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FM: The skills gap and responsibility

The UK’s ongoing skills shortage is nothing new, yet the ‘gap’ also shows no sign of closing any time soon. Bryan McLaggan, MD at corporate building services maintenance specialist CTS, looks at how the FM industry can align with wider strategy to assure a healthier future for UK engineering

Engineering contributes significantly to the nation’s economic output; a 2018 report by Engineering UK put the figure at £1.23 trillion, some 23 per cent of the UK’s entire turnover. It also employs a huge number of people at just under one fifth of the UK’s entire labour market. Few will be surprised by these figures. Nor will the news that the engineering sector has long been struggling to produce and nurture future generations of skilled tradespeople.

The issue is convoluted, implicating public and private sectors. This complexity has limited progress despite having been on the agendas of both successive governments and private enterprises since the 1990s. For some, the gap is mostly down to a failure within the education system. This assessment gains credence when citing a 2018 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which found that most graduates lack the basic literacy and numeracy required for a career within engineering. On the other hand, John Allen, National Chairman for the Federation of Small Businesses, states that enterprise has a central role to play concluding that employers “will always have a responsibility to train staff to meet the needs of their specific business”.

The reality is the issue can never be reduced or attributed to a single culprit. The skills gap is a multifaceted challenge that requires coordination and a joined-up strategy to see lasting change. Looking closer within facilities management, however, it’s clear that there are some sector-specific measures than can be put in place to help support initiatives directed by central government.

FM’s economic contribution to the UK economy is considerable. Recent analysis from CIBSE found that the sector accounted for as much as eight per cent of the UK’s GDP, employing some 10 per cent of the country’s workforce. Clearly, these figures and the valuation of the engineering sector cannot be treated independently of one another. The skills gap is, therefore, as much a problem for the FM community as it is for wider engineering sector. This point may appear trite, particularly as ‘hard FM’ formulates one half of what typically falls under the remit of ‘facilities services’ and has itself been crying out for engineering talent for some time. But there is good reason to restate this. A 2018 survey from the CIPD showed that one in four workers said their job does not offer good opportunities to develop their skills, with a separate report from the BIFM (now IWFM) also finding that 27 per cent of businesses felt a shortage of skills would be an impediment to success over the coming years. These figures not only show a disparity between the support young people currently receive and the opportunities businesses provide but also a feeling that genuine change is not within the hands of the FM industry. This needs to change.

Collaboration between education establishments and corporates are proving productive. Rolls Royce, for example, has established over 1,000 STEM ambassadors worldwide, with company employees spending at least 60,000 hours a year delivering STEM programmes to local communities. These arrangements give students the support and flexibility they need to graduate into a skilled profession, as well as equipping them with the idea that a career in engineering is a very real possibility during a formative stage of their education. This is far from trivial as reports show not enough is being done to clarify what a career in engineering actually involves – an issue which, coincidentally, FM has also often had trouble with. The support services industry is often, and perhaps unfairly, accused of an ardent focus on the bottom line, sacrificing everything else in its search for profit. An FM-centric campaign that follows the Rolls Royce model would surely see greater uptake, while also dispelling the notion that FM is unwilling to properly invest in its own people.

Diversity within technical trades has long been a concern and with good reason. Research shows that boys are far more likely to consider an engineering career than girls across every age group. Other polls have revealed that only 15 per cent of organisations make any extra effort to attract and retain women in engineering and technical roles beyond observing statutory equality requirements. Most shockingly of all, just over one in 10 of the UK’s engineering and technical workforce is female. The UK is clearly overlooking a wealth of potential talent sitting right under its nose, protracting a problem that could otherwise be resolved, or at least ameliorated, with greater efforts around diversity and inclusion. It not only makes good business sense but above all is simply the right thing to do. This of course is not to suggest that FM has failed to make steps in the right direction, as it certainly has, but that a more strategic outreach within hard services is required to see the skills gap recede.

About Sarah OBeirne


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