The Skilled Labor Gap that Could Put Lives at Risk

Could a lack of qualified fire safety professionals slow the pace of urbanization? Or even more concerning, put people’s lives at risk? We think so.

Each year, 60 million people move to cities. The total number of people living in urban areas is expected to climb to five billion over the next decade, and by 2050, a staggering 68% of the world’s population will live in cities. To accommodate the massive influx of new residents, cities are building up, literally.

Buildings have never been taller, more ubiquitous, and more advanced. But despite the cutting-edge technology that underpins the structures that we live and work in, cities and the people who live in them, may soon face a decidedly low-tech obstacle in their continued efforts to meet the demands of rapid urbanization: a shortage of human capital.

A tale of two trends

We regularly hear about how the aging workforce and expanding industries are creating a vocational skills gaps, but we never seem to hear about a gap of skilled fire technicians.

Although the shortage of fire technicians is rarely publicized, it does mirror the broader decline of skilled trade laborers in the U.S., especially among millennials. As new workers flock to careers in IT, thousands of trade jobs lay vacant. Ironically, these are well paying occupations, and because they typically don’t require a four-year degree, prospective applicants enjoy a less stringent barrier to entry.

The fire technician labor shortage is unfolding in parallel with record levels of new construction, driven by anticipation of millions of new city occupants. Among distributors and contractors, a common refrain has become: “Business is great – but I can’t grow anymore because I can’t find qualified labor.”

This is a crisis that reaches far beyond the fire safety industry. If left unresolved, it will only worsen in years to come, stifling the development of both residential and commercial real estate just when it’s needed most. In a future where fire safety has become a bottleneck, the cost of construction would rapidly balloon and progress would slow.

We think of urbanization as an inevitable and momentous trend that is changing society across the world. But what many people don’t realize that the lack of fire technicians – a seemingly small issue – could actually alter the course of human evolution.

A misunderstood career path

A commercial fire system is mission-critical in any modern building, making fire technicians some of its most vital personnel. These specialized workers ensure fire alarm systems function as intended to safeguard occupants in the event of an emergency.

But make no mistake: fire technicians do far more than inspect wires and install smoke detectors. The fire safety industry is a rapidly-evolving, technically advanced field. As buildings become smarter – and building technology becomes digital and wireless – fire technicians are becoming technologists. Today’s fire alarm professional relies as much on their programming and networking chops as their tool belt. The role is changing to require more off-site work, like deploying software that predicts when fire alarm systems will malfunction.

As technology advances, we will see more buildings without fire alarm panels but rather endpoints that report to the cloud. And one day, fire technicians may not have to physically visit a facility to carry out an annual inspection. Instead, they could use software to ensure that the fire system is working properly and is policy compliant.

In addition to testing and maintaining hundreds of unique components, fire technicians also design and configure the if/then logic that guides people to safety in the event of an emergency.

Simply put, a career as a fire technician not only offers countless opportunities for professional growth, but one that also can help prevent tragedies resulting from fires.

Promoting the profession

Today’s lack of fire technicians isn’t just an issue for the fire industry, the facility management industry, the construction industry, etc. – it’s a problem for everyone. If we’re to keep up with the world’s rapid urbanization, everyone must recognize and address this gap before it spirals into an emergency.

If you don’t already know someone who works as a fire technician, there’s a good chance you don’t know the role even exists. That needs to change. First things first – the fire industry must do a better job of articulating who fire technicians are, what they do, why they’re so important and where they’re going.

Educators and career resource groups must communicate that the fire technician role is a great career option and is in need of more candidates. We know that tomorrow’s workers want their work to focus on technology, blend high-tech with high-touch, and benefit the greater good. The role of fire technician incorporates all of that – mechanical knowledge, IT expertise, interpersonal skills and safety – but that’s not clearly conveyed.

And of course, the news media and wider public – which have the power to bring change – can play a large part in helping tell that story.

As new buildings are constructed, older buildings are modernized, and more complex fire safety systems are required, we can’t forget about the people working behind the scenes. Next time you see your fire technician, take a moment to recognize how important they are not only to saving lives, but enabling smart growth in cities worldwide.