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Sharing Our ‘Brand’ New World of Building 'Services' Engineering

Posted: 24 January, 2019

Dr Ciara Ahern
Dr Ciara Ahern | Head of Building Engineering | Assistant Head of School Mechanical and Design Engineering | TU Dublin - City Campus

In 2017, the discipline of Building Services Engineering was rebranded to simply ‘Building Engineering’ and an initial marketing campaign was run with support from industry. The result was a spike in CAO applications in 2018 but Dr Ciara Ahern writes that there is more yet to be done.

 

The role of the university in enabling citizens to develop the tools to address the great challenges of our time – such as global poverty, climate change and sustainability – is vital”.

- President Michael D. Higgins (2016)

 

 

Human beings spend 90% of their time in buildings

It is human beings that use energy, it is therefore not wholly surprising that buildings, at 41%, are the largest end-user of energy, followed by transport (32%) , and industry (25%). Buildings  effectively  account for 36% of CO2 emissions in the EU. 

Building Engineers are therefore at the vanguard of the battle against climate change, responsible for creating comfortable environments at the lowest energy cost for the betterment of society and the well-being of people.

So why is it that our role is not inherently and generally understood by society at large?

 

Brand New World

As a group of professionals, we don’t carry a brand that generates an association with our role in society, certainly when compared to architects, doctors and barristers for example.

This may be because we are called by many different names.  The lingua franca globally for our discipline is ‘Building Engineering’ (Australia, India, Canada, Africa). In the US we are called Architectural Engineers.

In the UK and Ireland we are called Building Services Engineers by our respective societies, but yet we tend to call ourselves mechanical or electrical engineers or simply M&E’s. 

Why is this a problem?

It is a problem because ‘brands’ (components of which include identity, voice, style, mission, attributes etc) increasingly influence human decisions and especially purchasing choices – and choosing a career is no different.

Research by Prof. Brian Bowe in TU Dublin finds the primary influencers of students in their choice of programme of study is teachers (not careers guidance teachers but rather maths, engineering, construction and science teachers). The secondary influencers are parents and other family members (and then to a lesser albeit important extent it is friends/peers).  

This research is borne out with our experience on the ground where traditionally students choosing to study Building Engineering have come to know the discipline through a family relation working in the industry (in this writer’s case, it was my father).

Our organic reach of influencers has sustained us until now but is not viable in the noisy, highly competitive, market-driven higher education landscape of today.

 

The End of Boom & Bust?

Student choice of college course correlates strongly with labour-market trends.  Notwithstanding the current recovery of the construction sector, student course choice trends, tend to lag boom/bust cycles.

The number of students choosing Building Engineering therefore tracks but lags the boom/bust cycle of the construction industry.  

The collapse of the construction sector in the mid 2000’s saw students shun courses associated with construction and certainly those titled with ‘building’. 

The low student numbers resulting became self-reinforcing thus hindering internal word-of-mouth marketing efforts. 

 

Fixing the Brand Old Problem

Analysis by TU Dublin predicted that if the market was left to natural forces, it would by 2022 before student numbers recovered their peak level of 2008. 

Thus, in October 2016, using expert input from the marketing school in DIT we embarked on journey to find out;

(i)  why we were not attracting students into Building Services Engineering in greater numbers,

(ii)  whether we have a problem with external perception of our programme,

(iii) the key influences of student choice, and

(iv) what we could change to enhance the attractiveness of the discipline. 

 

One of the issues identified as needing to be addressed was the course name, aka the brand.

‘Building Services Engineering’ had been used since the course inception in the 1970’s and what it seeks to describe has evolved from a relatively unglamorous ‘pipes, ducts & wires’ paradigm to today’s leading edge discipline within a hi-tech, global construction sector. 

In early 2017, TU Dublin carried out a high-level review, looking at the perception of the name ‘Building Services Engineering’. 

The word ‘services’ was redolent of general property repairs/janitorial services in the minds of those tested whilst also giving the impression that the discipline was somehow narrower or more niche than other engineering disciplines e.g.Mechanical Engineering.

Today’s students wishing to keep their options open for as long as possible, tend to avoid specialising early in their education career so their perception of the ‘Building Services Engineering brand’ was therefore hindering student recruitment efforts. 

In September 2018, we retitled our course to ‘Building Engineering’ placing us on par with other engineering disciplines (civil, mechanical, structural, chemical…which have no tertiary qualifying word in their title) thus allowing us to market the discipline more broadly.

Having retitled the course name, the next step was to engage students and their influencers; but how to reach them?  Each requires a different but targeted approach to communication.

 

Generation Z

An Accenture 2017 research report (PDF) suggests career decision choices are made by boys at around aged 14 and if we wish to alleviate negative perceptions of engineering, particularly among women, we need to influence girls before they turn 11 years old (before their transition to secondary school and choice of subject exacerbates the gender gap).  

Thus, if we are to see sustainable growth in the numbers of students choosing this profession we need to increase firstly awareness and then understanding of the role of Building Engineers in society amongst secondary and primary level students.

