Skills shortage – an industry issue

Tony Gittings of LG Air Conditioning looks to the future of the air conditioning industry and predicts a major increase in the need for training provision to keep pace with product developments and technological changes.

Investment is needed right now if a skills shortage is to be averted and we must invest time, money and attention in the present and following generations for the industry to prosper and achieve its prominence in the building services sector.
Every day we see evidence which points to the fact that the essential skills shortage is getting worse. Collectively we have to realise that this has to be a team effort.
There is a very, very real need for training provision in this country which is easily accessible, affordable and relevant to air conditioning contractors. Contractors – and specifiers – don’t want to feel they’ve wasted a precious day away from work being lectured to by a manufacturer about how wonderful their products are. Anyone can do that.
What is needed is a useful, practical, hands-on learning experience which students can take away with them and put to good use in their everyday working lives. That, in my opinion, is the aim of training courses. They have to give engineers what they need using fully operational air conditioning systems.
There are some excellent courses around but take up is not as great as it should be.
The whole industry needs to address its training needs. So why has it been largely ignored and forgotten? I think there are two main reasons for this; one has to do with entrenched attitudes, while the other is a direct result of the actual structure and history of the air conditioning industry.
Firstly, attitudes: The average installation and servicing engineer is well-motivated towards training, but is often too busy to take advantage of what’s on offer and that applies to even the directors of some air conditioning companies.  Why? Because if they can charge their engineer’s time out at between £400-£500 a day, then a day spent on a training course is seen as lost revenue.  So, while most managers agree that training is necessary, they are often reluctant to send engineers on training courses. 
Secondly, the structure of the air conditioning industry itself is not conducive to sustained high levels of expertise and training.  As the sector has been expanding for a long time, so it has attracted people who aren’t necessarily RAC trained, but who see air conditioning as an opportunity.  So, plumbers and electricians, for example, who have no previous RAC knowledge or experience, find themselves installing and maintaining – in some cases – thousands of pounds’ worth of air conditioning kit. And, even though there is excellent training provision at NVQ and City & Guilds levels for younger people entering the industry, a sizeable number still simply join a company and pick up the knowledge as they go along.
Unless attitudes change these sorry conditions will continue. Training must be seen as an investment for the future. The short-sighted view must be replaced by a wider, long term vision of the future – in which everyone will benefit from decent training levels. Better trained and qualified staff ultimately benefit the entire industry in the long run by raising standards overall.
Here’s an example. It makes good financial sense to send more than one engineer on a course even if your company, for example, deals with only two or three different makes of air conditioning equipment.
Isn’t this better than one of your engineers wasting an entire afternoon trying to solve a problem, rather than being able to rectify it in half the time – because he was taught how to on a manufacturer’s training course?
From an installation and commissioning point of view the benefits are huge. Trained engineers work more efficiently and that makes for good installations which makes customers happy. This is what manufacturers should be aiming at – to give installers and engineers practical knowledge which will enable them to work more efficiently.
What about engineers themselves? How can they take advantage of what’s on offer in the most cost-effective way? One thing they can do is to attend courses at the most sensible and practical time of the year – usually the winter months when business is a little quieter.
Avoid the summer rush! Keep a look out in the trade press to see which courses are being advertised and publicised. Which ones would be of the most practical benefit to you?
Finally, my third point in support of training is that the pace of change in the industry has been so fast in terms of product innovation and development – if engineers fail to keep up, they will simply be left behind.
Training provision is certainly fundamental to LG’s business strategy, as the £½ million investment in our UK Training Academy demonstrates. Without proper training provision, the industry will not keep pace with the huge advances in air conditioning product technology which we have seen over the last few years – and will see in the future.

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