Engineers? No, we need problem solvers


19 April 2022

Ben Bartle-Ross explores what is needed to help increase the number of air conditioning engineers and asks: How do we encourage the next generation of engineers?

I recently spent the day with a group of teenagers as part of the latest STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) initiative for one of our local schools, and it was quite an eye-opener for me.

There were lots of assumptions amongst the group about engineering and air conditioning that I found quite telling. It was a mixed group of 10 students aged 13 to 16 visiting our Hatfield training centre, and it was clear that most of them expected to be pretty bored at the idea of looking at air conditioning units.

But they hadn’t banked on me asking them questions, rather than just talking at them all the time, so one of the first things I got them to do was think about why they were there and why they should challenge their assumptions on the value of our industry to society.

A valued career

This is important because we are simply not recruiting enough engineers into our industry and we really do need to encourage people to consider the value of a career in HVAC. 

There is a shortage of engineers across all sectors and this was highlighted last November in an open letter to government from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

The IET joined forces with over “150 world-leading engineers, scientists and technology giants to urge the Government to support ‘Engineering Kids’ Futures’ to tackle the UK’s massive engineering skills shortage.” The letter highlighted a shortfall of around 170,000 engineers in the STEM sector and called for government investment to encourage students to become the “innovative engineers of the future”.

At the moment, schoolchildren seem eager to learn about science and maths but don’t always make the connection to engineering and, as this visiting group showed last week, there are often negative assumptions about our industry. The IET letter calls for the Government to help highlight the link between science and maths and applications in the real world.

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Getting to net zero

We know that we are at the forefront of the net zero challenge, yet this is not widely understood. One of the first things I did, therefore, was to get the students to understand how HVAC impacts on the energy used within a building, and how important this is in helping reduce carbon emissions on a building-by-building basis.

I then focused on the importance of temperature within buildings on the comfort of the occupants, trying to explain just how vital our ‘hidden’ industry is in the fight against climate change. That certainly piqued their interest, so I then got them measuring the temperature coming off the outdoor and indoor units so that they could start to understand the idea of temperature moving from one area to another 

Solving problems

This prompted questions about whether anything could be done with any heat that was being generated by cooling, so I knew they were engaged and starting to really think in the right way. In other words, instead of just thinking about the ‘box’ on the wall, they were making the connection between engineering and its application to solve problems – in this case relating to energy use, wellbeing and comfort levels.

With questions about whether we could do something with the surplus heat, I knew I’d got them on board. This helped me explain all about heat pumps – which they had heard about, and how actually, air conditioning is just another type of heat pump.

Another student then said it would be “cool” if we could simply develop a phone app that measured the temperature automatically. After I showed him our MELCloud App, he asked why they had bothered measuring it themselves? I asked him what would happen if he was on site and there was no phone signal or internet connection, and they started to understand the real-world value of using your skills to problem solve, rather than just relying on technology.

It’s easy to teach students skills such as brazing. What’s more difficult, and more vital for me, is teaching them how to look at an issue and find a solution. And that’s what we need right now. Qualified and curious problem solvers.   

Ben Bartle-Ross is a technical trainer for Mitsubishi Electric.