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Fears for training as the recession bites

Leading industry figures have backed calls for a statutory training fund to encourage employers to keep investing in skills and young engineers through the recession.

During a sometimes heated debate between building services employers and the education sector at London South Bank University (LSBU), firms were urged not to make the mistakes of past recessions, when investment in education and training was slashed. 

The debate, which was organised and hosted by Cibse, heard that increasing demand for renewable energy and environmental technologies meant that the long-term business picture was brighter than in past economic downturns, but companies were already cutting back on training and recruitment.

Professor Tony Day from LSBU said: “It is a sad indictment of the industry that half of the country’s Higher and Further Education building services courses were allowed to disappear during the last recession. Recessions are very bad news for education. At this university we currently have a bumper crop of building services students, but next year the intake will probably fall off a cliff.

“Are we about to see another cull of teaching staff, with all that expertise lost to the industry forever? Or will industry and educators work together to ensure we have the skills to deliver the sustainable projects of the future?”

All the debaters agreed that the collapse of the industry’s apprenticeship system had cut off the stream of raw talent the sector needed. And the shortage of quality engineers had led to companies poaching from each other, rather than investing in new talent.

“I don’t think the engineers coming in are good enough, but we often expect too much – and does the industry actually know what it wants?” asked Rob Manning of FaberMaunsell. “There are very few building services design courses left, so how can the education system provide what we need?”

Former Cibse president David Hughes, of MTT Consulting Engineers, said the education sector didn’t have “…a hope in hell of delivering the calibre the industry wants.

“It has to be demand-led, but employers keep changing the rules,” he added. “Do you want pipe stranglers or façade engineers?”

Ged Tyrrell, from controls company Tyrrell Systems, said it cost around £35,000 over four years to train an apprentice and it took several years before the employer saw a return on that investment. He also lamented the fact that few school leavers were attracted to the industry and called for better marketing of the sector as a whole.

But Tony Thomas, professor of work-based learning at LSBU, said there was no point in attracting young people to the industry if employers would not give them jobs.

He said: “We currently turn away more people than we employ. Also, we have to stop the migration of engineers out of the industry. Sixty per cent of registered engineers no longer work in engineering professions.

“We need to learn from recent history; employers that don’t invest in skills are two and a half times more likely to fail, whereas those that carry on training will recover more quickly.”