How To Solve The Labor Shortage Facing The Smart Building Industry

It's time to spread the word: Building management affords a great career trajectory with attractive career prospects right out of the gate.

By Brian Turner

The severity of the labor shortage is growing across many industries thanks to COVID-19 and The Great Resignation. Compared to other industries, labor demand in the built environment is more nuanced and complex. Due to the standardization of products and processes, some industries have been able to keep up with training. However, the diversity of properties and increasing complexity of those properties are proving to be a challenge for attracting talent and training or reskilling professionals working in the built environment.

Many professionals in the current workforce are aging or retiring. There are not enough individuals with the skills needed to replace them, not to mention the inevitable knowledge gap when replacing people with 30 to 40 years of experience. But this is only one piece of the puzzle.

Labor Shortage Built Environment
(Source: AdobeStock / Peera)

Even if the talent was already in place, building technology advancements are outpacing the workforce’s ability to adapt and integrate maintenance processes. As a result, the industry needs a renaissance of technicians and engineers who can keep up with the pace of the ever-changing landscape of hardware and software proliferating throughout the sector.

Awareness Is Needed

Growing awareness within the mainstream public about the built environment is critical. Young generations need to know that working in this space can make a positive difference on many levels, including environmental change and technologies that can even address public health issues. While TV commercials promoting the WELL Building certification have done a great job sparking interest in building sciences and management, more needs to be done.

High school students do not need to attend a university to enter the trades. While students might have a general knowledge of the training required for certain trades, they are unfortunately not aware of careers specifically within the built environment.

High school students are aware of opportunities at cable and Internet companies, as those industries have traditionally done well at promoting their career tracks, while offering on-the-job training and benefits.

However, the built environment needs this same structure in place, making career opportunities be known, especially as buildings become smarter and more complex. Large service providers to facilities can provide the training ground for technicians; as this becomes more visible and mainstream, high school kids and young adults will pursue careers in the building industry.

Educational Opportunities

The HVAC, plumbing, and electrical school curriculums are already very rigorous. There is no shortage of local trade schools nationwide teaching this coursework, as it is far less expensive than completing a bachelor’s degree. Additionally, the pay can sometimes be better than a job requiring a traditional university degree.

However, while these schools are building their curriculum around established methods, the next generation of building management technology poses radically different requirements than legacy programs. Buildings are becoming giant, interconnected, automated ecosystems of ever-changing hardware and software.

We face a dichotomy: students of the trades still need to be well-versed in the traditional hard skills, principles, and practices of HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and a whole host of other disciplines. However, they also must be allowed to build on those legacy skill sets for the modern, built environment. Without training and development opportunities, these building tradespeople will not acquire the skills and qualifications to manage ever-complex building systems.

A handful of specialized programs exist. Michael Conway and Jonathan Spooner are doing great things with Stacks + Joules, a provider of specialized curriculum in computer programming for building automation controls, but this is geographically limited at the moment.

Attracting Engineers And “Supertechs”

Historically, much of the focus has been on the mechanical tradecraft of maintaining building systems. However, this ignores the critical requirement of attracting young mechanical and industrial engineers into building system management.

Some U.S. universities are doing an excellent job of adding curriculum surrounding the building sciences, such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Auburn University. Whether they’re from traditional mechanical or electrical engineering programs, a number of graduates are seeking careers in which they want to make an impact on climate change or the overall environment. As such, the building industry has begun to notice interest from graduates wishing to enter the industry and know how they can participate.

Out of every 100 techs that I come across, about five or six are qualified and want to do it all: the drawings, installation, programming, commissioning. For these “supertechs,” it’s impossible to satisfy them because they have such a broad desire to see a project from start to finish.

Unfortunately, finding enough of these supertechs is simply not possible. Building systems are becoming increasingly more complex, and the idea that we will be able to train a single technician to know it all is ambitious at best. Building designs will continue to innovate to meet ever-expanding Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals. Electrification of buildings and campuses is growing quickly, adding to the overall knowledge requirements of the service technician.

As a solution, the building industry can find success in training multiple technicians in connectivity, placement of the product (i.e., sensors, devices), and troubleshooting. However, the programming and software applications should be handled remotely by a team of engineers whom the technicians can call for help when needed. In this way, the technician addressing an issue does not have to be responsible for having all of the necessary information and can call in for help as the next level of triage.

This scenario is similar to the cable and Internet companies, where the technician most likely has to call into a command or operations center for remote assistance in testing, connectivity, or data capture. Similarly, the built environment can create similar standardization and network operations centers to meet the complex needs of buildings, managers, and tenants.

Avoiding The Labor Crash

It has been well known in the building management and maintenance industries for several years that a crash is coming. The overall quantity of willing and available workers continues to diminish because the capable minds for technology and mechanical aptitudes are being pulled in different directions.

Instead, we need to raise awareness of the built environment as an exciting, intriguing industry for young people of all backgrounds. Building management is underserved, underrepresented, and most certainly under appreciated, yet it affords a great career trajectory with attractive career prospects right out of the gate.

Brian Turner, LEED-AP BD&C, leads all strategic planning for product development and project work at Buildings IOT. Throughout his career, Brian has provided hands-on expertise to architects, engineers, and building owners to design and implement integrated building systems. He leads an experienced team of system integrators, engineers, building scientists, and all-around big thinkers who are dedicated to making the promises of smart buildings a reality.

As an internationally recognized expert in the field, Brian has helped professionals in the building industry optimize their controls and make their business processes more efficient. He has participated in product studies for manufacturers and has made presentations at industry meetings and events to international audiences including building owners, distributors, manufacturers, and system integrators.

With his decades of experience in the field, in the lab, and at the helm of industry-leading companies, Brian consistently bridges the gap between technology, on-the-ground solutions, and implementation teams to meet and exceed the expectations of all clients.