Smart buildings crossing generational lines

Crossing Generational Lines
Millennials are absent in building automation, but their presence in the workforce will push businesses and buildings to advance their technology adoption.

Building automation is a fast-aging industry. It’s composed of workers who cut their teeth before buildings first became ‘smart’; people who can navigate a building’s network and diagnose problems in minutes; tremendously knowledgeable individuals who will be retiring in the next 10-20 years.

Baby Boomers have invaluable expertise that drives every industry forward, but they leave no room for the young professionals who are bound to replace them. To be competitive in business, you need innovative minds. How will Generation Y fill the gaps left behind when the time comes, if they aren’t getting experience now?

Millennials (born between 1982-2000) are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. This means employers must adapt quickly to recruit young professionals. According to PWC, Millennials will compose 50% of the workforce worldwide within three years. One day soon, a burst of Boomers will retire and generations Y and X (born between 1965-81) will step in.

PEW graph

Window of a chance

This is a looming problem that will only get worse without planning. If companies don’t hire young professionals now—before their workforce retires—Millennials won’t get career experience. Then there will be a scramble to acclimate that could put the industry in arrested development.

Young talent is a priority at Servi-Tech Controls, a leading building automation and HVAC mechanical services company in California. From 2009-2013, company president, Glenn Johnson used the recession as a catalyst for change. “We refined our focus, hiring young professionals with less experience in the field,” he said. “Before the recession, the industry preferred engineers who were proven. Instead of continuing with the status quo, we began recruiting the younger generation to revamp the company. Millennials have kept us competitive.”

Millennials offer an incredible proficiency with technology; they take to smart building technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) remarkably quickly. They also tend to be more forward-thinking in technology compared with older generations. One study from Vision Critical found, “Within the IoT, [Millennial] IT pros are focused on robotics, sensors, and wearable computing—none of which are on the minds of traditional older IT pros.” The disparity between generations is growing even more, as we see young, iGen kids’ tremendous aptitude; it’s almost intuitive, how naturally they navigate technology.

Younger employees’ aptitudes and attitudes are not surprising. We’re in an age of data, open-source code, and mobile-everything. “There’s an app for that” is more apt now than it was when Apple registered a trademark for the slogan almost ten years ago. How could Millennials and younger generations not have absorbed that culture of innovation throughout their childhood and adolescence?

Arrested development

In the next five to ten years, as Baby Boomers retire, companies will see a mass exodus of employees. If these companies do not act now, they may not have competent, experienced staff to step in. There will be a difficult period of transition, with a significant gap in know-how between those retiring and those newly hired. A host of inexperienced young professionals will not be qualified to guide the industry. With mentorship and training, that learning curve can be lessened; without it, we risk a period of arrested development.

More than a company best practice, hiring Millennials is an industry necessity. If we do not advance today, industry outsiders will disrupt this sphere. Businesses like Apple and Google are growing empires, with fresh young talent aplenty. These companies will take over the industry, and they will face little resistance doing so.

That shouldn’t be possible. There is a complexity to intelligent building technologies that is not easily translated from other sectors. The value proposition is different; the reasons for developing the technology are different; the scale, responsibilities, and security concerns are different. Still, if the current smart building industry does not advance soon, it will open a door. It will provide an opportunity for companies driven by young minds to enter the industry. If they do, those companies can annihilate the industry overnight.

Appealing to the new generation

Millennials are absent in industries outside of building automation as well; this is an issue that must be addressed. There are standard strategies to recruit the younger workforce: a positive company culture, long-term professional growth, vacation days, benefits, a sense of purpose. A significant factor, however, will be high-tech, comfortable, adaptive work environments.

It’s a running joke that youth are constantly attached to their technology. They are, and they expect to work with cutting-edge tech as well. Generation Y grew up becoming fluent in technology; it’s no wonder they view it so positively and seek to use it wherever possible. According to PWC, over 70%of Generation Y survey respondents said using technology makes them more effective. The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey reported Millennials expect their workplaces to use the latest technology, and Fortune writes that Millennials seek faster and easier solutions. Clunky technology inhibits productivity, and is likely to be abandoned, Wired reports. It’s not enough to just have technology in the office; it must be sophisticated, fast-paced, and user-friendly.

Even so, IT departments across sectors might not be prepared for their arrival, Randstad reports. This disconnect must close, if companies are to attract young talent. Expecting to do so with salaries alone is a short-sighted and increasingly archaic approach. We spend one-third of our lives working; no one wants to work in an environment where that time feels twice as long.

The onus is not strictly on IT to provide young employees with cutting-edge tech; building operators must also tap into what Millennials want, and building automation will have to deliver. Mark Trepp, senior vice president of JLL, says Millennials welcome open-concept spaces with higher density than seen in the past. Whereas space was once 250ft2/person, it has decreased to 85ft2/person. Space is used more efficiently, so office populations increase—and amenities and HVAC systems struggle to keep up. HVAC and mechanical systems have not been designed to support this density, but they will have be updated if businesses want to recruit young talent.

“Even when Millennials aren’t decision makers, they’re definitely influencers,” said Trepp. “The workforce is getting smaller, and keeping millennials happy is critical. If they aren’t, my competitors will pick them off.”

Millennials expect spaces that are smart and high-tech, that anticipate and conform to their needs, including heating, ventilation, and lighting systems. A changing labor force will demand environments that help them do their best work, and pressure on the building automation industry will increase. The personalization, performance, and power we expect out of our smartphones is now extending to our homes and offices. If your building doesn’t provide this sort of capability, you might find yourself without tenants.

An uncertain future

To create high-tech innovations, we need fresh, forward-thinking young minds; yet many businesses are still too apprehensive to begin hiring the Millennial labor force. Hiring the next generation now would make for a smoother transition once Baby Boomers retire. A period of cross-generational crossover could even bring about dynamic collaboration, as expertise melds with new perspectives. Without new ideas, our knowledge base is still largely stuck in the 20th century.

Generation Y wants a fast-paced, productive environment. A space that holds them back with dumb devices is antiquated, since Millennials are accustomed to speed and constant connectivity. The offices of yesteryear—with clunky HVAC systems and rows of cubicles—are archaic. The workplace de rigueur is open concept, user-friendly, and smart.

This is a crossroads for the building technology industry. By engaging with Millennials, we stand a chance of advancing technology, staving off disruptors, and taking the industry in new directions. We must act now, though: in five years when the Baby Boomers begin retiring in droves, it will be far too late.

This article was originally published in Realcomm Edge magazine. 

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