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Redefining the FM Engineering Skills Gap

Redefining the FM Engineering Skills Gap
03 July 2023 | Updated 06 July 2023

Conrad Dean and Mike Bentman from CBRE consider the skills challenge that the FM industry is facing and explore how it can attract talent from diverse backgrounds, enhance apprenticeship programmes and ensure the creation of an inclusive and progressive talent pool. 

The world of work is changing and there is a widening skill gap that we need to address. Not only did we see great changes to all industries post-pandemic, but we are also now seeing a sharp rise in digital transformation and the associated deployment of smart buildings, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), automation, mixed reality (MR) and spatial computing.

As a result, the role and expectations of the facilities management team is also evolving. Facilities Managers are keeping building operations running smoothly, dealing with ageing assets, whilst also analysing building data and driving an organisation’s culture and values. There’s a need for both hard and soft skills. For these reasons, talent attraction, training and upskilling have never been more important in facilities management.

The challenge is undoubtedly daunting, but here are six ways that the facilities management industry can, and is already working to, close the engineering skills gap. 


1. Apprentices, Graduates and Next Generation: Increase Engineering’s Attractiveness


To solve the shortfall in young people choosing engineering and technical services as a career path, more energy must be focused on reaching potential candidates at a younger age. This means showcasing engineering and facilities management as an attractive career path and presenting apprenticeships on a level-pegging with other post-school routes.

Apprenticeships offer hands-on skills training and are an attractive prospect compared to university routes towards vocations.

At CBRE, we are currently supporting 139 technical apprentices in our UK facilities management business and are constantly looking to grow the intake to support our current and future business goals.

Facilities engineering can be an extremely rewarding career path and it’s noted that job satisfaction is generally high in the industry. Collaboration among industry leaders and with associations like the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM) will be game-changing for improving FM and engineering’s image. By working together cross-industry, we can achieve so much more.


2. Focus on Retention to Address Skills Gaps


For the industry to address the growing skills gap, there needs to be a sharper focus on retaining existing employees. Not only is it more cost-effective to retain than hire and train new employees, but it takes time for culture and behaviours to be embedded within a workforce. Employee turnover lowers morale, decreases productivity, is costly, has a negative impact on culture and contributes to loss of institutional knowledge. 

When looking at apprentices, on average in the UK, apprentice outputs surpass the costs associated with training, ultimately delivering a net benefit to employers during their training. Apprentices ensure employers can develop the necessary new skills and the soft skills that they need to match the industry’s current and future goals which means it’s an investment in the future of facilities management.

Retention should be a central part of any apprenticeship programme and a sharp focus on nurturing apprentices and creating an inclusive environment for all employees is crucial. At CBRE, we place emphasis on creating an environment where everyone is valued for who they are, recognised for their contributions and given a chance to grow. Initiatives include an apprentice-led Three Peaks Challenge and our annual support of International Women in Engineering Day. 

Facilities management is unique in that Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) (TUPE) regulations apply when contracts transfer from one provider to another (or in first-time outsourcing situations). This can often lead to client organisations retaining the contract’s best employees during the transfer and talent loss occurs for FM providers. Facilities providers can be more assertive in retaining top talent during contract exchanges.

The shortage of candidates to fill positions means the most qualified professionals will seek roles with the best pay, making it challenging for facilities providers to retain top talent. A sharper focus on retention and appropriately nurturing talent will go a long way toward closing the skills gap. 


"A trend of non-technical managers leading contracts is causing a knowledge gap between the types of tasks and engineers required on-site. There’s a need to upskill these managers from non-technical backgrounds too."


3. Double Down on Upskilling


Open job roles for facilities engineers currently far outnumber the volume of applicants. Training employees and focusing on professional development is a smart way to start backfilling the gap. However, there are many challenges associated with large-scale implementation of this tactic; the cost of courses and travel is often prohibitive and there’s often a need to complete overtime to catch up on time lost due to training because of tight contract commercial models. Online learning is relieving the pressure on this challenge, but this can’t be implemented in every case. Frequently, Contract Managers are tasked with balancing the need to upskill colleagues with the need to keep the contract profitable.

A trend of non-technical managers leading contracts is causing a knowledge gap between the types of tasks and engineers required on-site. There’s a need to upskill these managers from non-technical backgrounds too.

Outsourcing is designed to generate cost efficiencies and to improve service delivery for the purchasing organisation, which by design means that margins on delivery will be tight. As a result, there often isn’t enough allowance in the commercial contract to fund upskilling and training for employees. Facilities sales teams need to be aware of this and build the costs into new contracts to support closing the skills gap, educating clients about the benefits along the way. Not only this, but FMs should be educating clients to focus on value and whole lifecycle costs of assets (as found in Total Cost of Ownership [TCO] models), infrastructure and talent.

Technology and digital transformation is causing a paradigm shift in engineering at present and the landscape is rapidly changing. FM providers need to adapt to embrace this and use it as a lever to attract and retain talent. Businesses can use the Apprenticeship Levy allowance funds for training employees to meet the business needs associated with this rapid digital transformation and to support lifelong learning.

