Cooling industry calls for culture change

Speakers at the Institute of Refrigeration annual dinner have called for greater diversity and a focus on skills, along with better visibility for the work of the cooling industry.

Graeme Fox, president of the Institute of Refrigeration, issued a stark challenge to the industry to improve its attitude to work culture if it is to attract and retain the next generation of skilled engineers.

This message was underlined by his counterpart in Africa’s refrigeration association U-3ARC, Madi Sakande, who also appealed for the industry to use events such as World Refrigeration Day to emphasise cooling’s value to the public.

Graeme said:

It has been my enormous pleasure to have so many students, trainees and apprentices in attendance at the Dinner – they are some amazing women and men still early in their careers but eager to learn and develop their skills and knowledge. They are a fine example of what we can still achieve in our sector. But we do still have so much more to do in attracting a more diverse workforce – and if we are to retain early career women and men like these then we have to embrace a culture change across the industry.

He told the audience that he had been inspired by corresponding with cricketer Azeem Rafiq, who made national headlines over calling out Yorkshire Cricket Club with the charge of “It’s not banter, it’s racism.”

Graeme said that similar attitudes of “it’s just banter” were still prevalent in the cooling industry. He said:

This is extremely unhelpful in attracting or retaining talent when our sector is not particularly visible to most of the public anyway and there are many other sectors which are perceived as ‘sexier’ or ‘easier’ and therefore attract more young career entrants.

He challenged the industry to step up:

We need to stop the sexist comments and the rugby club “lads will be lads” behaviour in the workplace or at industry events, if we are to see real culture change that truly embraces diversity and inclusion. If we don’t attract and retain these young people, these potential leaders of our industry of the future, regardless of their gender or ethnicity…then their talent will be lost to our sector for ever.

Raising skills levels

Graeme highlighted the importance of developing the skills of cooling engineers around the world, given that regulations were changing the refrigerants that can be used. He and Madi Sakande have worked with the United Nations Environment Programme to create the Refrigerant Driving Licence, an entry level training and certification programme for technicians in developing nations funded by the UN and developed by international experts.

He emphasised that the increasing use of flammable and high-pressure refrigerants makes it important to ensure that technicians have the appropriate skills. He noted the irony of making the comment just two days after the new EU F-Gas regulations were published which, he said, do not adequately cover the concerns raised by the industry around safe handling of highly flammable refrigerants.

He added that this is particularly important in developing countries – and the concern was driven home when one of Madi Sakande’s colleagues had been killed recently in an accident with hydrocarbon refrigerant. He said:

One major lesson we learned in developing the RDL programme is that in many cases the engineers needing this training have very little reading and writing skills, having often never been to school or if they have then only for a few short years. The prospect for them of sitting through a three-hour online theory exam was preposterous and many simply froze when we ran the pilot country trials. Their practical skills are often sound, but they need training in the theory and specifically on awareness of the dangers of handling flammable refrigerants – and that is not something that can be delivered in the same way we deliver training here in the UK…

Graeme railed against those who promoted natural refrigerants without fully appreciating the consequences. He said:

Using the GoNatRefs hashtag may look nice and gain you algorithm hits, but it is unhelpful in the wider world as it glosses over real-world practical issues with rapid transition to highly flammable refrigerants which people like Madi can testify to first hand…just because something is technically feasible, it does not automatically mean it is applicable in practice everywhere.

An important industry

For Madi Sakande, president of the pan-African refrigeration congress U-3ARC, it is essential that these skills are recognised by the public too, in order to make the career attractive to young people:

If you had a refrigeration technician and a doctor in the same room, it would be the doctor that gets the attention. But when you think of how important refrigeration is to medicine, to food and to industry, the technician should be seen as more important than the doctor!

For Madi, there is a fundamental reason to promote the cooling industry. He said:

Africa is the cradle of humanity and yet people are dying through hunger and lack of medicine. This industry can help to change that through refrigeration of food and through keeping vaccines cold…

He called on the industry to get together to use World Refrigeration Day to make the wider public aware of the importance of refrigeration.

Imagine what would happen if we turned off all the refrigeration. You couldn’t keep food fresh; you’d have no communication, and the hospitals would close. Yet most politicians aren’t aware of it. We must organise as an industry.

There will be World Refrigeration Day events, as well as a Women in Cooling day, alongside a wide range of cooling and heating content at InstallerSHOW this year on 26 June. FREE registration: installer-2024-splash.reg.buzz