Technology can help bridge the skills gap

There were some sharp intakes of breath recently when SummitSkills published its report on the likely impact of current economic conditions on jobs in the building services sector.

It suggested that between 67,000 and 154,000 jobs in the industry could be at risk due to the downturn. The report, Potential impact of the recession on the building services engineering sector in 2009, was based on interviews with BSE consultants on the state of the economy and its likely impact on the industry’s workload.

Since its publication, there has been something of a ‘recontextualising’ of its findings – particularly in the light of surprise by fellow industry organisations, such as the HVCA, over the predicted scale of the losses. The latest take on the findings is that they tend to overestimate expected losses due to the fact that they concentrate solely on the consultants’ view and do not take account of the view on the ground from contractors.

Whatever the precise numbers, it is inarguable that the industry finds itself with a serious challenge on its hands. The loss of skilled manpower from the building services trades is not welcome at any time, but comes at a time when the skills gap in the industry was in any case widening. When things improve, and the cycle turns, many of these people will have left the industry for good and the skills shortage will get worse.

Despite much hand-wringing in the past, and some solid work more recently by the sector’s training body, the gap between the skills required and those available has continued to widen. The UK’s trade skills squad flying to Calgary later this year for the world skills competition has a plumber among the team. But the UK will apparently not be represented in refrigeration, air conditioning or general building services categories. That is a shame, and says something about the importance – or lack of it – that we as a nation attach to equipping the next generation.

Against this background, a lot of store has been put on advances in technology. Some have suggested that such new technologies are hastening the de-skilling of the trades. They yearn for a return to the slide rule, pencil-behind-the-ear and hot working. I have to say, as someone who has worked man and boy through this revolution in approach, today’s technology is infinitely better.

The truth is that successful new approaches such as off-site fabrication and modular engineering effectively address the problem of skills shortages in the trade. They have taken root, in part, as a response to the ongoing problem of on-site manpower, not to mention the need to deliver a cost effective, quality solution, on time, every time.

Over the past few months, we have highlighted some of the main drivers of change in our industry – the trend towards off-site manufacture, the need for a genuinely sustainable approach, health and safety issues, the need to get costs down and quality up, and the skills crisis. In all of these areas, we have made the case that a modular approach to pre-assembled, integrated multi-service units delivers major benefits, for the customer and the client.

I believe it is an approach whose time has come, and that it is here to stay.

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