Currently, there is a shortage of high-quality engineers, like reliability engineers. Therefore, the industry has a big need to train existing talent to fill these gaps. Some facilities providers are overcoming these challenges by creating their own in-house training academies and partnering with education organisations to meet the demand and overcome course availability challenges.

Upskilling is undoubtedly a fast route to closing the widening skills gap and it's evident that there is a suite of solutions that can support building the required talent pipeline. It’s up to the facilities management industry to collaborate so it can overcome the existing barriers to wide-scale upskilling. 


4. Improved Career Pathways and Better Incentives for More Responsibility


Incentives for taking on additional responsibility can be low and are therefore often not an attractive option for engineers. The more qualified and skilled talent can choose the best paid jobs, leading to a trend of losing good engineers to different industries.

Contract commercial models often don’t provide enough remuneration for good talent and are not competitive enough. These pressures can lead to a shortfall in skills and loss of talent. Equally, engineers’ time is heavily focused on reactive works and maintenance, leaving them less time for specialist works and learning new skills on the job.

To overcome these challenges, facilities management providers can focus on investing in mentoring and training. There’s also an argument that FM sales teams should work to educate clients during the tender process to drive a trend towards better contract commercial models. That means, being solely price-driven affects the quality of people and therefore service is likely to be impacted throughout the lifecycle of the contract.


5. Increase Diversity in Engineering Workforce


Engineering stereotypically has a lack of diversity, though this is slowly changing. Diversity supports progress by providing different skills, expertise and perspectives and faster resolution of problems, but there’s a challenge in attracting a diverse range of people into engineering and apprentice roles.

In the past decade, there has been a strong trend of facilities management providers investing in improving their general diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. This now needs to be amplified to support the need for greater diversity in the FM engineering workforce.

Facilities management companies need to invest in specific teams that specialise in talent acquisition for these roles. These teams can focus their expertise on developing creative strategies to find candidates with the required skills and that specifically meet the requirement to find diverse engineering talent. This isn’t just increasing gender and ethnic representation, but also looking at inclusion across the whole spectrum of diversity like people from different social backgrounds, cognitive and neurodiversity. Not only this, but organisations need to implement inclusive recruitment processes and upskill hiring managers in unconscious bias to ensure the correct hiring decisions are made and the development of inclusive environments is prioritised.

At CBRE, 53% of our 2022 next-generation intake of apprentices, interns and graduates were women and/or from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. CBRE is building the workforce of the future by driving initiatives that develop employees and create a diverse and inclusive workplace where everyone can thrive.

Career fairs and school-leaver sessions can be another successful way to increase diversity. There’s also an argument for focusing on digital employer marketing strategies to promote the attractiveness of engineering to young people when they are still in secondary school. Couple this with schemes that encourage science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and these become strong propositions for improving diversity in the engineering workforce.

There has been an evident rise in the representation of STEM ambassadors within facilities management over recent years – this is a powerful way of improving diversity as ambassadors act as positive role models for new talent.


6. Embrace Innovation and New Technologies


Even if facilities management providers do deliver in all five ways listed so far, the industry would still not quite meet the skill gap and engineering shortfall. That’s because there are not enough new people entering the industry to breach such a delta, nor are there enough trainers to upskill the employees who need to learn new skills. We instead need to consider rely on innovation and new technology to get the industry over the final hurdle.

For example, more experienced technicians who perhaps no longer wish to work in the field can offer guidance to new employees from remote locations via mixed reality and spatial computing. Using mixed reality devices, schematics and guides can be superimposed onto physical assets and, with an experienced technician communicating via a headset, young technicians can receive the kind of on-the-job training they need to gain the necessary skills needed for their role.

75 per cent of field technicians report that products have become more complex and that more technical knowledge is needed to perform their jobs now compared to when they started in their roles. With older people naturally being more resistant to change, this creates a situation where younger employees and older technicians can share knowledge for the betterment of both.

Furthermore, embracing innovation and deploying new technologies as part of its core delivery will contribute to making facilities management a more compelling proposition and will naturally begin to attract more young people to the industry. This will be of paramount importance if the industry is going to ensure Gen Z, Alpha and Beta consider facilities management as their career path.

It’s clear to see that there is an abundance of fantastic work ongoing to address the skill gap, but facilities management providers need to do more to close gaps in this completely.

Through implementing world-class training, robust talent marketing and recruiting strategies and collaborating on building costs into contracts for upskilling current employees through training, skills up, remuneration and for hiring apprentices, the industry can close the skills gap.

Picture: a photograph of (from left to right) Matt Baer, Managing Director, CBRE GWS UK, Mims Davis, MP for Mid Sussex and Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) and Mike Bentman, Director of Technical Operations, CBRE GWS UK. Image Credit: CBRE

Article written by Conrad Dean and Mike Bentman | Published 03 July 2023


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