People will be just as important as technology in meeting the UK’s net zero emissions, green growth, and health & wellbeing targets.
It is only natural for engineers to get excited about the potential of emerging technologies and modern methods for improving the quality of the indoor environment, but unless we develop a workforce equipped with the right skills to design, install, commission, and maintain the technology we are bound to be disappointed.
That might sound like stating the obvious, but it presents the building services sector with a serious problem. There will always be strong demand for ‘traditional’ engineering skills to underpin our work in buildings, but the need for new skills – particularly those drawn from the digital world – are quickly becoming equally (if not more) important.
In addition, a series of studies has shown that around 50% of people working in building services related jobs are expected to retire before the end of this decade taking all their expertise and experience with them.
We will need to replace them, but we will probably not want like-for-like replacements. We are going to need something of a hybrid workforce with good grounding in sound engineering principles, but with a dash of digital; a good dollop of creative; better communication skills and an eye for the ‘bigger picture’ on top. Quite an ask.
The Chancellor announced improved funding and greater flexibility for apprenticeships in his recent Budget with the grants available to employers rising to £3,000 per apprentice and greater incentives for traineeships, but what kind of apprentice or trainee should a modern building services company be looking for?
We should probably start by redefining what we mean by ‘building services engineer’. Look at the fields in which we now operate: Indoor environment quality (IEQ); sustainable design; digital connectivity and artificial intelligence; health & wellbeing etc. etc. These are all examples of how this profession has evolved – and that is no disrespect to the ‘hard’ engineering skills already mentioned that are essential to support traditional HVAC systems, but this is now a hugely diverse sector.
However, it does not have an even moderately diverse workforce. An industry works best when it reflects the society it serves, but just 12% of British engineers are women compared to 18% in Spain, 20% in Italy and 26% in Sweden – this is despite 65% of engineering employers say a shortage of female engineers is a threat to their business. That means we are not properly representing 50% of society.
Only around 5% of workers in construction-related fields are registered disabled and the BAME population accounts for less than 10% of workers across construction.
This raises the fundamental question: Are our recruitment and training strategies still fit for purpose now and, even more pressing, can they cope as we emerge into the post-pandemic era?
If we are looking for different skills and a new demographic to build our teams, we need to consider how we appeal to that audience. Are we flexible enough about things like working from home and part-time posts?
The new working generation, particularly those aged between 18 to 34, were already looking for a more flexible working day – even before the pandemic turned everything we know about employment on its head. People are thinking a lot more deeply about their work/life balance now – and that is not just confined to the younger generation.
We don’t have a lot of time to play with because the world is changing very fast. The Chancellor also unveiled his plans for a £12bn Infrastructure Bank in the Budget designed to supercharge investment in renewables and our green future, but investment is only one part of the equation. The failure of the Green Homes Grant scheme shows what can happen if you offer the funding, drive consumer demand, but fail to provide a workforce capable of delivering the projects.
However, if we turn this on its head and focus on employing people with excellent skills and creating a workforce that fully reflects our society i.e., is properly diverse; we will be able to take a whole new approach to project delivery. Too often our sector has tried to sell the solution it wants rather than the one that would work best for the client – and often that was as the result of too much ‘traditional’ thinking.
We can change that by harnessing locally recruited talent to the best globally developed technical solutions. This allows our diverse workforce to use the best available tools – digital software and ‘hard’ mechanical equipment – to design the appropriate solution for any project in hand. Our more creative and digitally savvy workforce will bring a fresh perspective to procurement and look more widely for the right solution.
If we get that right, then it will be an amazing opportunity for businesses to grow and diversify. For example, the government wants the industry to be installing 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028 – but the sector only installed about 70,000 last year. The intriguing thing about heat pumps is that they are a hybrid new/old technology.
Many skilled heating engineers have a good grasp of the principles, but still don’t fully understand how low temperature systems work and that moving away from 70degC has major implications for system design and controls. So, this is an example of new skills enhancing the old.
This also demonstrates that, while we need new people from different backgrounds to bring new skills and fresh perspectives; we also need those already inside the industry to retrain. For example, if we are going to get anywhere near that heat pump target, we will need people currently working in refrigeration, air conditioning and heating professions to upskill so they can be more flexible.
This is also an example of the way building services is evolving and spreading its appeal. It is now also well-suited to remote working and wider use of digital connectivity, but most people are not aware of that fact. Engineering still has an outdated image and many people still believe it is not a sector that has anything to offer them.
Time for a new message – one that accentuates the diversity of engineering careers. We want people from creative backgrounds to help our traditional ‘techies’ provide more flexible system designs and we need IT people to handle digital connectivity and controls to bring it all together in the 24/7 connected world.
Engineering employers need to reach out to people from unlikely engineering backgrounds – like humanities – who can work on the overall vision of a project and the integration of designs and systems. People with digital skills can help us with product development, installation, and operation – and demonstrate that it is possible to improve people’s health and safety inside buildings while simultaneously reducing their carbon footprint.
Engineers... physicians of the future?
At a recent industry event, an expert healthcare speaker described building services engineers as “the physicians of the future” because of their role in addressing many of the threats to human health and wellbeing posed by poor quality indoor environments.
To deliver safe and healthy buildings, we will be called upon to measure the impact our work has on aspects like relative humidity; the level of CO2, ozone, and VOCs in the air; and, yes, viruses (sorry!). When we talk about technology, it is important to keep in mind the user experience and the social implications of making changes to where people live and work – and the breadth of responsibility that comes with the decisions we make.
A workforce equipped to do all that underpinned by some serious ‘hard’ engineering might sound like we are asking too much, but it is a challenge we should be ready to take on. With a younger generation emerging from lockdown looking at how they are going to make their mark on the world, this is the time to broaden our appeal by explaining just exactly what we mean by ‘building services engineers’ in the 21st Century.
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