mind the gap
Neil Robertson  
Against a backdrop of dwindling fossil fuel supplies and fast-approaching targets for renewables, the growing skills and recruitment gap threatens to leave the power industry’s future in the dark, writes Neil Robertson
Neil Robertson

Increased electrification, alongside population growth, will lead to rising power demand in spite of the drive to improve energy efficiency.

This is compounded by a complex network of issues, such as consumer behaviour driven by energy costs, community generation of power, increasingly widespread design and use of electric cars, and supply and demand balanced by smart networks. All this combined means future-proofing can be a hugely difficult task for companies in the energy sector.

However, the picture is not entirely one of doom and gloom, as the industry has switched on to the value of readying its workforces for change ahead, while ensuring new talent is funnelled through to a career in the sector.

The UK’s National Skills Academy for Power (the Skills Academy) and Energy & Utility Skills (EU Skills) are working together to generate a brighter future, through research that shows a true picture of the power industry’s requirements until 2030. It also offers a snapshot of the shift in focus needed to ensure it is meeting the needs of consumers, governments and its own recruits.

Horizon scanning

Key drivers and trends will shape the future of the power sector’s skills needs and currently it employs around 35,000 people in technical and engineering roles. But a foresight report in UK power industry skills from the Skills Academy predicts demand will outstrip supply, so much so that, by 2024, the number of vacancies needing to be filled will amount to 105 per cent of current workforce numbers.

In this same period, the report also shows that retirements, natural wastage and the need to replace internal promotions will create 37,000 jobs.

Naturally, the gap needs plugging, and with progress in the generation of power from renewable sources is also arriving an ever-urgent demand for a plentiful supply of skilled workers with future-proof skills – for which, currently, there are not the numbers or experience levels to fulfil.

Where wind and marine power are concerned, a further recent research report, Working for a Green Britain & Northern Ireland 2013-2023, was launched in September 2013, commissioned jointly by EU Skills and RenewableUK. It found that in the renewables sector alone in the last two years, direct jobs have increased by 74 per cent, to just under 18,500, with a further 16,000 people in related positions. The sector is also seeing rapid growth in solutions for low-carbon energy generation. But it has a problem as, by 2023, its rate of growth means it could require more than 70,000 additional direct and indirect recruits.

Both pieces of research also determined that the skills required by the power and renewables industries are not necessarily brand new, but lie within the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and related courses currently being taught in schools, colleges and universities. Instead, it is the context and application of these skills that has changed, along with the levels of responsibility.

The scale and location of work in the sector is also shifting, with smaller power stations becoming a feature, as well as increasingly remote locations for wind farms or tidal power sources that require guaranteed support and processes in place.

As a result of this shifting landscape, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to attract people with the knowledge and experience needed to match the highly-skilled nature of the power and renewables industries. In fact, the EU Skills and RenewableUK report shows hard-to-fill vacancy numbers have risen by 42 per cent over the last two years, most acutely felt in managerial and technical professional disciplines.

External factors

The power sector of 2030 will undoubtedly look very different than today’s, but the specifics, as well as the scale of the role of renewables, depend on a number of factors:

  • Direction of policy at EU level, and whether it provides clarity and support for the sector, recognizing the part it needs to play in the economy;
  • A clearer consensus on a way forward and agreed benefits of wind, nuclear, gas, tidal, energy-from-waste and coal-fired power generation;
  • An upgraded electricity distribution network to allow dispersed generation;
  • The pace of development and adoption of new technologies;
  • Increase in demand caused by a growing population, increasing numbers of single-person households and electrification of transport and heating;
  • Numbers of apprenticeship and traineeship opportunities actually provided and taken up; and
  • The success of the drive to increase takeup of STEM subjects in schools, colleges and universities, channelling pupils and students into a career in the sector.

However, change will not occur overnight, but clear direction from government and collaboration between industry, education and the powers that be are central pillars necessary to success.

The current lack of agreement over the vision the UK should be aspiring to achieve is also slowing the pace of change, with frequently adjusting policy and challenges to what it dictates. Even with the publication of the Energy Bill, employers still feel there is uncertainty over the strategy the country is taking. The roll-on effect of this is a palpable lack of confidence in employers and investors alike, in terms of which routes to pursue, support and prepare for.

Other barriers to progress are levels of investor confidence, consumer attitudes and economic conditions, which have led to a lack of available funds, constraining investment and job creation.

At the moment, investors are able to choose from an increasingly international market, where larger margins may be available overseas and firms’ global activities are pushing skilled people away from the UK into emerging markets. Gaining planning consents for plants and facilities can also be a major hurdle for investing companies to overcome.

In terms of consumer attitudes, there is frequent, local resistance to new projects. More broadly, positive and negative attitudes also affect consumer demand for new projects and services.

Microgeneration, recycling and reuse, metering, energy-efficient boilers and electric vehicles all have a role to play, but it is worth noting that consumer attitudes are generally economically driven and will always respond well to financial incentives for lower-carbon energy options.

What the sector can be certain of is that a supply of skills, even if the picture of what the future actually looks like is murky, will be absolutely vital to providing the UK with the power it needs. It will also be central to its ability to hit 2020 renewables targets, stipulating that 15 per cent of supply generated should be from renewable sources.

The renewables sector has seen an increase in jobs
The renewables sector has seen an increase in jobs
Credit: Siemens

A view of 2030

Opinions vary widely on what the best mix of generating technologies would be for 2030. At the ambitious end of the predicted spectrum, there are a variety of solutions to the energy challenge.

