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Use data to counter skills shortage

20 December 2012

With a shortage of skilled engineers in the maintenance profession, effective use of facilities data can enhance performance, says Charles Askwith.

As building systems become more complex the opportunity to improve on their design over time requires a high level of technical understanding. It is only with this technical understanding that running costs can be lowered through business risk reduction, life cycle extension and energy management.

However, there is a widespread shortage of skilled engineers in the building maintenance industry. Too few students apply for engineering and science courses, and of those who do, few see their future in the maintenance industry – perceiving it as unglamorous.

This skills shortage leads to a lack of knowledge at the front line of how a building operates. It is not unusual to find engineers supervising facilities with little or no understanding of the technology in use, promoting a high dependency on specialist sub-contractors who are focused on their particular niche, resulting in no overall recognition of the integration of building systems. The skills problem thus increases the life-cycle costs of a building in all areas of measure, which could be avoided if onsite engineers had a better technical understanding of the systems. Indeed, a high percentage of problems can be fixed immediately if they are diagnosed by someone with good working knowledge of electrical and mechanical processes, yet too often equipment is replaced instead of repaired, with no regard to the embedded carbon impact of the newly manufactured item.

That said, onsite staff could boost their skill levels by taking an interest in what specialists are doing when they come in to fix problems. Yet this rarely happens. Learning from experience is essential in this industry and something that most new graduates lack. Universities don’t expose students to practical situations and many students graduate without any experience of diagnostics. Certainly, we see top graduates who are unable to identify basic electrical and mechanical problems. The best people are those who have learnt on-the-job. In my day graduates were taken on either as apprentices or trainees where they were exposed to several years of on-the-job training before starting a job role.

Because the skills shortage will take a while to fix, we need to offer engineers as much support as possible to improve standards. This is where better use of data comes in. We can address the lack of personal experience by ensuring that we record the experiences of others and measure the performance of equipment. We already collect ample data from buildings so it’s more a matter of making it accessible, and using it in a way that enables us to understand what’s going on.

With current systems, data can be more confusing than the problems you’re trying to fix. Certainly, there are so many different systems within a building that the data collected becomes fragmented. It has now however become possible to make more sense of it by using software that can communicate with multiple systems such as uninterruptable power supply (UPS) systems, external facade lighting, packaged heating and air conditioning (A/C) systems, generators, internal building management systems (BMS), maintenance help desk systems, and energy meters etc., to pull this data together into a single management system, rationalise it against key performance parameters and present it to the user in understandable report formats.

This software provides simple access to operation and maintenance (O&M) information, accepts fault reporting automatically as well as filing service records so all vital information associated with individual assets is kept in the same place. This also helps to avoid inconsistent reporting that makes it difficult to compare data. With all of the necessary information at their disposal, the building manager is able to obtain reports of key performance indicators on equipment maintenance, asset benchmarks, vendor effectiveness, as well as what faults occurred and what was done to put them right. They will be able to use the data to spot problems, and if a problem has occurred in the past the onsite engineer should know what is needed to fix it. Staff can also be supported through programmed guidelines and training tools for individual assets and equipment maintenance routines that are easily accessible through graphic menu screens that bring up data at the click of a mouse.

There is no doubt that more engineers with the skill-set to handle complex mechanical and electrical issues need to be trained, however, by providing better information, online training and accurate diagnosis, these new software programs can harness data to help those with a skills gap to raise their level of performance. Enabling onsite teams to do the job themselves will avoid the need to bring in expensive specialists while accurate diagnosis will give maintenance professionals the confidence to repair equipment instead of replacing it.

Saving money should be motivation for improving maintenance. Then again, those serious about meeting the government’s targets for carbon reduction need to break away from this culture of replacement, and focus on comprehensive asset lifecycle management by adopting better preventative maintenance regimes.

Charles Askwith is Chairman of Mentor Building Management. 

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