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Business leader urges industry to ‘be prouder’

A leading international business figure has highlighted the key role the building engineering sector will play in addressing climate change but said it would need to compete harder for talent to address its skills challenges.

Former CBI president Paul Drechsler told the annual Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) President’s Lunch that the industry’s leaders needed to be more vocal about their achievements and promote the role of building services in supporting human health and well-being.

“It is not well understood how you can influence the [climate change] agenda,” he told the event hosted by BESA President Neil Brackenridge. “You are in competition for talent with a lot of other major sectors, so you need to stand up and speak proudly about what you are doing.”

Mr Drechsler, who is a former chairman and chief executive of Wates Group and now chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce, said the industry needed to improve its diversity. “Talented people will go where they feel welcome… so test your diversity.”

He described the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow as “firing the starting gun for the toughest marathon ever run” and urged the industry to keep pushing for changes to the VAT regime for building refurbishments that would help reduce carbon emissions from existing buildings.

“The government has made 36 ‘U’ turns in the last 18 months so you can be hopeful that the things you are campaigning for can still happen…including improvements to the apprenticeship levy.”

Mr Brackenridge also urged the industry to listen to its young engineers and give them more opportunities to lead projects: “Amidst all the controversy and noise around COP26, it was noticeable how many young people were galvanised by it,” he told the gathering of BESA members and guests at the Oxo Tower in London. ““Young engineers need to be part of the bigger discussion and the climate change crisis is a great opportunity to showcase the opportunities and brilliant careers we offer in this sector.”

However, he described lack of technical competence in some areas as the sector’s ‘Achilles’ heel’ and creating a “fully trained, competent, and technically compliant workforce” would require better collaboration between contractors, manufacturers, colleges, and schools.

“For too long, we have seen young people coming out of the education process with the wrong skills,” the President said. “BESA is involved in a major piece of work to update apprenticeships and other forms of technical training. This will make sure we are equipping the next generation with the skills employers need to push forward the net zero and quality building agenda.”

Mr Brackenridge added that there was a welcome shift towards vocational routes into the industry, but it needed to be happening faster and on a much wider scale “if we are not to lose more ground in the battle against climate change and the equally important task of making buildings safer.”

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