Tackling the skills gap in building controls engineering

The building controls and energy sector is suffering from a shortage of suitably skilled and qualified young engineers. It’s time to re-think our prejudices and approaches to vocational training and invest in our future, says Gareth Barber, Managing Director of BG Energy Solutions.

At BG Energy Solutions (BGES) there is a feeling that a skills shortage in the building controls sector is stifling growth and causing a lowering of standards in the service provided to clients.

Industry reports confirm that the skills shortage is not an issue exclusive to BGES or our local area, but rather across the broader engineering sector. Analysis by the Royal Academy of Engineering suggests we will need more than a million new engineers and technicians by 2020. To address this, the UK will need to double the current number of annual engineering graduates and apprentices.

Undervaluing vocational and workplace training

The reasons behind the engineering skills gap are multi-layered. A cocktail of misguided educational policy and an embedded snobbery surrounding academic learning means that vocational training is undervalued and increasingly unavailable.

The academic route has always seemed to enjoy a higher status than workplace training, but it seems as though the inequality gap is widening. OECD figures show that, across developed countries, an average of 50% of young people follow vocational routes to work and, in Germany, the proportion is close to 75%. In the UK, it is just 30%.

In schools, vocational qualifications are often discouraged or even dropped because they don’t count towards school league tables. This has been compounded by the shocking prevalence of low quality, so-called ‘apprenticeship’ schemes that are not worth the paper they’re written on. Figures from 2012 suggest that one-in-five apprenticeships lasts for less than six months; and, according to the government’s own research, one-in-five apprentices report receiving neither on nor off the job training as part of their apprenticeship (source).

We see here that too many business leaders are thinking about short term growth; rather than investing in staff and training to lay the foundations for future prosperity.

The government has pledged to tackle the skills gap, promising to create 3m apprenticeships by 2020, but it’s a big challenge.

Taking responsibility

The controls and energy industry, and indeed other engineering sectors have a collective responsibility to address the shortcomings in quality and availability of apprenticeships, providing real opportunities for young people that are more than just a ‘tick-box’ exercise, or seen as cheap labour.

At BGES, we are doing just that. Apprentices make up 10% of our workforce; it’s part of our long-term strategy to keep our service standards high and provide prospects for young people in the local area. As well as supporting apprentices on the nationally recognised JTL apprenticeship scheme (who gain an NVQ Level 3 in Installation of Electro-Technical Systems and Equipment), we also have our own in-house scheme, a proactive approach that directly responds to the widening skills gap.

This is a ‘hands on’ scheme which gives in-depth training across five areas of expertise, so that skills are gained across the whole spectrum of controls engineering. The end result is an employee with a well-rounded knowledge base, capable of delivering the high standards expected of all BGES engineers.

All of our apprentices are assigned to a personal  ‘champion’ from the company’s team of highly experienced engineers. Here, they will receive coaching, mentoring and practical on the job training.

Controls engineering is an incredibly rewarding career, with challenges, opportunities and a clear route of progression. By nurturing and respecting tomorrow’s young people, we can start to narrow the skills gap, and keep UK engineering a force to be reckoned with.

Business photo created by senivpetro – www.freepik.com