Closing the ventilation skills gap

Training the next generation

Stuart Smith, Commercial Director at indoor climate solutions provider, Zehnder Group UK, discusses the urgent need for specialised training in M&E contracting.

The UK boasts some of the best M&E contractors in Europe. For the ventilation industry they are the frontline champions installing, maintaining and servicing air distribution systems to keep buildings of mass occupation healthy and working efficiently.

I therefore ask myself why it is that more than 80% of the customer service calls we receive are about products ‘going wrong’ yet, on investigation, the majority of these are a result of poor installation or maintenance. The answer is a complex one and multi-faceted.

While this seems reminiscent of a parent bemoaning how it was ‘a lot simpler in the old days’, in this case it’s the truth. Ventilation, in its simplest form, was a fan in a box. Nowadays those box fans have evolved to become sophisticated pieces of innovative technology that need specialist knowledge for installing and commissioning. Digital controls, air flow calculations and zoning all need considered approaches in each building to be effective. They can’t be fitted by any tradesman.

A poor installation can have serious detrimental effects on a building’s fabric, causing condensation issues that can lead to toxic black mould, excessive use of energy that drives up the running costs of a building and, most alarmingly, pose a health risk for the occupants inside through poor indoor air quality. It’s well known that this can affect the productivity of a workforce and lead to serious illnesses and respiratory diseases.

Bad airflow through a building can also have a profound effect on overall occupant wellbeing because of extreme noise levels resulting from pressure through the ducting.

Yet this is happening across the industry and we are seeing all manner of tradesman, from pipework engineers to electricians, trying to install and commission ventilation products to save time and budget on builds (new and refit).

This is happening because there are not enough specialist M&E contractors who are ventilation qualified and can do the job properly, meaning quotes aren’t competitive enough and the result is shortcuts being taken.

Addressing the skills gap

When we talk about a skills gap within an industry, we immediately think it’s down to the lack of talent coming through from colleges and schools. While this is a big part of it, the skills gap is also evident generationally when it comes to ventilation.

At the apprenticeship level, becoming a ventilation engineer is currently not an option for those coming through colleges. There are no recognised courses for ventilation design and installation like there is for air conditioning (F-gas specialist) or boiler installation (Corgie).

You could argue that these systems are potentially dangerous and could cause serious harm if not installed correctly, which is why there is a greater focus on qualifications in these sectors. Yet the recent news agenda shows us, through Covid-19 and the recent cases of health issues and death resulting from mould and air pollution, that lack of good ventilation in both homes and working buildings can be fatal.

Building industry associations are pushing for a national competency course to address this. A recognised qualification would equip apprentices with a well-rounded knowledge set and proficiency that they can develop and pass down to others as they mature. But it is slow progress to get this rolled out and is likely to only be focused on residential installation, yet it needs to encompass commercial too, allowing that skill set to really flourish.

This lack of training doesn’t just impact at the entry level. Without a national roll-out of ongoing development courses, working contractors risk falling behind as ventilation technology evolves and we gain a greater understanding of how ventilation impacts a building.

Two decades ago there was a unique skill set in the ventilation industry where installers had a better understanding of ventilation methods, what is good and what is bad, and designers understood the equations required for effective ventilation from each fan specified to a build.

While technology has changed and evolved to a more sophisticated level of output and digitisation, these core principles remain relevant and as important at every installation, yet it’s been forgotten.

With building regulations now putting more emphasis on ventilation performance and energy efficiency, a comprehensive understanding of ventilation practices has never been more important to provide a quantitative basis for designing,

analysing and optimising ventilation systems. This contributes to efficient and effective operation in various industrial, commercial, and residential applications.

It is easy to see therefore, that without this knowledge and a good understanding of the building regulations for ventilation, the industry is falling short, with unqualified engineers being made responsible for installing these complex systems.

Preparedness for the future

In the absence of a nationally- recognised college qualification in ventilation design and installation, it’s falling to the private sector to take action.

Training can be led by manufacturer investments, in collaboration with educational institutions and industry associations. By developing specialised programmes in ventilation technology, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), and related fields within engineering and construction qualifications, young talent can be offered a taste of M&E expertise and champion action through experience.

We can also take advantage of progressive technological interests in young apprentices, highlighting the industry’s commitment to innovation and technology adoption.

With ventilation systems now incorporating smart technologies and sustainable practices, it makes the fi eld appealing to those interested in cutting-edge solutions and digitisation.

The question, however, is how the whole industry can be better trained and bought up to date with product technologies, ventilation effectiveness and design.

Qualifications on how to best install a ventilation system is only a part of the overall puzzle. We also need to address post-installation service and fan maintenance to protect the calibre and reputation of products and brands as well as provide the best levels of after-care.

Ultimately, correct installations and ongoing maintenance from a reliable and competent M&E contractor will prolong the life of a ventilation system, providing better energy efficiency on our road to net zero, protecting building health and wellbeing for the occupants inside. We need to work together to make this happen quickly before the existing frontline becomes our last line of defence.

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