Training boosts appeal of BMS industry
Building energy management systems have been around for over 30 years, but it has taken until very recently for there to be a nationally recognised qualification for those looking to make a career designing and installing them. Harry Barnes, who played a leading role in its development, explains the origins and significance of the new BEMS Diploma.
The BEMS industry has struggled with skill shortages for some years. There are simply not enough people coming into the sector to replace its aging population of controls engineers, a great many of whom are ex-electricians or H&V engineers who are effectively self-taught in the art of BEMS technology.
One reason that recruitment has been a problem is the large number of relatively small companies that supply and engineer building controls. Owing to the size of many of these independent controls contractors — also known as value-added resellers (VARs) — it has proved difficult for them to mount the sort of campaigns that will bring talented young individuals into their businesses. Their task has not been made any easier by the widespread ignorance of BEMS outside the industry.
It was to address this situation that, in 2007, Trend Control Systems Ltd launched the Attitude Apprenticeship Scheme to provide trained recruits for the network of VARs that supply its systems in the UK. The company organised recruitment events, screened applicants and hosted interview days where its VARs could select candidates that they wished to take on as apprentices.
In addition to on-the-job training, all apprentices must spend time at college acquiring the necessary underpinning knowledge. However, until this year there have been no college courses that focus on building controls. The two main choices on offer were the C&G 2330 course, which led to a Technical Certificate in Electrotechnical Technology, or the BTEC National Certificate in Building Services Engineering.
While C&G 2330 was very hands-on and provided a good grounding for entering the work environment, its scope went well beyond the needs of a controls engineer. Covering areas such as house wiring, it was essentially a course for electricians. The BTEC in Building Services is a more classroom-based programme that teaches the general principles of HVAC, but does not prepare an apprentice for going on site and working with controls.
Changes in vocational education made the need for a tailor-made course even more pressing. Introduced last year, the Government’s Qualifications & Credit Framework (QCF) applies to all vocational qualifications, regulating how they are named, structured and quality assured. One consequence of its implementation has been the demise of the Technical Certificate, which means that C&G 2330 is no longer available.
At Trend the QCF was not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to create the first nationally recognised award specifically designed for the BEMS industry. It would. though. be necessary to find a training provider prepared to run a suitable course. As the company had already discovered, there was little interest among colleges in offering building-controls courses; most appeared deterred by the relatively low numbers of prospective attendees and were more interested in filling places on their existing programmes. Fortunately, Trend found a more than willing partner in Apprenticeship Training Ltd (ATL), the UK’s largest provider of vocational courses in building services.
The level 3 QCF Diploma in ‘Installing building energy management systems’ became available at the start of 2011, some six months after Trend and ATL began collaborating on the project. Awarded by EAL and endorsed by SummitSkills, it comprises 18 knowledge and performance units, all of which must be completed to accumulate the 125 credits that are needed to gain the diploma. There are 854 guided learning hours.
The knowledge units — which can be equated to the now defunct Technical Certificate — are delivered by ATL, which has a number of centres around the UK. Knowledge is imparted through a combination of classroom tuition and hands-on experience in specially equipped workshops. Written tests and practical assignments are used to assess understanding once units are completed. For example, as well as answering questions about the safe isolation of an electrical system, the trainees will have to physically demonstrate how to do it on a 3-phase distribution board.
The performance units are carried out in the workplace and require the trainees to show they have the practical skills to apply the knowledge they have gained, thus providing evidence of competence. The units are based on an NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) in BMS launched in 2010 that Trend had developed in conjunction with the Building Controls Industry Association. Subject areas covered include the application of health-and-safety and environmental legislation, work organisation, planning and carrying out system installation and control panel construction, system inspection, testing and commissioning and diagnosis/rectification of electrical faults.
Significantly, the diploma programme begins with an intensive 8-week period of study, during which there is a strong emphasis on health and safety. This culminates with the trainees being tested for a CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) card, possession of which enables them to go on site as soon as they join their employers. There follows a further 16 weeks of college work interspersed with time spent in the workplace — alternating between two weeks on and two weeks. It takes just nine months from the start of the course for the trainees to complete all the knowledge units, so they can make a positive contribution to their employers’ businesses from a very early stage. The whole diploma programme should take 30 months on average to complete.
The first people to gain the BEMS Diploma will almost certainly come from the latest group to join the Attitude Apprenticeship Scheme. They have already done their initial eight weeks with ATL and have now moved on to the mixed study/work phase.
The new BEMS Diploma has an important part to play in bringing new blood into the industry. The existence of a formal qualification will hopefully encourage many more young people to consider a career in building controls — which should help avert a skills crisis as the older generation of engineers takes retirement. What they will discover is a job that is both stimulating and rewarding. The typical BEMS engineer is not tied to a desk or forever wiring up panels, but enjoys a changing and challenging blend of work that keeps interest levels high.
Trend’s Attitude Apprenticeship scheme is the only one of its type in the building controls sector. With the advent of the BEMS Diploma, maybe other system manufacturers will be encouraged to follow suit and start their own apprentice programmes.
Harry Barnes is technical solutions manager with Trend Control Systems Ltd.