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Smart Industry Talent is Made, Not Discovered – a Reflection of John Petze

After a forty-year career in the smart industry, John Petze knows a lot about just about

everything. He started working straight out of college with a bachelor’s degree in industrial

engineering, but he would tell you that back then he knew little about the built environment.

Fortunately, he went to work for companies committed to his workplace education, “People

were willing to help me. They were willing to invest in me,” says Petze.

As Petze’s retirement looms large in his foreground, it’s what he’s learned about the industry

and himself that he’s looking back on. Two things, in particular, occupy the bulk of his

thoughts. One, he knows his biggest retirement challenge will be to actually stop working.

Despite his wife’s concerns about his inability to sit still, Petze plans on making a clean break

from the work he loves. “Easier said than done,” he laughs.

The second thing he knows is that it’s not just senior industry leaders like himself that are

retiring—it’s also systems operators and technicians. And it’s the mass retirement of so much

talent that has him concerned about the future. Because as Petze explains, a comprehensive

understanding of the infrastructure and systems that operate a building is not a degree one can

get in school. “It’s not a job either,” says Petze. “It’s a practice.”

From Ground Floor to Founder

Petze is not simply being philosophical but describing the unique nature of a career in the vast

world of building management technology. When he graduated from Worcester Polytechnic

Institute, his primary goal was to establish a career that would play a meaningful role in energy


In 1978, intelligent buildings were not only in their infancy, words like smart industry had yet

to be invented. For Petze, this starting point meant more than historical participation in the

origins of what some call the fourth industrial revolution. It also meant that he learned what

constitutes the built environment from the inside out.

Petze’s more than four decades in the industry have included roles in HVAC systems

engineering, operations and energy management, manufacturing, installation, product

development, financial analysis, energy analysis software, sales, and more. This extensive list

does not include his leadership and tenure at Project Haystack, a trade association that exists to

further the advancement of software and technology for building automation and systems. It

also does not include his co-founding of SkyFoundry in 2009, a company that provides clients

with software solutions for their smart systems.

The problem is that any list of Petze’s experience does little to calculate his overall impact on

the ever-changing landscape of building systems and automations. In 2006, he was named as

one of 10 Pioneers in M2M, or internet of things. Perhaps this title comes closest to

quantifying the magnitude of his contributions to the smart sector, and on the flipside, hints at

the hole his retirement, along with leaders like him, will leave behind.

The Practice

Petze’s expansive understanding of the built environment makes him the perfect person to

speak about how the industry’s institutional knowledge gap gets filled.

“A lot of employers want to hire people who already have experience,” says Petze. “But where

would they get it?” he asks. When Petze looks back at his career, he realizes that the knowledge

he has today is an accumulation of learning acquired on the job.

“A technician can be taught how to install the system, but do they understand how it was

engineered? No, but that’s okay. Maybe later in their career they’ll understand and be involved

in engineering or designing systems or writing the control programs or sequence of control

programs,” Petze explains. In his experience, everyone who works on a smart building is at

different stages of the total knowledge base they’ll eventually acquire. And that’s not

something employers should fear but embrace.

According to Petze, a career trajectory in the smart industry exceeds the confines of any one job

and fits more neatly into the way we might think of a medical practice. While no one likes to

think of their doctor improving over time, most would agree that seeing 50,000 patients over

twenty years instead of 50 over one would advance one’s knowledge of the human body. Much

like a practitioner whose work is to help patients with a variety of symptoms and illnesses, a

smart technician tends and cares for the ongoing complexity of buildings and their systems,

and the longer he or she does so, the more skilled they become.

Of course, doctors do not start practicing on patients without training. The years of medical

school and residency allow them to extend their learning in a real setting. Petze believes

employers will find the talent solutions they seek when they take on the responsibility of

apprenticing skilled technicians and engineers themselves. And that labor force will likely need

to come from a labor pool that is not already involved in the industry itself.

The Smart Talent Solution

Petze isn’t the only one calling for training solutions from within the industry. With smart

infrastructure now including cyber-security, the federal government launched an initiative in

July 2022 aimed at providing more training and mentorship opportunities specifically targeted

at careers in cybersecurity. The Department of Labor and the Department of Commerce

partnered with Automated Strategy & Performance workforce solutions to roll out a 120-day

Cyber Security Apprenticeship Sprint to help fill the immediate need in this field.

Automated Strategy & Performance, Inc. (ASP) is a strategic workforce development partner

for employers in the smart infrastructure sector of the automation industry. Melissa Boutwell,

a seasoned automations integrator and former professor of Energy Management and Controls

Technologies, started ASP in 2018 to help automation employers navigate the demands for

hiring, training, and retaining smart industry talent. Boutwell’s company develops curricula for

upskilling employees and sponsors Emerging Technology Apprenticeships, a non-profit school

operating a nationally registered and accredited program that attracts, develops, and certifies

current employers and job seekers for the OT jobs critical to the smart infrastructure.

Under this model, apprentices can go as fast and far as they’re able, giving both workers and

employers a tremendous upside. While companies can solve their talent and workforce issues,

apprentices can develop a career based on experience, skill, and aptitude.

Petze sees the solutions ASP offers and provides through ETA apprenticeships as part of a

much bigger conversation than solving job shortages alone. He believes that many of today’s

workers want careers that make a difference, and the role the smart industry plays in energy

conservation is a big draw for younger workers.

“The best part about working in this field is that it’s never boring,” says Petze. Like a lot of

industry insiders, he also believes that a college degree isn’t necessary to flourish in the smart

infrastructure setting. Due to the forecasted shortage in building technology management

executives, it’s not unrealistic to believe that one can graduate from the ground floor to the

board room with a career in smart technology. “One might start as a technician, become a

building operations manager and grow all the way to advising the C-suite,” says Petze.

This last career opportunity is especially important from Petze’s point of view. While building

occupants don’t need to understand how smart systems operate, building owners do, “There’s

a real need for smart industry professionals to advise CFOs about the value of investing in

building maintenance and repairs.” Petze sees this gap as one of the biggest and least

understood challenges ahead for property owners. At the same time, it’s one of the biggest

opportunities for anyone starting a career today in the smart sector.

Next is a Direction, Not a Destination

Of all his accomplishments, Petze is most proud of the contribution he’s made to

communicating and educating others within and outside the industry itself. Throughout his

career, he’s been a prolific technical writer, presenter, and speaker as a way of giving back to the

practice that’s given him so much.

With all he’s done over the last 40 years, it’s no wonder he sees his next challenge as the ability

to retire completely. But that indeed is the goal. “There was a time in my life when I thought

you had to know what you were gonna do when you retire. But over the last few years, I’ve

realized that’s not true,” says Petze. He’s reassured his wife that there’s no need to worry. He

has no plans for sitting still. Petze expects he’ll figure out retirement much like he’s learned

most things over the course of his life—a little bit at a time and along the way.

About the Author:

Victoria Payne writes about individuals and businesses in the Smart Infrastructure industry who make significant contributions to the Built Environment.