Today’s 12 to 18 year olds (Generation-Z) are socially minded, self-reliant, digital mavens who do not consume print media or watch television (in the traditional sense).  80 % of media consumption is via a mobile phone.  Video consumption (YouTube) among this generation is huge.

To engage this cohort we need to consolidate a coherent brand vision and USP for our discipline. 

This needs to be done in the context of the generational characteristics of our prospective audience (students and parents/teachers).

We need to create more on-message informative marketing collateral that conveys the broadness, opportunities and benefits of our profession to society and human well-being. 

This needs to be promoted via a dedicated digital presence using social media activity around the ‘customer journey’ to build reputation and awareness. 

 

Let's Talk About Money

A decade of cutbacks in state funding (-34 % between 2008 and 2015), coincided with an increase in student numbers (+24 % between 2008 and 2015 partly as a consequence of high unemployment rates and people returning to education). 

The Institute of Technology sector has responded to the needs of society but has reached crisis financial levels in doing so (a deficit of €9.7 m is predicted for 2018/19). 

The IoT sector is effectively broke!

With no financial resources available internally, TU Dublin approached industry seeking financial support to create a marketing system to promote and (frankly) to save the course from extinction.

I am delighted to say that industry readily got behind the programme with 24 companies so far investing a total of €111K to DITs philanthropic body, The TU Dublin Foundation, for this specific purpose. 

A steering group comprising of industry and academic representatives (breadth of expertise and gender balance were key considerations) was formed to govern the disbursement of funds. 

Over the 2017/18 academic year, the steering group oversaw a spend of €73K on a three-phase marketing campaign (tied into key CAO milestones) that included  digital, radio and PR campaigns. Video collateral was created, along with website collateral and a dedicated YouTube channel.

While it will take at least three years of further work for the results of our efforts to be realised, the immediate objective of the Building Engineering steering group in Year 1 was to reverse the continual decline in students opting to study Building Engineering and this has met with some success. 

The effect of the intervention is evident in Fig.1.

Growth of Building Engineering student interest

  ‘A lot done…more to do’! Whilst we have reversed the decline, we are still by no means out of the woods.

 

Grade Inflation

The Level 7 (formally diploma and now ordinary degree) market is a cratering market.  Most students are looking to a Level 8 higher degree.

Encouragingly, within the College of Engineering and Built Environment in DIT, the Building Engineering programme is the only level 7 programme to show an increase in points and student numbers in 2018, albeit it must be acknowledged that we started from a critically low base-point.

Boding well for the next academic year 2019/20, our social media platforms recorded a high level of engagement by younger by second-level students who will be entering the CAO market within the next couple of years.

 

Maintaining Momentum

It is imperative that keep up the momentum generated.  To ensure continuity of activity, TU Dublin have drafted a Request for Public Tender that will be published in early September.

The purpose of the tender is to appoint an external marketing consultant/agency to both develop a three year development plan with targets and to action same.

Some of the key missions will be to;

  • Engage a specialist agency to brand our profession (not just a logo but a full ‘design system’), identifying our core values and our unique selling points.
  • Plan and build upon our suite of marketing assets – this is multi-facted, albeit website as well as further video collateral will be key components.
  • Get the word out…continually! The assets need to be deployed to achieve the public and undergraduate ‘sales’ objectives.

Unlike say a typical engineering project which is predicated (and costed) upon disparate project deliverables, we need to adopt a seamless ‘agile marketing’ methodology which is informed by what is working (in near real-time) and not to be afraid to dump what’s not working…and fast. 

Digital platforms now allow us to ‘listen’ to the potential customer.  For example a key learning from this year was that the timing of a campaign is critical - in a given CAO phase that had been open for more than a couple of weeks interaction rates would drop precipitously.

As lessons are learned we improve, and it becomes less about imposing what we think might work on Generation Z but moreover doubling down on what we know to be working.

 

Gender Balancing Act

According to this 2017 iWish survey, 82% of girls want a career where they can help people, yet they don’t see how engineering can facilitate that .

It is clear we need to dedicated campaign to address this which has its own specific numbers target objective.

Building Engineering is an attractive option for women and we tend to see a higher proportion opting for this discipline from our common engineering second year.

The strategy created will include development of marketing collateral aimed specifically at girls.  Once created, we need to engage with fantastic programmes such as STEAM, STEPS and iWish to help get the information out school-going students. 

 

A Virtuous Cycle

DIT, as a result of concerted requests from industry, pioneered the first course in Building Services Engineering in 1974.   

In time we might also look to engage with ‘competing’ regional education providers in a spirit of co-operation – after all in the same boat and a rising tide will benefit all. 

Just as we are on the cusp of DIT itself ‘rebranding’ i.e. becoming Technological University for Dublin, it is timely that our partnership with private building engineering industry has kicked up another gear.

The mutual benefits are clear: with continued industry support we can provide a much-needed supply of high quality graduates and the more we get of the latter, the better our investment and support proposition becomes.

It is only by coming together for the good of the industry and ultimately for the good of society that we will continue realise our professional potential…hopefully for at least another fifty years!

 

A variant of this article was first published in a special editition of Building Services News which was marking the 50th anniversary of CIBSE Ireland.

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