In an ideal world, low-carbon energy would be produced by an array of both large- and small-scale technologies, transmitted by a smart grid that draws on new energy storage technologies and active management of the network. It would also manage to balance demand and supply, owing to those developments in energy storage and demand management, despite the fact that the sources of power are so diverse.

Electricity demand is predicted to rise by 25 per cent by 2030, compared to levels in 2008. By the same period, up to 50 per cent of heat in buildings may be derived from low-carbon sources, such as ground and air source heat pumps, while within the next few years many expect to see tens of thousands of electric vehicles on the UK’s roads.

Over the coming years, the UK is expected to see more power generated from a greater number of smaller plants: from wind farms, marine power and energy-from-waste plants, along with other innovative technologies currently being developed, such as the potential for incorporating photovoltaic cells into the fabric of construction materials.

Distributed energy is also likely to increase. Produced close to the point of consumption, it offers a more efficient option, creating less wastage and loss during distribution. Decentralized generation will call for changes to the electricity network and, to ensure flexibility, the power sector will need to become more intelligent and computer-controlled.

Technology will also have a part to play in active management of power networks, as the industry tries to mitigate increasing demand and intermittent supply. Smart meters will help smooth this pattern, educating consumers to think more carefully about their own usage. But this initiative alone will mean 28 million meters will need to be installed in homes and two million in smaller businesses, starting in 2014 and concluding in 2019.

Skills as a solution

The electrification shift will not necessarily require new skills, but a greater demand for individuals with electrical qualifications. A broadening of the skills of heating engineers to cover microgeneration, as well as gas heating, may be necessary, resulting in a need for new career pathways and transition strategies. Over time, demand may develop for skills and trades associated with electric vehicle charging points and infrastructure.

The varied and complex mix of power sources will exacerbate current skills issues, while the demand for more information and communications technology (ICT) skills and knowledge of electrical installation will also develop in the sector as households move away from gas. What’s more, the sector’s workforce will need to become more customer-facing, as they seek to persuade people about the benefits of demand management.

All this will require a long-term investment into developing STEM subjects and related careers now and from an early age.

From secondary school through to apprenticeships and higher education courses, industry stakeholders and employers are increasingly working with educational establishments to boost the attractiveness of a career in the sector, which, in turn, increases takeup of the STEM subjects. Igniting passion for the power and renewables industries is vital in the sourcing of new talent.

Role of partnership

EU Skills is working with stakeholders to help plug the current and future skills gap in a variety of ways.

The Energy and Efficiency Industrial Partnership was recently awarded funding as part of the government’s Employer Ownership of Skills (EOS) pilot. As an employer-led partnership, it has been set up to secure the future workforce of the gas, water, waste management, power and renewables industries by filling the growing training and skills void. It is supported by EU Skills, the Skills Academy and Asset Skills, and driven by National Grid – among 67 employers from across the sector. Collectively, they will match the government’s input with an additional contribution, channelled into addressing an aging workforce, a lack of future-proof skills and youth unemployment.

It is expected to deliver increased learning opportunities through apprenticeships and traineeships – creating more entry routes to jobs, supporting training and ensuring the industry has the right quality, quantity and diversity of new recruits. It will give employers control over the makeup and content of training, and employees a clearer view of what training is available, with more flexibility in the ways they choose to develop their skills.

As well as positively impacting the UK economy, the Partnership will become a forum for strategic discussions on current and future energy skills challenges. It will also develop an industry-wide view on growth, innovation and sustainability, as well as game-changing, sustainable ways of improving skills that ultimately drive productivity and growth.

Employers from the EEIP were also recently named Apprenticeship Trailblazers by Minster for Skills Matthew Hancock. One of just eight projects selected by the Department for Education (DfE) and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), it will spearhead the creation of a more effective apprenticeship system in England’s energy sector.

To kick-start its ‘The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Implementation Plan’, the government has selected its Trailblazers from a range of occupations with skills grounded in STEM subjects. Each Trailblazer comprises employers and professional bodies, and, from now until January 2014, the EEIP will be behind the development of new occupational standards for apprenticeships, together with the approach to assessing capability and competence.

Specifically, they aim to:

  • Increase the quality of apprenticeships – with grading and assessment that ensures the apprentice is ready to progress;
  • Put employers in the driving seat – by basing apprenticeships on standards designed by employers;
  • Simplify the system – by describing skills and knowledge an individuals needs to be fully competent in an occupation.

Beyond this and into Wales, the Low Carbon Energy and Marine Power Institute was recently launched in Cardiff. Established by EU Skills and the National Skills Academy for Power, it is the first institute of its kind dedicated to sourcing and training Wales’ low-carbon energy sector workforces of the future. It aims to boost the economy in Wales, where energy generation could grow by 200 per cent by 2023.

A pilot from Welsh government, funded through its Sector Priorities Fund (SPF) and with support from the European Social Fund, the Institute is starting life as a ‘virtual’ establishment, operating across universities, colleges and training providers. Initially, it will support 100 participants on pilot programmes.

Looking further back into the talent source – education – EU Skills is working with establishments to encourage the takeup of STEM subjects. Its Green STEM programme will offer employers, educators and learners support to develop knowledge and skills.

It is this collaborative working that is the central solution to the skills and recruitment gap. And with the programmes already being put in place, in partnership with stakeholders, employers, government and educational establishments, the expectations is that the power and renewables sector will see a positive impact in as little as the next 12 months.

Neil Robertson is Chief Executive of EU Skills

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