that a well-rounded education is important, as Ross Parkin, apprentice at NG Bailey and undertaking a heating and ventilating course at Hartlepool college, explains: ‘We are now trained in both metal and plastic pipework systems on the course, which I think is essential to ensure I have the knowledge of all the systems I will come into contact with. It also enhances my skillset and means I have more to offer my employers when I have qualified and enter the industry.’

This represents a major breakthrough, as colleges and training providers are now recognising plastics as an equal material to metal systems. Plastic pipework systems are now seriously being discussed and represented as a genuine alternative to metal products, rather than being positioned as the unproven ‘new kids on the block’.

It is now important that those entering the industry take this knowledge with them and put it into practice when specifying and installing pipework systems for building-services applications. There are many already working in the industry that still believe plastic is a ‘new’ material, despite it being successfully proven in installations for over 50 years.

Along with manufacturers, trade associations and industry bodies, it is also the responsibility of the next generation of building-services engineers to educate those in the industry on the alternatives to so-called ‘traditional’ systems and the benefits that these alternatives can offer.

Mitchell Holmes is marketing manager for Durapipe UK.

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