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Smart buildings represent our urban future but we will need a workforce with new skills to make that happen. Job opportunities in facilities management are at an all time high as adoption of smart systems increase. Those with strong abilities in the connected buildings systems space are in high demand, and command significant wages, while those exploring their first career path would be very wise to move into this space.

However, not many young people today dream of becoming heating and cooling technicians, and that’s a big problem for the future ambitions of the smart building industry.

The Skills Shortage Problem

According to the US Department of Labor, Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HVACR) mechanics and installers is projected to increase by 15% between 2016 and 2026, well above the average across all occupations. Yet, only 3% of students are very familiar with the concept of HVAC and only 13% show an interest in an HVAC career, according to the 2018 survey Bridging the HVAC Employment Gap by Electric & Gas Industries Association (EGIA) Foundation. A further 64% of those students believe that HVAC is a not a career/job that would make a parent proud of them.

“The study was our first step as a newly created organization — we wanted to know the state of the union, so to speak. As we went through the study, we noticed perception and knowledge of the industry is pretty lackluster and wanted to share that along with what the foundation is going to do to help close that gap,” said Erin McCollum, development director at the EGIA Foundation, who have initiated a number of educational initiatives, including scholarships, to address the growing HVAC skills shortage problem.

“We need to take control of the perception that is out there,” McCollum continued. “It’s left to others to make interpretations about the HVAC industry, and I think if we come together and promote the industry as something that is important and affects everyone’s livelihood, it can show millennials and younger generations a viable career option that won’t put them into debt. We can show them that entry-level workers get paid very well, and the sky is the limit with how far you want to progress.”

The Education Collaboration Solution

When a problem threatens to hold back the entire industry it often motivates those that have the most to lose, who are also usually those with the most to gain, to drive the search for a solution. In the HVAC space, leading players such as Johnson Controls and Bosch Thermotechnology are forging relationships with educational institutions in an effort to increase the interest in and output of HVAC training courses.

“Our needs are greater than their graduation rate,” said Rod Rushing, president of Building Solutions, North America, Johnson Controls. “We knew right out of the gate that we had to figure out a different way of attracting talent. Historically, we picked employees from the same small talent pool as our competitors. So we decided to get in front of this problem and get involved with learning institutions across the country,” he continued.

Johnson Controls has developed a partnership with Lincoln Tech, a trade school with 23 campuses spread across the country. Under the program, electrical systems students will be trained with the skills needed to repair and maintain Johnson Controls’ equipment in the field. Bosch Thermotechnology, meanwhile, has taken a slightly different approach by participating in programs such as the FIRST Robotics Competition and the ELECOMP Capstone Design Program to help encourage student interest in the field.

“Partnerships like this are important not only for the company, but for the individuals within the company,” explains Jerry Huson, manager of electronics and controls engineering team at Bosch Thermotechnology. “I’m a big supporter of education. I’ve been an educator for over eight years, and I strongly believe that when you have these partnerships, you’re creating a conduit through which you can efficiently funnel talent and state-of-the-art technology into your business. It’s a win-win for the partnering company and the school.”

The Smart Technology Solution

The buildings industry needs to bring in a wide range of smart technology skills but, more often than not, organizations don’t need full-time staff in each area. Most buildings only need a specific skill when the corresponding action needs to be taken, and that could be every few weeks, months or years. In those scenarios, it is impossible to justify hiring skilled workers full-time but the smart technology itself offers an innovative solution.

Sensors already positioned throughout smart building systems infrastructure to enable automation, also make remote monitoring possible. Meaning that when a problem arises, it can be identified by a remote skilled technician, and in most cases that remote expert can walk on-site building operators through the repair or maintenance process. When a part is needed, the remote expert can order it and then schedule a remote walkthrough, and only when necessary will a skilled technician actually have to visit the site. This means, we as an industry, would require far fewer skilled technicians to manage the needs of smart building stock.

“I think it’s actually not a reduction in labor; it’s a transfer of the skill set that’s needed,” said Chris Hunter, founder of Hunter Super Techs in Oklahoma and North Texas and business success coach with Go Time Success Group. “I feel like you still need the same number of people. But it can cut down on the amount of time one’s there, for sure. It’s kind of like the auto industry, where they could take the carburetor apart and clean it … and then the new stuff comes in, and it tells them what part to change. That smart equipment basically connects itself and does it for you.”

The Multi-Solution Solution

While the labor shortage in the HVAC space is an undeniable strain on the growth and development of the smart building industry, there are solutions emerging. Sensor-rich smart technology allows the current base of skilled technicians to cover more buildings through remote monitoring, while educational collaborations offer the industry optimism for the longer-term needs of widespread smart building adoption. If we are to bring about the smart urban future that has been promised, then we as an industry will need to encourage these approaches and others in order to drive the whole sector forward.

“We must create a different model in our businesses for our workforce and not try to model team members as we modeled our employees in the past. The future is here and trying to keep the new workforce going forward will require a major change in most existing business models,” says Larry Taylor, former HVAC contractor and current HVAC advisor and coach. “We as individuals are eager to learn, I believe it is built into our DNA, and we are looking for mentors, leaders, and organizations that will help us to move forward.”