Image from Port of Brisbane

Market pulse: It’s typically hard to attract young people and women into engineering, operational and asset management roles.

But industries with ageing male workforces are now recognising that diversity leads to businesses that thrive, so are working hard to turn these numbers around.

Leisel Moorhead, a partner in the QIC Global Infrastructure team, is well aware of the challenges associated with workplace diversity in these types of industries.

For the Port of Brisbane, a QIC asset, initiatives such as a dedicated cadetship has led to growing numbers of women working in hands-on roles such as boat-hands, out on the water.

There’s also signs of change in facilities management. About five years ago the Facilities Management Association of Australia ran some programs to try and increase the participation rates of women and young people in the industry.

The statistics show there’s improvement, with 29 per cent of FM practitioners identifying as female in 2018, up from 19 per cent in 2013.

Almost half of participating practitioners in the 2013 Census were at least 50 years old, and that’s now dropped to 26.7 per cent. The largest growth is in those aged 40-49, suggesting a growing number of people entering facilities management as a career change.

Despite attracting a younger and more diverse workforce than before, FMA chief executive officer Nicholas Burt told The Fifth Estate that challenges remain. One problem is that there’s no clear entry pathway into the industry.

“FM is what’s known as a hidden profession.”

“People end up in facilities management after starting a career in something else, such as a trade, he says. From there, people become familiar with the profession over time.

It helps that the increasing digitisation of the industry is starting to attract young people who like working with technology.

Raising awareness about the career opportunities in FM is also on the association’s agenda.

“We’re working out how to articulate to young people the career opportunities available in FM in a way that captures their imagination.”

This messaging also needs to encourage greater gender diversity from a young age, he says.

And when it comes to education at the tertiary level, Burt says there’s not a whole lot of connection points.

Aside from the Association’s Diploma of Facilities Management, provided in partnership with the University of New England, there are limited other direct educational pathways into the industry.

FM is not the only industry still struggling to attract young people and women. Phil Wilkinson, executive manager – government relations and technical services of Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air conditioning and Heating, says one of the big problems is that his industry is “hugely invisible”.

“It’s everywhere but nobody sees it.”

It’s been traditionally hard to attract talent to the industry with people more often than not simply falling into it. But it’s also experienced a huge brain drain, which means there’s an inability to pass down knowledge to the next generation.

At least part of this, he says, was thanks to Paul Keating’s “recession we had to have” in the 90s.

Another problem is the hidden nature of the industry. AIRAH is working to heighten awareness and visibility of the sector with initiatives such as World Refrigeration Day.

“When we think of trades, you see electricians, we see builders. But no one thinks about refrigeration and airconditioning work because it’s round the back.”

He says it’s an “unthought-of career”, and there are no specific courses in the tertiary sector that take students into it. “Mechanical engineers find out about it in about years three or four.”

Wilkinson says shifting the narrative will also help attract young people and more diversity into the industry.

Although he used to talk about “coming out of the plantroom,” he says now the “party is in the plantroom”.

“My thinking now is trying to make ourselves super visible.”

He says that there’s an opportunity to “reinvent the industry” as it starts leveraging IoT and other technology and becomes less about “pipes and ducts”.

Core to attracting the young is getting in as early as possible to educate them about where refrigeration and cooling sits in the food production chain.

Another issue for the TAFE training sector is that many young people haven’t got the maths and literacy skills needed.

On the gender diversity front, the industry is made up of only about 3 per cent women. Wilkinson says the fact that the industry is becoming more high-tech and less “clunky” poses an opportunity to attract more women.

Other ways the industry can increase gender diversity is through seminars to improve interpersonal skills and other topics, and by putting “diversity and equity champions” onto committees.

Wilkinson says diversity is essential to any thriving occupation and creating workplaces that resemble communities.

“Mental health issues, for example, can only be helped by having a more community minded industry.”

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  1. It’s got stuff all about age or male or female trades. If a trade is in terminal decline its due to its lack of a future. Fm is dominated by a select few. So most cut their teeth in resi and small commercial. Who in their right mind would start an apprenticeship that needs permission from plumbers and electrians to complete a job. Refrigeration and airconditioning as a trade has been destroyed by allowing electricians and plumbers to install. With vba and ESV at the helm we fridges will slowly disappear. Arctick are happy to take our fees but are not working in our best interests. For the few skilled fridges who remain you better get ready to pay them big money. Who will step up and champion our trade?

  2. I’m an old male FM, and yes I fell into it from a trade.
    I would like to see more emphasis placed on making school leavers aware of the possibilities of these building services. I didn’t know that FM existed until I applied to get a FM role.
    Mentoring of the inexperienced is a preferential requirement to pass on valuable experience.

  3. Hmm! It doesn’t help that engineering firms are barely making money, and therefore they want people who can “hit the ground running” which is recruitment speak for “you’re not getting training so you better know everything already, sit there and make us money.”
    Oh, and you can work 60+hrs per week too! :\