Engineering Skills Shortage: London calling for power engineers

Barely a day passes without news reaching Power Engineering International of a skills shortage in the energy sector. Dr Mike Farley highlights the results of Doosan Babcock’s recent survey on the skills shortage in the UK, which makes for an interesting yet perhaps worrying reading.

Dr Mike Farley, Doosan Babcock, UK

The energy industry is currently facing many imminent challenges, not least the issues surrounding climate change and energy security, but just as pressing is an industry-wide need for supporting skills. We cannot afford to procrastinate; work on new plants needs to be started by next year at the latest if we are to avoid the lights going out across the UK. Unless decisions are taken now to agree on new power plants, we are in serious danger of undermining the security of the country’s power supplies.

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At Doosan Babcock we are recruiting dozens of apprentices, planners, draughtsmen, graduate trainees, researchers, PhD students and specialist professionals, and it is clear that there are similar needs across the industry. The issue is a worldwide challenge. Many other countries, including developing economies such as China, are all clamouring for the skilled pool of workers required to support the massive growth in demand for energy and the plants needed to produce it. The UK must address the skills situation if it wants to retain and attract the skilled workers it needs to support the energy industry in the future.

Situation: critical

Doosan Babcock had just published the results of its third survey of over 500 energy stakeholders to ascertain attitudes and sentiments regarding pressing issues in the sector including the skills shortage, the energy gap and climate change. As well as insight from the UK’s leading energy experts including senior corporate executives, energy analysts, government officials, environmental groups, a select group of leading energy journalists and industry academic bodies, Doosan Babcock also surveyed over 250 engineering students from Imperial College, London, to gain an understanding of the views of a sample of the UK’s next generation of engineers.

The overwhelming weight of opinion was that there is no doubt from those asked in the survey that a skills shortage is real and is approaching a critical situation. Some 87 per cent of survey participants warned that the UK energy sector is facing a serious skills shortage.

When asked why this was the case respondents cited a variety of reasons rather than any one single factor, including stiff competition from other industries or sectors for the UK’s engineering talent, and the lack of government support as the main barriers to entry for upcoming talent. Worryingly, there was also a perception that the power industry offered poor career prospects for engineers, yet we all know that the sector is booming with demand for new infrastructure off the scale.

Career opportunities are knocking loudly

Survey participants also cast their views on the most attractive career opportunities for engineers in the 21st century. The results showed that there are a wide range of exciting areas for newly qualified graduates to work. Clean coal and biofuels were seen as offering the most exciting opportunities.

Doosan Babcock was interested to learn if there were any energy sectors where students, and even experienced specialists, would be unwilling to work. Imperial College students were evenly split on refusing to work in either nuclear (36 per cent) or oil and gas (34 per cent). However an encouraging 39 per cent would welcome a career in clean coal. More seasoned professional engineers were far more open minded to any career prospects within the power industry. The main reasons given were environmental concerns and scepticism around long-term career prospects and the overall future of the industry.

In its recent Energy White Paper published in May, the UK government recognized skills challenges in the energy sector, reporting the current shortages and “the probable impact of future retirements, which will coincide with higher demand to deliver increased investment needed to replace old power plant and infrastructure”. It understates the urgency of the problem, quoting the UK’s Sector Skills Council’s analysis which indicates that “over the next five years, skills gaps and shortages in the UK should not represent a critical threat to security of energy supplies”. In fact, Doosan Babcock and others in the industry have encountered serious shortages of UK skilled engineers and craftsmen during 2006 and 2007, and often have had to bring in personnel from overseas.

The government does recognize that delivery of skills takes time and emphasizes that “forward planning will require greater attention than it has in the past”. It has asked the Sector Skills Council to report on the skills gaps in the energy sector and the action being taken to address them. This is no easy task since the specific needs of the energy sector cannot be accurately predicted without first having an estimate of the anticipated mix of new power plant and infrastructure. There are substantial differences in the skills mix needed for coal, nuclear, gas and renewables power plants. Recently, via the UK Coal Forum, Doosan Babcock recommended that the industry should agree on a “Planning Basis Scenario” that could be used by the Sector Skills Council and the Engineering and Construction Industries Training Board.

Following the departure of Tony Blair and the subsequent appointment of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, the government has divided the Department of Trade and Industry. Energy security is now the responsibility of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) whilst skills are clearly the responsibility of the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. This Department should see the energy sector both as a challenge but also a huge opportunity for the creation of a wide range and large number of skilled jobs (from craftsmen to engineers).

Scepticism over climate change targets.

One of the key focuses of the current energy debate is climate change. Hot on the heels of the Energy White Paper, Doosan Babcock’s survey shows that opinion remains divided over whether the government should take its own initiative in tackling climate change or follow international consensus. This lack of decision is causing major problems and has stalled action at a global level. Both industry stakeholders and students alike cite this very lack of consensus at intergovernmental level as a cause of inertia regarding the UK’s climate change actions. Widespread scepticism also prevails regarding the likelihood of the UK meeting its Kyoto emissions reduction targets by the 2012 deadline, with 62 per cent of respondents indicating that the 2012 targets will indeed be missed.

In Nicholas Stern’s report on environmental change, he quoted the economic costs of climate change. Do you think the report will have an impact on individuals, corporates and governments to address and take action on the emissions issues?
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Engineering students and seasoned industry experts alike share similar opinions regarding corporations’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes and their impact on combating climate change. The overwhelming consensus was that CSR initiatives would only have a marginal affect on global warming.

The nuclear debate

Joining the debate currently being played out in the media regarding the next generation of Britain’s nuclear energy following the recent Energy White Paper, the majority of survey respondents believe nuclear power has a substantial part to play in solving the UK’s energy gap. According to engineering staff and students at Imperial College, London, as well as industry players, nuclear energy is considered to be the ultimate solution and it is interesting to note that a large number of respondents are happy for nuclear to be part of the mix, alongside clean coal and renewables.

The Doosan Babcock survey reveals some key findings on the attitudes of the existing and future UK’s leading energy experts towards the issues facing the energy sector today. There are no easy solutions to the increasing challenges facing the energy sector but there are also major opportunities for governments of every country to deliver on its energy, innovation and skills policies for companies like Doosan Babcock and for individuals looking for rewarding quality employment now and in the future.

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