HIDDEN in plain sight above the heads of shoppers, patients, students, office workers and global travellers are the signs of an industry that is booming across the UK.

Every year, millions of miles of shiny foil-wrapped pipework in commercial construction sites, factories, hospitals, schools and colleges, airports, hotels, food and drink industries, offshore rigs, cargo ships, luxury liners, petro-chemical processors and oil refineries are insulated by highly skilled engineers trained from a unique industry-backed apprenticeship training facility in Darlington, County Durham.

Set up to maintain industry skills and bring about a collective working agreement, TICA (Thermal Insulation Contractors Association) is the sole UK-based industry-backed provider of bespoke work-based learning for apprentice insulators in the thermal insulation field.

Originally based in Telford, Essex, TICA relocated to Yarm Road Business Park, Darlington in 2001, basing its bespoke training facility close to many of its large industry members, in chemical refineries and power generation companies, across Darlington and the Tees Valley.

TICA chief executive Marion Marsland explains: “Anywhere that requires a warm or cool environment will have had input from our trade yet it is still a part of the construction industry that many people are not aware of.

“When you look at a new building you generally just see the sexy bits like the large glass atriums. Insulation is more of a necessity and necessities get overlooked but any construction which needs heating or cooling will have pipework which is really the main vein of the building.

“Behind that is either a boiler or chiller, pumping out heat or cold and the harder it has to work the more energy it uses. If you keep the temperature warmer or cooler through insulation then it has to work less, thus saving energy, which is at the very heart of the Green Agenda. But thermal insulation is still an industry that literally goes over most people’s heads.”

The not-for-profit trade association represents more than 75 members nationally in a diverse range of industries, from engineering contractors to the commercial heating and ventilation sector, who are all actively involved in maintaining the Darlington-based centre through voluntary membership fees and training levies.

“No other construction sector contributes, has ownership of or takes responsibility for the skills of its industry in the way the insulation sector does,” says Marion. “And they don’t even have to do it – it’s totally voluntary.

“Our member companies have invested over £1.2m in services and resources over the past six years and continue to have a huge input into our training centre helping to drive it forward, alongside our associate members who help supply the centre with free materials for use in our workshops.

“In return we offer unique support and advice to members through our Governing Council, expert legal and HR advice, the Insulation and Environmental Training Trust Limited (IETTL) and our asbestos control and abatement division (ACAD).

“And we are looking to increase that support by offering contractual and technical advice in the future and obviously continue our high level bespoke training which provides skilled insulators for key positions within the construction sector.”

Up to 100 apprentices a year visit the centre for two week blocks of training every three months, for between 18 and 24 months. During this time they are trained to cut, measure and apply thermal insulation to pipework, ductwork and vessels and to fabricate external weatherproof cladding systems with the help of qualified trainers, all ex-industry tradesmen.

“Having both Level Two and Level Three apprentices on site we can be training up to 200 people at any one time,” says Marion. “Once they qualify as an operative their thermal insulation certificate can take them anywhere – it’s a passport to a global industry.

“In the UK alone there are 4,000 thermal insulation operatives, including an increasing number of foreign workers. We take apprentices from age 16 to 60, from as far afield as the Shetland Islands to Cornwall, and there are still people working in the industry well into their 70s.”

In its role of Sector Skills Council TICA also manages and maintains the official industry skill card to all thermal insulation and asbestos construction workers, issuing more than 2,000 a year for thermal and hazardous waste.

Its newly refurbished state of the art training centre comprises specialist workshops, asbestos training rooms, classroom and IT training provision, recycling and storage areas, allowing competency assessments for skilled workers to be carried out alongside core apprenticeships, with both sets of training accommodated on the one site.

Opportunities for jobs continues to grow and with Hinkley Point, the new nuclear reactor in Somerset, on the horizon, hundreds of TICA qualified operatives could be based on the site for up to ten years or more.

“The future of our industry is constantly changing,” adds Marion. “A big proportion of our market comes from energy. In the past that has meant coal fired power stations and fuel refineries. But now we are using less fuel, we are moving to electric cars and we are going nuclear.

“Renewable energy will have a big impact on our sector and buildings will need to become more energy efficient to achieve a zero net carbon footprint. This will mean more insulation requirements so we need to adapt now to what the industry and our members are looking for.

“TICA’s future is about listening and lobbying, to ensure thermal insulation continues to be recognised as a skilled discipline within construction and not just a sector hidden in plain sight.”