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Next generation

03 August 2017

Tracy Kirk explains how boosting diversity within the next generation of life-safety professionals is key to addressing the skills gap.

FOR SOME time now, the skills gap has been growing concern for organisations across the built environment. No longer is it just bricklayers and carpenters that are in short supply, we’re now seeing shortfalls in trades in all corners of the construction sector - particularly when it comes to electrical specialists  

Issues with labour availability are not just an obstacle to completing projects on time, they have implications for the future health of the industry, too. With older workers fast approaching retirement, there are not enough people entering the sector to replace them, which will make it more difficult for organisations to deliver new developments for customers.  

It is clear that the skills shortage is a burning issue for the life-safety sector and the wider construction industry. Despite this, new research from Hochiki Europe has found that many fire safety and emergency-lighting installers do not believe we are doing enough to address the problem. Is it time for us to consider new ways to attract a new generation of installers into the industry?  

Training investment  

According to the study, a key challenge identified by life-safety installers is the lack of training provision in the industry to support the next generation. Some 95 per cent of survey respondents think that the sector isn’t doing enough to provide training for aspiring professionals. Just two in five (39 per cent) said their employer offers an apprenticeship programme, and one fifth (17 per cent) said their company had a programme in place to attract university graduates.    

This lack of investment in training provision is making it difficult for school or university-leavers to enter the industry. With limited opportunities available to gain the basic skills needed for a career as an installer, it is no wonder so few young people are joining our sector to replenish our ageing workforce.   

Youth movement 

However, poor training provision wasn’t the only concern flagged by installers in the study. Many said they were worried by the lack of interest shown by school-leavers in life safety as a future career path. Nearly 80 per cent of installers who responded to the survey felt that school-leavers  especially those whose parents were not working in the construction industry  are not aware of the variety of jobs available in the life-safety sector. Another two in three (68 per cent) installers worried that school-leavers simply don’t consider the industry as an employment option.  

This lack of knowledge and enthusiasm among young people is more than just an obstacle to addressing the current skills gap, it also has implications for the diversity of our industry. It is serving to discourage people from family backgrounds outside construction to join the sector, and putting off women and minorities from considering life safety as a viable career choice. 

Taking all of this into consideration, it is hardly surprising that 93 per cent of installers thought the sector had an obligation to tackle these issues by educating school pupils on the array of roles in the life safety industry 

Rising to the challenge 

These survey results should serve as a wake-up call for all of us operating in the fire safety sector. As an industry, it is clearly time we gave serious consideration to solutions to help us tackle the fire safety skills gap.  

 If the industry is to grow in the future, manufacturers and installers need to take immediate action to create the training opportunities necessary to equip the next generation with the knowledge and expertise they need to build a satisfying career as life-safety professionals.  

It is not enough, though, to develop apprenticeship and graduate programmes to entice young people into the sector, no matter how great these may be. It is essential that the industry as a whole does more to reach out to students while they are still at school and thinking about their future careers, and highlight the benefits of working in the industry. In particular, it is time for us to consider ways to boost engagement with women, as well as other young people from diverse backgrounds.   

Boosting diversity 

Traditionally, the life-safety industry has had a marked gender imbalance, employing significantly more men than women. However, that doesn’t mean the sector cannot change or evolve.  

Over the past 30 years, the number of women in the industry has gradually increased. Nevertheless, there is still some way to go before parity is achieved between male and female fire safety professionals. More needs to be done to boost the number of women in the sector further in order to broaden the available pool of talent.    

To achieve this, it is important to find ways to appeal to female students  as well as students from ethnic-minority and other backgrounds  who are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. This is vital to help encourage them to value the array of related job opportunities the life-safety sector has to offer ‒ from innovation and new product development to installation.   

It is equally important to highlight the range of career options that don’t require a STEM background, such as sales and marketing, and business development. Doing so will help broaden the sector’s appeal beyond STEM students, ensuring we engage as many young people as possible.  

Finally, we need to do more to demonstrate that the life-safety sector is open to everyone  regardless of gender or family background. We must provide role models to whom school and university-leavers of all genders and backgrounds can relate, in order to drive home the message that our industry is diverse and welcoming.  

Must try harder 

Organisations across the life-safety industry are starting to take measures to invest in training for the next generation of sector professionals. The Fire Industry Association (FIA), for example, has recently launched four new qualifications aimed at equipping people just joining the industry, as well as existing professionals, with crucial knowledge on an array of topics, from product design to installation and commissioning, and long-term maintenance.1 

Nevertheless, equipment manufacturers and installers need to work harder to make careers in fire safety and emergency lighting more attractive to school-leavers and graduates. We must work more closely with schools, colleges and universities ‒ and in partnership with each other, too  to engage with young people and draw them into the sector, by highlighting both the variety of career options and the diverse range of professionals already in the industry. By taking these measures, we can go a long way towards ensuring our sector has the new talent required for a healthy, prosperous future.   

Tracy Kirk is general manager of sales and marketing at Hochiki Europe. For more information, visit www.hochikieurope.com