In the past three decades, Australia’s HVAC industry has seen a quantum evolution, but according to University of Wollongong professor Paul Cooper, there’s a real risk of a talent deficit looming in the near future.
Cooper was awarded the James Harrison Medal for Lifetime Achievement at this year’s AIRAH Awards, for his industry-leading research in the HVAC space and contribution to advancing sustainable building practice as one of the founders of the UoW Sustainable Buildings Research centre.
He told The Fifth Estate that when he first came to Australia 30 years ago from the UK, the whole idea of energy-efficiency and emissions reduction “wasn’t on the radar”.
There were no building code energy efficiency provisions for Australian housing until the early 2000s, for a start.
But in the past decade these ideas have become mainstream. We’ve seen advances in technologies such as advanced building management systems that decrease energy consumption, and government policies such as mandatory disclosure and tools such as NABERS have led the commercial property sector to lift its game.
HVAC has become a very innovative field, and this has been attracting increasing numbers of the “best and brightest” graduates. Technologies in the areas of controls and automation are proving exciting for PhD and post-graduate students and researchers, and also creating alignments with other sectors such as advanced manufacturing.
However, Cooper says that without the right encouragement for the current primary school and high school cohorts, in five to 10 years that flow of talent could slow to a trickle.
TAFE is also an important part of the picture. The SBRC has been collaborating with TAFE since the outset, and creating partnerships with industry, students and institutions that are mutually beneficial.
Students get to see the products and practices experienced industry tradespeople bring to projects such as the award-winning Desert Rose and Illawarra Flame homes. Industry gets to leverage the latest research.
The two homes and the SBRC have also been a vehicle for sharing ideas about improving energy efficiency with the general public.
“We have [also] trained a lot of very capable young people.”
There is increasing integration between HVAC and other elements of the built environment, he explains.
One of the “really heartening” changes in recent years has been a more holistic approach to design, delivery, commissioning, operation and maintenance of buildings.
Cross-disciplinary research work is also extending into areas such as the impact of indoor environment quality on older people and people with dementia.
More great leaps lie ahead, he says..
“The advent of cheaper renewable energy systems has really driven the start of a revolution of thinking about power use and engineering for optimisation of the grid.
“A building is no longer an isolated block with HVAC keeping the temperature comfortable.”
The SBRC has also contributed to significant industry shifts, such as undertaking the modelling for ASBEC’s net zero trajectory and future changes to the National Construction Code to align with the net zero ambition.
It’s been a “short trajectory and steep curve” for the sector in terms of impact, Cooper says.
Recruitment is a big challenge
He says the single most important challenge for the industry is recruiting capable people.
Without significant numbers of the best and brightest undertaking the right learning during primary and high school, there could be a shortage of new entrants into the appropriate tertiary study pathways.
The key according to Cooper is to help young people see the exciting possibilities of the sector, and how worthwhile it is. Older workers also have immense value, as they hold an “immense store of knowledge”.
“They have such an important role to play in mentoring,” Cooper says.
The net zero transition and the new technologies such as advanced BMS systems are all going to need people to design, research, install and operate the HVAC of the future.
“The future is bright so long as we engage the best and brightest young people.”