Are fast-track plumbing courses just money down the drain?

Private training companies are encouraging unemployed people to borrow thousands of pounds for fast-track plumbing courses which are of little use in the present jobs market. Companies tell potential trainees they can become a competent plumber in six weeks and may promise huge future earnings. But the reality for many trainees is that there is no work afterwards and they are left with crippling debt.

“We are constantly getting calls from people who have paid up to £8,000 for these mainly theoretical courses, who think they are a qualified plumber and want to register with us,” says Paul Lippett, chief executive of the Joint Industry Board for Plumbing and Mechanical Engineering, which issues health and safety cards to plumbers. “It’s very sad, but we have to tell them the City & Guilds technical certificates these courses provide do not entitle them to register as a plumber.”

Kevin Lawson, of Dundee, whose career as a butcher was ended by the recession, hoped retraining as a plumber in just a few months would be the answer to his problems.

“I have three kids and needed a new career that I could start quickly and would make good money,” he says. “These companies’ websites look really good and make it all look very easy.”

Kevin contacted OLCI, one of the UK’s larger training providers, and in January this year a salesman from the firm’s Livingston centre in West Lothian, visited him. “He told me I could easily earn £50,000 a year once I finished the course, and that I would get a City & Guilds 6129 certificate and NVQ level 2 at the end of it,” he says. “Just to be sure, I phoned OLCI and it confirmed the qualifications I would get when I finished the course.”

Max Mortimer, OLCI’s operations director, disputes Kevin’s version of what was said over the phone and in a home visit. “Our careers adviser, who visited Kevin, told me he went through the process of the NVQ and that Kevin understood what is involved,” he says.

OLCI and similar companies are unable to offer complete NVQ courses, the industry standard in England and Wales, because these are work-based qualifications which can only be assessed once someone has a job.

Blane Judd, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering, says the qualification many fast-track courses provide is inadequate for anyone who wants to be a plumber. “The City & Guilds 6129 was never intended to be a standalone qualification,” Judd says. “It is a technical certificate which assesses the academic component of plumbing only. The difference between this and an NVQ is like that between a doctor doing a few months’ theoretical training and spending five years in a hospital.”

But Kevin was impressed by the OLCI salesman and signed up for a course costing £5,621, which involved home study and 27 days in a training centre. His unemployed cousin, Ryan, signed up as well and, like Kevin, opted for a finance package arranged by OLCI which cost £7,000.

Although both received brochures stating the course “also helps you prepare for City & Guilds NVQ level 2 in plumbing”, they say it was only once they received the first correspondence element of the programme that they wondered if it was all they’d expected.

“In the small print it said you don’t in fact get an NVQ level 2 until you have found employment and been assessed at work,” Kevin says. “Then I found out the NVQ level 2 does not even exist in Scotland.”

Robert Burgon, director of the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers’ Federation (Snipef), says the qualifications the Lawsons were expecting are of little value north of the border. “The equivalent to NVQs in Scotland are SVQs, and there is no SVQ level 2 here because the standard to qualify as a plumber is higher in Scotland than in England and Wales,” he explains. “The minimum plumbing qualification available in Scotland is SVQ level 3 which can only be done in the workplace and takes a good four years to complete.”

OLCI says it is normal practice for it to provide information relating to both the SVQ and NVQ to students. “I am not sure why Kevin and Ryan were not aware of this information,” says Mortimer. “We are investigating the matter.” Burgon was not, however, surprised to hear about the Lawsons’ situation. “My colleagues frequently receive calls from people who have been sold similar courses which are extremely unlikely to result in people finding work,” he says.

OLCI acknowledges the industry standard for qualifying as a plumber in Scotland is SVQ level 3, but claims it is possible to find work there with only an NVQ level 2.

“It has been our experience that employers who are not members of the representative body [Snipef] will be happy with either qualification as long as students can demonstrate suitable ability,” says Mortimer.

Guardian Work asked OLCI to put us in touch with any former students who were living in Scotland when they undertook the NVQ level 2 course at its Scottish training centre and who are now employed in Scotland as a plumber, but we received no reply.

Mortimer accepts that the NVQ the Lawsons signed up for could only be assessed and achieved once the cousins had found employment. But he claims that Kevin, during a telephone conversation on 11 January with an OLCI adviser, was told everything involved in gaining the qualification.

“The requirements of the NVQ were explained to Kevin, with our careers adviser informing him there would be onsite visits in order to achieve the NVQ,” he says.

