The building services industry been facing a recruitment drought for the last few decades, and is now facing the mammoth task of decarbonising the existing built environment to ensure that government net-zero targets are met. The problem for industry leaders now, is that the first challenge is seriously impacting their ability to meet the demands of the second.

Recruitment is a constant difficulty for building services, and the last few years has made the problem that much more acute. The pandemic made industry conditions very tough of course, and Brexit has also made attracting and retaining skilled, experienced employees that much harder – for example, in London almost a third of construction were EU nationals who have since left the UK. The workforce is aging too, with more than 400,000 people set to retire within the next 15 years, and time is running short to bridge this looming skills gap.

What is at the root of the recruitment issue in our industry? Studies show that many peoples’ perceptions of building services are that it’s dirty, dangerous, contributes to climate change, attracts only the unskilled or poorly-educated, and – crucially – that it’s not diverse, and therefore unwelcoming to girls, women, and people of colour.

Dialling up diversity

A CIOB report suggests that more than one-third of career advisers in schools consider our industry an ‘unattractive’ career choice, and that 60% don’t offer information about the job prospects on offer; meanwhile 82% of teachers don’t understand the variety of roles available, and almost half admit to giving ‘ill-informed advice’. With that in mind – and while the pandemic did make community engagement particularly tough – our group companies are once again out and about talking to young people and engaging their imaginations. We do need the ideas, energy, and passion of young people desperately, but that’s not the complete solution to a huge problem.

We also need to make our industry much more welcoming to diverse groups of people, especially those with solid transferable skills to bring from another industry; that will help to improve diversity of thinking and mix up traditional ways of working, which may not stay fit for purpose that much longer. The number of women taking up skilled trades and senior positions has stayed flat for the last decade, and just 6% of the building services workforce come from a BAME background.

Increasing diversity makes you fit for the future

We could, with some intention and ingenuity, do more to attract a diverse range of people, such as openly offering flexible working, improving maternity (and paternity) conditions, expanding the routes into the industry with adult apprenticeships, and working with employees age 50+ who are seeking reduced hours in physically demanding roles.

The overwhelming lack of diversity across much of the industry suggests that many companies are simply not preparing for the future, which is bringing a challenge on a scale we’ve never dealt with before. Our industry simply can’t meet the net-zero demands set by the government unless we begin to recruit, in large numbers, people from a diverse range of backgrounds, who bring different skills, ideas, and creative solutions to the great puzzle of decarbonisation.

Decarbonisation is a challenge for the coming generations

Building services is often portrayed as one of the causes of climate change, but rarely is our industry recognised for its decarbonisation work, which has already begun creating the net-zero society of the future, one building at a time. It’s the job of leaders to tell that story, putting decarbonisation at the heart of building services, and appealing to those with a passion to make the world a better place.

As renewable technologies continue to be invented and implemented, we need to strengthen our ability to use them to their fullest potential, by creating a workforce which is diverse in all ways. We need skilled tradespeople of course, but we also need bold architects, inventive engineers, people-centred HR professionals, strategic finance directors, marketeers with an eye on the latest trend, and experienced leaders who want to bring their transferable skills to an industry that’s changing the world for the better.

United For All

United Capital always has an eye on the future, and is one of the leading decarbonisation groups in the UK. We know that our success depends on us being more open, inventive, and welcoming, so that we improve the diversity of experience and ideas we bring to our customers. That’s why we’re championing United For All, an initiative designed to promote diversity in building services, and boost the industry’s decarbonisation efforts.