Don’t Be A Cowboy – Get Qualified

Dom Littlewood from Channel 5's Cowboy Builders

Dom Littlewood from Channel 5’s Cowboy Builders

The phrase Jack of All Trades, Master of None certainly rang true for me when one bricklayer attempted to do some plumbing while the other attempted to fit a roof – I had leaks coming in from all directions!

My experience with builders taught me two important things. First, some builders really are total cowboys and make excuses for not doing a job properly, or not contracting in a specialist. Second, some young labourers simply do not know better. While I blame my builders for their failings, the labourers are less at fault because they are basically told by the boss that their way is the correct way.

I am writing this article with young labourers and apprentices in mind: this is your chance to be a better builder or craftsman! The last thing you want is to have Dom Littlewood and the Channel 5 crew chasing you down the street after another unsatisfied customer makes the call.

My experience results from the two builders I had. One builder claimed to have 20 years plumbing and electrical experience along with his bricklaying experience and the other builder listed on his business card that he was a carpenter, bricklayer, roofer and general builder.

The first did the electrics in the new extension – this was tested and is now no longer under building control regulations (was Part P for a while but they removed the required for the extension of a single circuit from an existing one). He told me that the courses were a waste of money and served no purpose. But when I questioned him about safe zones in the electrical wiring that was running down the wall he had no idea what I was talking about. He also managed to connect the new living room light to a socket market “Extractor Fan” in the utility. No ideal!

The second builder blamed the building control officer for his leaking roof. This was the biggest joke really – he said that the building control officer told him not to fit the flashing properly and that he had to raise the height of the hips – both of these resulting in a leaking roof. When I got a real roofer in to fix the problem he asked me if the previous roofer allowed an apprentice to complete the job – so much for 20 years of roofing experience.

As for the plumbing, they blamed each other for failing to fit the push fit fittings properly, had no idea that push fit could not be encased in concrete screed (movement with wear fittings down and the concrete will corrode the copper pipes). What’s more, the radiator did not heat up. So, 20 years of plumbing experience resulted in a cold radiator that leaked (in two places) and if it had not been replaced, would have resulted in corroded copper pipes and a leak under my living room floor. And their tiling was appalling too. So ….

Get Qualified!

Yes, you can learn a lot on the job but a good course that leads to an industry recognised qualification is vital if you wish to progress. You will do a better job, have a better reputation and get paid more of you are qualified. The first step is getting some National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) that can lead to a Diploma.

An NVQ 3 is considered to be equivalent of two or more A levels, a BTEC Ordinary National Diploma (OND) or City & Guilds Advanced Craft. See the City & Guilds page Qualifications Explained to learn more.

There are many areas in which you can specialise but we shall look at the most common professions in the building industry.

Studying takes time and can be expensive – one of the advantages of an apprenticeship scheme is that you will get time off work to study.

Along with qualifications, many companies only employ people who have CSCS Cards (Construction Skills Certificate Scheme), a UTR (personal tax number) and PPE (Personal protective equipment). This keeps out the cowboy builders and ensures that workers are safe and legal.

Where to study?

Most community colleges run courses that are accredited by EAL, City & Guilds and BPEC and each of their websites provides a search function to find local courses:

  • EAL – EAL is the specialist, employer-recognised awarding organisation for the engineering, manufacturing, building services and related sectors)
  • City & Guilds – City & Guilds is the biggest name in vocational education, with 2 million learners working towards one of our qualifications every year.
  • BPEC – BPEC is a charity that aims to improve the knowledge and skills of those who work in the UK plumbing and heating industry.


Many older builders learned bricklaying purely on the job, usually working as a labourer or apprentice. Today the best young bricklayers are those that have gained a City and Guilds diploma.

A Level 2 City and Guilds qualification is considered the minimum for bricklaying in the UK and teaches you how to interpret architect drawings, building various types of wall including cavity walling.

Level 3 City and Guilds covers repair of masonry structures, constructing radial and battered brickwork and internal brickwork features such as fireplaces and chimneys. A Level 3 qualification is an advanced level of craftsmanship so if you wish to have a career as a bricklayer get this qualification.

There are also diplomas in Brickwork. Recommended are:

  • Level 2 Diploma in Brickwork
  • Level 3 Diploma in Brickwork

If you have had site experience you can often skip level 1.

Other college courses that cover bricklaying are:


Carpentry obviously covers everything involving wood, from sawing timber for joists and stud walls to building and installing door frames, stair cases, wooden window frames, hard wood floors, kitchens and architrave.

Many carpenters start out as a joiner’s mate to gain site experience. The best ones are trained and qualified. Recommended City and Guilds courses:

There are several diplomas for carpenters, including Level 1 Diploma in Carpentry and Joinery, Levels two and three Diploma in Bench Joinery, Shopfitting Bench Work or Site Carpentry. T

Also NVQ’s at Levels two and three in Bench Joinery, Shopfitting Bench Work or Site Carpentry and Full Framework Modern and Advanced Modern Apprenticeships in Bench Joinery, Shopfitting Bench Work and Site Carpentry.

Many community colleges run good carpentry courses with evening class options.


Plumbing is simple for builders – just push one pipe into a fitting and hope there is no leak.

To do plumbing properly requires experience and training.  City & Guilds provide some of the best training in the Plumbing and Domestic Heating courses.

The Level 2 qualification is designed especially for new entrants to the industry and the Level 3 qualification is slightly more advanced.

Level 2 qualification can be obtained with either an NVQ Level 2 Diploma in Plumbing and Heating, or an NVQ Level 2 Diploma in Installing and Maintaining Domestic Heating Systems.

Level 3 qualification can be obtained with one of six specialisations:

  • Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Domestic Plumbing and Heating
  • Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Domestic Plumbing and Heating (Gas Fired Warm Air Appliances
  • Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Domestic Plumbing and Heating (Gas Fired Water and Central Heating Appliances)
  • Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Domestic Heating
  • Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Domestic Heating (Gas Fired Warm Air Appliances)
  • Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Domestic Heating (Gas Fired Water and Central Heating Appliances).

These qualifications are completed when working and are accredited by the awarding bodies EAL, City & Guilds and BPEC.

The National Careers Service website offers some excellent advice on careers in plumbing.

Electrician / Electrical

Commonly called a sparky by the trade, electricians are like the magicians of the construction industry – work with magic! Proper training is essential mostly because it is much easier to kill yourself than with other professions, and also much easier to create a fault that could prove deadly to a home-owner later after you have left the building. Electricians generally earn more than bricklayers, plumbers and carpenters.

Both City & Guilds and EAL provide courses for electricians. Courses cover all areas from design and erection of electrical circuits to servicing and inspection.

Recommended qualifications are:

  • Level 3 Diploma in Electrotechnical Services (Electrical Maintenance)
  • Level 3 Diploma in Installing Electrotechnical Systems & Equipment (Buildings, Structures and the Environment)
  • Level 3 Diploma in Electrical Installations (Buildings and Structures) if part of an Apprenticeship.

The first two of these are offered by both City & Guilds and EAL and the third is City & Guilds only. Most electricians will do this courses while working alongside a qualified electrician.

There are many additional qualifications you can get after these, such as PAT Testing, Solar PV.

Once qualified you need to register with a government approved scheme, such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), National Association for Professional Inspectors and Testers (NAPIT), National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation (NICEIC), and ELECSA for Part P, MCS and BAFE certification.

ELECSA and NICEIC are now both part of Certsure, which was set up following the merger of the Electrical Contractors’ Association and the Electrical Safety Council.




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