Help wanted: Career opportunities in property services engineering

Growing a building’s engineering team takes time and training, both of which will suffer as baby boomers continue to retire. Pictured here is a team of building engineers at a Transwestern-managed property.
René Wineland

René Wineland
Vice president, asset services, Transwestern

Commercial property managers in Denver already face fierce competition to hire building services engineers from a limited pool of qualified talent. Employment is essentially full, with the unemployment rate averaging 3% in the first eight months of 2019, according to Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.

The firms that manage office buildings and other commercial properties are bracing themselves for greater staffing challenges ahead, however – not just in Colorado but across the nation. That’s because time is running out to address a looming exodus of building engineers entering retirement.

Katie Sakach
Managing director, asset services, Transwestern

Demographers have long warned that baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, will disrupt an array of industries as they exit the workforce. Commercial property management is already experiencing the beginnings of what will become an ongoing, critical shortfall of talent as large numbers of facility management professionals retire, according to a series of reports by the International Facility Management Association and Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

As an industry that relies heavily on boomers for its building engineers, commercial property managers should plan now for how they will recruit, train and retain the team members who will manage and operate their properties in the years ahead.

How did we get here? After World War II, high school vocational classes, apprenticeships and trade schools introduced legions of Americans to careers in engineering and skilled trades such as carpentry and welding. By 1980, however, these traditional occupations had begun to lose favor among students as college admissions mushroomed. Trade school enrollment has begun to recover since 2000, but boomers still hold the lion’s share of the blue-collar jobs that are essential to operating commercial properties.

Research by Able Services for BOMA International shows that nearly a third of property management personnel will reach retirement age by 2027, with an even larger segment reaching that point just a few years later. While that trend siphons off much of the industry’s most experienced labor, job creation in real estate and property management is on track to grow twice as fast as the overall economy through 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At a time when unemployment is already at a 20-year low, the property management sector will soon have more open jobs and fewer seasoned professionals to fill them. What’s more, the industry is at risk of losing the vast institutional knowledge that boomers will take with them into retirement.

Facing the challenge. Like many firms in the property management space, in the past our company hired a combination of experienced building engineers and newer entrants to the industry who would require supervision and training before taking on progressively greater responsibilities. A system of on-the-job study by shadowing more experienced team members served our company well for decades, but it has become impracticable for several reasons.

For one, teaching by example takes many years and is a luxury the property management industry can no longer afford. And two, if all the property engineers reaching retirement age in the next decade indeed retire, there may not be enough experienced team members remaining to train new hires. Add in the need for team members to master an accelerating inflow of new building technology and the need for a rigorous continuing-education program becomes apparent.

Our company is attacking the problem on dual fronts, intensifying recruiting efforts and focusing on the development of a comprehensive internal training program for its asset services group. It expects these measures to not only secure the company’s competitiveness in the years ahead, but also to help the industry by raising the awareness among students and recent graduates of the careers available in building services.

Effective hiring begins with a job profile that clearly represents requirements. Often, individuals who have just finished high school, college or military service may be unaware that their abilities apply to property management and building operations.

For example, many recently discharged military veterans have learned to service mechanical and electrical systems or work with automation software like those used in a modern office building. Such experience can produce prime candidates for building engineering jobs. Navy veterans may be particularly suited, because naval vessels share many operational features with commercial buildings. Another highly qualified audience for this job track is heating, ventilation and air-conditioning program graduates.

Not simply a job, but a career. Longer term, the property management industry must develop a robust talent pipeline and demonstrate that there is considerable opportunity for advancement in an exciting sector of the economy that continues to evolve with building trends, technological advances and workplace preferences. This requires teaching educators about the strong, long-term career prospects in property operations so that they are equipped to convey that information to students.

Retaining talent also will be critical in the years to come, and investment in human capital is one of the factors that keeps team members informed and engaged. At our company, for example, our asset services group reviews each team member’s skill set at points throughout the year and helps to identify additional training needed for career growth. We pair highly motivated team members with mentors to assist in their advancement.

Training for building engineers can span in-house courses on building systems, proprietary software, client accounting, customer service, sustainability and energy management best practices, as well as certification programs offered through industry organizations or other specialty groups. In Denver, we partner with vendors that provide HVAC, plumbing and electrical training. In our union markets, our firm takes full advantage of continuing education and safety programs for members. All these opportunities enable team members to develop their capabilities and learn new ways to add value for clients, enhancing their own earning potential in the process.

Building engineers are in high demand in many markets, with earning potential that rivals some positions requiring a four-year degree. Amid growing awareness that a college education can saddle graduates with debt for much of their working life, students training to become building engineers and to fill other property management roles will find many opportunities for tuition assistance and employer-provided training that will help launch their careers on a sound financial footing.

Featured in CREJ’s October 2019 Property Management Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.