The building engineering sector cannot replicate the past in its effort to solve the skills shortages – it is time for meaningful change in construction recruitment, say several leading industry figures
Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 200,000 experienced construction workers have left the industry, highlighting the severe skills shortage.
According to industry network CIBSE Patrons, construction recruitment must deviate away from replacing workers “like for like”.
‘Net zero should change the conversation for our profession’
“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.”
It has been reported by the Construction Products Association (CPA) that since the summer of 2019 nearly 223,000 workers had “vanished” from the sector.
Half of these workers were aged between 45 and 55.
Having joined the industry during the boom years of the 1980s, they had accumulated a huge amount of experience.
“This aging 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.”
CIBSE Patrons want to broaden construction recruitment – the net zero challenge would encourage those from:
- 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.”
Technology and design
Josh Emerson, a Patrons committee member, added that although the industry had access to technology and design processes to aid net zero, he questioned whether it had the necessary 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 Emerson, who is head of marketing at Swegon.
The ‘golden triangle’
The ‘golden triangle’ of net zero was “policy, finance and delivery”, argues Sneyd.
The CIBSE and BESA could play an important role in reshaping government policy, he proposes.
Their members would be able to contribute to the delivery of built environment solutions Sneyd adds.
“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 concluded.
Rethinking recruitment strategies
David Frise is the BESA chief executive officer urging employers to utilise the net zero platform as a way of rethinking construction recruitment.
He comments “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.”
Frise continues: “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.”
This discussion comes just weeks after talk that the building engineering sector needs to work harder to address skills challenges.
Former CBI president Paul Drechsler explained to the annual BESA President’s Lunch industry leaders must be more vocal about their achievements in building services and 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.”
Drechsler, who is a former chairman and chief executive of Wates Group, concluded that the industry needed to improve its diversity. “Talented people will go where they feel welcome…so test your diversity.”