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Industry urged to ‘change the conversation’ about skills

The building engineering sector will not be able to address its skills shortages if it keeps trying to replicate the past, according to several leading industry figures.

The news that more than 200,000 experienced workers have left the construction sector since the start of the pandemic has highlighted the skills shortages facing employers. However, the answer does not hinge on replacing “like with like”, according to members of the industry network CIBSE Patrons.

“Net zero should change the conversation for our profession,” said Andy Sneyd, managing director of Exyte Hargreaves. “It requires different skills and a new outlook, which will only come if we reach out to people from all backgrounds.

“Our industry is not doing well on gender diversity – and how are we doing on BAME? Not great. We don’t properly reflect the society that we serve and that will become even more apparent as we work towards net zero,” said the former President of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

“Net zero is the platform for us to change the conversation and look again at the type of skills we need – and that will help us improve diversity.”

The Construction Products Association (CPA) reported that almost 223,000 workers had “vanished” from the construction sector since the summer of 2019. Nearly half were aged between 45 and 55. They joined the industry during the boom years of the 1980s and had accumulated a huge amount of experience.

“This ageing workforce demographic has been a concern for some time but was expected to impact in 10-15 years’ time as people came up for retirement,” said CPA economics director Noble Francis. “Like many other things, the pandemic seems to have accelerated this and plunged construction into a deepening skills crisis.”

However, the CIBSE Patrons said that, rather than looking to directly replace those who had left and those coming up to retirement, this was an opportunity to broaden recruitment. The group agreed that the net zero challenge would be driven by people from financial, IT/digital, creative, energy systems, Artificial Intelligence, and many other backgrounds.

“Yes, building services engineers will still play a vital role, but we will only remain central to this issue if we collaborate and recruit more widely – and beyond our traditional networks,” said Patrons’ chair Scott Mason.

“We do need a radical rethink if we are to broaden the appeal of this industry and of Patrons in particular. We are in a strong position to lead his change on behalf of the sector because we represent the whole supply chain.”

Patrons committee member Josh Emerson added that the industry had access to technology and design processes appropriate to net zero but questioned whether it had the right skills balance.

“We should be right at the heart of the discussion because we are working with cutting edge products and smart systems that bring the dream of net zero much closer. But we will need to look well beyond our traditional boundaries to find people with the creative skills and imagination to apply them, so they can achieve their full potential,” said Mr Emerson, who is head of marketing at Swegon.

Mr Sneyd said the ‘golden triangle’ of net zero was “policy, finance and delivery” and that CIBSE and BESA could help the government reshape policy, while their members were well placed to work on delivery of built environment solutions.

“Now we must get deeper into the finance side, which means we need to be sitting around the table with a much wider range of business people. Net zero is being driven by agile start-ups, lots of SMEs and a broad demographic with much better gender and ethnic diversities than our industry.

“This is an opportunity to re-set our image as a much more ‘go ahead’ sector, which will make us more attractive to people who would not necessarily have considered engineering as a career,” he added.

BESA chief executive officer David Frise welcomed the discussion and urged employers to use the net zero platform as an opportunity to rethink their recruitment strategies.

“Health, well-being, and productivity are uppermost in the thoughts of people designing indoor spaces – and while that instantly means ‘ventilation and indoor air quality’ to us; it has different connotations for people from other backgrounds,” he said.

“They want holistic solutions that embrace natural light, comforting acoustics etc. and they also recognise the need to simultaneously drive down carbon emissions. There has been a surge in young people looking to get involved in this area as a result, but we must accept that only a small proportion immediately think ‘building services engineer’ when considering how they can best contribute,” said Mr Frise.

This discussion comes just weeks after a leading international business figure said the building engineering sector would need to compete harder for talent to address its skills challenges.

Former CBI president Paul Drechsler told the annual 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 guests at the London event. “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, added that the industry needed to improve its diversity. “Talented people will go where they feel welcome - so test your diversity.”

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