Shaping the future

With the increasing use of building energy management systems (BEMS), a growing number of young people are looking to become fully trained and qualified controls engineers.

Phil Prosser from Trend Controls examines how ground-breaking initiatives like the company’s Attitude Apprenticeship scheme are attracting new blood into the industry.

The BEMS industry has struggled with skill shortages for some years. There are simply not enough people coming into the sector to replace its aging population of controls engineers, a great many of whom are ex-electricians or H&V engineers who are effectively self-taught in the art of BEMS technology.

With the use of BEMS growing as a result of heightened awareness of energy efficiency, there is clearly a need for more trained engineers to enter the industry to secure its future. One way of growing the industry work pool is to employ apprentices.

Earn and learn

The apprenticeship system has enjoyed a great deal of positive publicity in recent times and its wider benefits were recently outlined in a report by City & Guilds called The Economic Value of Apprenticeships. It found that UK businesses would be boosted by £4.37bn by 2020 by creating an additional one million apprenticeship places. The report also found income tax and national insurance contributions alone would generate an extra £1.2bn for the UK economy between 2012 and 2020.

While the focus has previously been on attending University, rising tuition fees and living costs with no guaranteed job at the end of a degree course means that more young people are seeing the advantages of vocationally based training and skills development. Not only does this allow them to learn a recognised trade, they can earn money at the same time. 

Helping hand

For building controls companies the decision to take on an apprentice is a difficult one, especially for those that are small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Some perceive that it is cost prohibitive, that the process is too bureaucratic or that there aren’t any relevant apprentice frameworks for their business. Others feel the current economic climate makes it too risky to commit to an apprenticeship scheme when their future may be uncertain.

However, employers who take on a 16-18 year old apprentice only pay their salary, as the government funds their training. At present the national minimum wage for apprentices is £2.60 per hour but many employers prefer to pay more and research by the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) shows that the average salary is approximately £170 per week.

There are also many hidden benefits of taking on apprentices. The NAS study also found that over 80% of employers questioned feel that they make their workplace more productive and 92% believe that they lead to a more motivated and satisfied workforce.

Government has also made several grants available for those willing to create an apprenticeship. Available to everyone on a national level, the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers (AGE) scheme is available for SMEs of less than 250 employees that have never taken on an apprentice before, or who haven’t had an apprentice for at least three years. The grant is available on a first-come, first-served basis for those who take on an apprentice aged 16-24.

Ahead of the game

For Trend Controls, creating the next generation of building controls engineers has been a long term objective and its efforts have seen remarkable results.

At its 2007 Partner conference, the seeds were sown for what would become the industry’s foremost apprenticeship scheme, when the company was told about how difficult its value added resellers (VARs) were finding it to employ people with the requisite skills. It was decided that this state of affairs was, in part, due to a general lack of awareness of the industry and the perception that BEMS was something of a black art.

Trend decided to do something about it and introduced the Attitude Apprenticeship Scheme in 2008 – a four year vocational structured learning programme where a person is employed by a building controls based company.

In order to get the ball rolling the company embarked on an awareness campaign, organised recruitment events, screened applicants and hosted interview days where its VARs could select candidates that they wished to take on as apprentices. Many of those now on the scheme are employed by Trend Controls’ network of approved VARs, meaning that they also receive the best possible on the job training.

A class act

In addition to practical training, all apprentices must spend time at college acquiring the necessary theoretical knowledge and gaining a suitable qualification.

Until 2011 there were only two qualification choices available – the now defunct C&G 2330 course, which led to a Technical Certificate in Electrotechnical Technology, or the BTEC National Certificate in Building Services Engineering. Neither was particularly well suited to the building controls sector though as the C&G 2330 was essentially a course for electrical contractors, while the BTEC teaches the general principles of HVAC but does not cover enough about controls.

The need to develop a suitable course became even more urgent after the government introduced its Qualifications & Credit Framework (QCF) in 2011. This applies to all vocational qualifications, regulating how they are named, structured and quality assured.

For Trend Controls the QCF was the ideal opportunity to devise the first nationally recognised technical and vocational award for the BEMS industry. As part of the Attitude Apprenticeship scheme, and in conjunction with Apprenticeship Training Limited, a national training provider of building services qualifications, the partnership delivered the Level 3 Diploma in Installing Building Energy Management Systems.

Specifically designed for those wishing to embark on a career in BEMS design, installation and commissioning, the diploma is awarded by EAL and endorsed by SummitSkills. The course is made up of 18 knowledge and performance units and has 854 guided learning hours. All 18 units must be completed to achieve the 125 credits needed to gain the BEMS Diploma.

Pool of talent

The success of the Attitude Apprenticeship scheme comes at a time when the number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs) has risen to a record high of 1.16m. That 21% of 18-24 year olds are classed as NEETs is a truly shocking statistic, however, there are clearly significant career opportunities in the building controls sector for people with the right attitude and basic skills, which includes GCSE level Maths, Science and IT qualifications.

By August this year 72 young people will have completed the Attitude Apprenticeship course with 80% of them having been sourced and placed by Trend Controls. One of these is Philip Budd of Berkley Environmental Services and his sentiments echo those of many others who have made the same career choice. He says: “After leaving school I decided that I didn’t want to pursue a completely academic route and knew that a vocational qualification would allow me to gain practical skills. Having completed my apprenticeship I am now in a great position to develop my career in a vibrant industry where my skills are in demand.”

Once an apprentice has completed the Attitude scheme, the learning doesn’t stop there and on-going training throughout an individual’s career is imperative. Building controls technology is developing at an incredible rate and training is the only way to gain the knowledge and skills to install and maintain the very latest products and systems. Companies like Trend Controls are committed to offering product specific, Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses that address what’s happening on the technology front.

Onwards and upwards

The building controls sector is reliant on well trained and suitably qualified people. With an established apprenticeship framework alongside a nationally recognised qualification, it is now a highly attractive career option. Owners of businesses should also consider the real and long term value of having apprentices, as by providing a supportive learning environment they are likely to be rewarded with strong loyalty and a positive work ethic – attributes that are vital to business success at any point in the economic cycle.

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