OLCI has provided Work with a transcript of this part of the conversation. The adviser tells Lawson he will be provided with “an NVQ portfolio”, and adds: “We can help with any onsite placements you may need for that and, once you pass two onsite assessments, you can then gain the full NVQ 2 qualification as well.”

The adviser does not, however, explain these “onsite placements” are not arranged by OLCI but refer to any paid employment as a plumber Lawson may find once he has completed the course.

Work asked OLCI to clarify exactly what its adviser meant by “help with any onsite placements you may need”. Mortimer says: “We have employer partners working with us in a number of ways … [including] work experience placements which run from four to 16 weeks, contract work opportunities, continuous employment opportunities and shadowing opportunities which allow gas engineer students to build their onsite portfolio.”

However, he adds: “I must stress there is no guarantee of a placement, or employment. Our partners have their own requirements and will make the ultimate decision.”

We asked Mortimer to put us in touch with any students who trained with OLCI in Scotland and who successfully used its job placement service to facilitate their NVQ level 2 assessments, but we received no reply.

“No one from OLCI told me I’d need to find a job before I could get NVQ level 2,” insists Lawson. “If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have signed up.”

Some companies offering fast-track courses claim there is a nationwide shortage of plumbers. “The country is in dire need of qualified plumbers,” says Train4TradeSkills on its website, quoting a former trainee who “never takes home less than £1,200 per week”. New Career Skills, another private training company, says in its latest brochure: “The massive plumbing shortage provides an opportunity for those who want a lucrative, secure and fulfilling career.”

The reality can be very different. Ivor Bates, who runs a London plumbing firm, Bates Heating and Plumbing, says he is contacted three or four times each week by people who have completed a fast-track course and are desperate for work experience to achieve the industry-standard NVQ level 2.

“Around 10% of these guys offer to work for nothing and say they have rung endless plumbing companies and will do anything to get a foot in the door,” he says. “One bloke saw my van outside Asda and ran into the supermarket after me and offered to pay me to take him on. But I would never take someone from one of these short courses because they have not got experience of working on-site and I would not be confident sending them into customers’ homes.”

Kirk Russell, 30, who completed a fast-track course this year, resorted to advertising his services for free on Gumtree, the online marketplace.

“I did an eight-week course and got the City & Guilds 6129, but it was impossible to get a job even when I offered to work for nothing,” he says. “It cost me £7,000 including living expenses, but I’ve given up on the whole plumbing thing now.”

Snipef’s Burgon says that, since the recession began, even fully qualified plumbers have been struggling: “Thousands of qualified and experienced plumbers have been made redundant so there is no longer a shortage, and earnings are certainly not astronomic.” One London plumbing firm, Staunch and Flow, is even advertising for unpaid interns who must have, as a minimum, the City & Guilds 6129. “You are expected to be available four days a week for between six months and a year,” it says.

“You must be able to get to jobs by 7.45am each morning. Interns are not paid (Sorry!).”

The joint industry board’s Paul Lippett says people who have completed fast-track plumbing courses can pose a serious health and safety risk.

“When they can’t find a job some buy a van, advertise themselves as City & Guilds qualified and start working in people’s homes,” he says. “But they don’t have the experience to do the job properly and they are a danger to themselves and their customers.”

Posing as a potential trainee, Guardian Work called some fast-track training providers to ask if, with the qualification they provided, we would be sufficiently competent to work unsupervised in customers’ homes.

“Of course, once you have achieved the City & Guilds 6129 you are able to go out and start working with it,” someone called Julian at OLCI told us.

“As long as you don’t touch any central heating or gas systems, you can do kitchen and bathroom installations and all other basic plumbing jobs.”

Other firms Work spoke to made similar claims. “With your 6129 you would be qualified or experienced to do full bathroom installations, showers, installation of hot-water cylinders and all forms of pipe work,” said Carol Buxton of The Plumbing Academy. When we approached The Plumbing Academy’s chief executive, Steven Edwards, about this, he said: “The very first element [our] students undertake is a module on health and safety. Following completion of [the City & Guilds 6129], they are competent and capable of making informed judgments on what to do or not do.

“No, they are not qualified to plumb in a swimming pool or other complex work, but that is not what the certification is about.”

Back in Dundee, after a couple of months on the OLCI course, Kevin and Ryan Lawson stopped the £150 monthly direct debits to Barclays they had each set up to pay for the course. They now acknowledge they should have first contacted OLCI to activate its course cancellation policy rather than cancel their direct debit. OLCI, says it has unsuccessfully tried to contact them to resolve things. But the Lawsons still owe Barclays £7,000 each.

“It preys on your mind when you realise you’ve got a debt you can’t pay,” says Ryan.