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How apprenticeships are training the next generation of installers

We speak to Vaillant installer Garry Cowie and his talented trainee Connor Cruden, whose plumbing apprenticeship has led to a world of opportunities


Connor Cruden is clearly a quick learner.

Last November, just a couple of years after finishing his plumbing apprenticeship with Aberdeenshire-based Cowie Plumbing & Heating Ltd, Connor found himself battling it out with the world’s most talented young installers at the WorldSkills Competition in Lahr, Germany.

Over three days of gruelling skills tests – including installing an entire bathroom suite from scratch – he competed against apprentices from 20 other countries to come seventh overall and take home a Medallion for Excellence in recognition of his achievement.

Connor’s involvement in competitions began when he won Plumber of the Year at UHI Moray, the college where he was studying as part of his apprenticeship, in 2019.

He then qualified for that year’s SkillPLUMB UK finals in Birmingham, where he and seven other apprentices had three days to install a domestic central heating system, hot water cylinder and boiler.

Then, after coming home from the national finals with a gold medal, Connor went through to the global competition in Germany.

“I learnt a lot of new skills, such as working with continental plumbing systems,” he says. “But it also massively boosted my confidence.”

Apprentice plumber Connor Cruden at the 2022 WorldSkills Competition

Training future talent

Connor’s employer is Garry Cowie, the owner of Cowie Plumbing & Heating and a mentor to several apprentices over the past 15 years.

“Connor started out working for a local house builder when he left school,” he recalls. “He then approached me to take him on and put him through his apprenticeship, including his gas qualification.”

Connor attended college on block release, doing five months of training in his first year. As his apprenticeship continued, he did more and more hands-on work with Cowie’s, and eventually progressed to 100% on-the-job training in the final year.

“I could see huge potential in Connor from the start,” Garry says. “He’s just one of these guys who can pick things up straight away.”

As an active Vaillant installer, particularly of low carbon technologies such as heat pumps, Garry strongly believes in the benefits of training new talent.

“It’s vital to the industry to bring young people on,” he says.

“We’re going to need so many new skills – electronics, heat pumps, even dealing with refrigeration gases. And a lot of the old guys are retiring soon. We need young people who can learn these skills but who also bring new digital skills into the trade with them.

“To hit the [UK] government’s emissions targets, the sector needs to install 600,000 heat pumps a year. To do that, we’re going to need lots of new engineers.”

"It’s vital to bring young people on… We need young people to learn new skills but also bring new digital skills into the trade with them"

Business benefits

As well as bringing new ideas and skills to the trade, apprentices have plenty more to offer installer businesses.

In a 2017 government report, 74% of employers who’d taken on apprentices said that doing so helped them provide a better service, while 73% said apprenticeships had given existing staff a morale boost.

Staff retention is a key benefit, too: 65% of employers said that all their recent apprentices had stayed with them to continue their career. Investing in a trainee and making them feel valued means that, once their apprenticeship ends, they’re likely to remain loyal.

Garry’s firm is a case in point: he still employs almost all the apprentices he’s trained during over the past decade and a half.

“We can mould them into the way our business works,” he says. “And if we look after them, they’ll look after us.”

Garry Cowie runs Cowie Plumbing & Heating Ltd and is a keen advocate of apprenticeships

Industry support

Garry believes it’s vital to recognise young people who’ve made the effort to get the skills the industry is going to need in the coming decades. That’s why events such as the WorldSkills Competition are so important – and why Cowie’s and Vaillant were happy to join forces to fund Connor’s attendance at the global contest.

“Vaillant gave us some sponsorship to help get Connor out to Germany,” explains Garry. “I spoke to Graham Soper, my local Vaillant Regional Business Manager, and he managed to get us help with travel and other costs.

“It meant a lot to us. Connor had already sacrificed a lot of time, working on his holidays and such like. We didn’t want him to be out of pocket too.”

Businesses in England can get help with the costs of training an apprentice from the UK government, while those in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales can get funding from the devolved governments.

In Garry’s case, he’s a member of the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers’ Federation (SNIPEF). The federation runs an apprentice training scheme for the plumbing and heating trade in Scotland, and negotiates funding from the Scottish government to help with the costs of employing an apprentice.

“Government funding for apprenticeships is welcome but the amount can vary,” he says. “That’s why support from industry leaders such as Vaillant is so important. It helps us build the workforce of the future.”

"Support from industry leaders such as Vaillant is so important. It helps us build the workforce of the future"

Connor Curden focuses on pipework at the 2022 WorldSkills Competition

Have tools, will travel

For now, though, Connor won’t be installing Aberdeenshire heat pumps for much longer. Inspired by all the travelling he did as part of the WorldSkills Competition, he and a fellow plumber are taking a busman’s holiday in Australia.

“We’re going to travel for a year,” says Connor. “At first, we’ll do some sightseeing and then we’ll try and get some work. We already have some contacts, and everyone needs plumbers, so we’re optimistic.

“Working with Garry and entering the competition really changed things for me. I used to be quite shy – now I’m going to travel the world.”

And what about Garry – is he sorry to see his star apprentice go?

“Gutted,” he says. “But you’re only young once. We can understand why he wants to travel. And when he comes home, there’s a job at Cowie’s waiting for him.”

Find out more about apprenticeships in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and check out Vaillant’s training courses