Past, Present and Future of the Buildings Industry Workforce

Systems integrators will again gather in June to discuss the challenges at Realcomm’s Intelligent Buildings Conference.

By Brian Turner, originally published on Automated Buildings, May 2016 issue

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The buildings industry is at a crossroads. Systems integrators will again gather in June to discuss the challenges at Realcomm’s Intelligent Buildings Conference, particularly at the preceding Smart Building Integrators Summit. “We are dealing with three different generations of smart building technologies,” says the program guide. There is a past of closed, clunky, systems; the present, an in-between experimental stage; and the future, where IP backbones and graphical interfaces bring analytics to the forefront. The shifts in technology have been steady, but are now increasing at a more rapid rate thanks to the Internet of Things and its building applications.

While true, this description focuses only on hardware and software, leaving out a key element of the timeline: people. There is also a distinct past, present and future of building operations staff.

The building operations manager of the past is accustomed to tight budgets and short staff, plus the physical responsibility of keeping the lights on, the air circulating and the buildings secure. These OMs are used to being the first ones called when anyone is too hot, too cold or otherwise inconvenienced by building services and equipment. Knowledge of each piece of legacy equipment runs deep. With years of repairing and replacing the same equipment over and over, it can be daunting to make any major shifts.

And then there’s the present. A recent study out of the UK looked at 50 “leading edge, modern buildings,” – a mix of retail, office, schools and healthcare facilities. It found that only one was performing to the specifying engineer’s expectations. The other 49 buildings were missing their energy performance goals, in some cases actually consuming 3.5 times as much energy as was predicted.  According to the report, “many projects had difficulty merging new technologies, in particular building management systems. Many also had problems with maintenance, controls and metering.” The researchers used the word “alienating” to describe occupant reaction to new mechanical and electrical controls and found that operators routinely disabled them.

Any real estate financial decision-maker who invests in the hardware and software needed to operate a 21st Century building should be willing to invest in bringing their people up-to-date too. Occupants and operators cannot be left out of the equation. They are more likely to play their central role in successful deployment if time and attention is given to familiarizing and training them on the systems. People can’t be expected to look at a new graphical user interface and automatically know where their meters are and how to predict future energy usage. Controlco is a vested partner with our customers in training new users.  It’s our responsibility to listen to how our trainees respond to instruction and to keep improving our training. Of course, a few weeks of training on a particular system is insufficient to gain all the expertise needed by a master operator, so we offer more intensive training courses to become certified in how to design and program energy analytics systems.

Recently, an operations manager whom I was training on new software asked whether it was important to me that he likesthe system we just installed. There are many reasons for upgrading infrastructure—security, support for new products, better user experience. Current OMs are among the sets of users whose workflows and productivity can be improved by the upgrade. But, we don’t expect them to like it out of the gate. What we can expect present operations managers to have, however, is an open mind and the understanding that changes are coming. By definition, new infrastructure is an investment in the future. Project design teams specify technologies and capacities for IP networks and data platforms with an eye towards providing a foundation to support applications and new services for decades to come.

Integrators can provide the technology and the training, but we also need the highly skilled workforces of today who carry mechanical and electrical knowledge to welcome new, more cloud-and-mobile-tech-savvy, data-driven entrants into the buildings industry. The buildings workforce we need is agile and has a keen understanding of internet-based technologies and connected devices. After all, technology change is coming to buildings whether those who have been here for decades are ready for it or not.

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