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How to win engineers and influence young people

The skills gap in the global power industry is well documented. Steve Seddon, director of Morson Projects, the design consulting arm of technical recruitment consultants Morson Group, discusses the importance of encouraging young people into the power engineering sector.

Steve Seddon, Morson Projects, UK

It is widely reported that there is a severe skills gap in the worldwide power engineering sector, but not enough is being done to address the situation and encourage more young people into the industry. There have been many developments by educational establishments over recent years to help train people in this discipline, however Morson Projects is advising that it is not purely the responsibility of the education sector and that a more integrated approach is needed in order to help drive the industry forward.

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The skills gap is the result of a combined issue of an ageing workforce and a lack of young graduates and apprentices entering the power engineering sector. The average age of an engineer working in the UK power generation industry is 53 and this figure is mirrored in the Middle East, where the average age of a working power engineer is 50. Similarly, a recent report from the US Power and Energy Engineering Workforce Collaborative revealed that 45 per cent of engineers working in the electric utilities industry in the US will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.

The current economic downturn has amplified this problem, as the recession has led to downsizing and early retirements, causing major concerns that over half of the global power engineering workforce will retire in the next five years, taking their expertise and skills with them. In addition to the issue of experienced power engineers retiring, the industry is also suffering from the current workforce not having the necessary skills to respond to the ever-changing demands and challenges of the power industry.

With pressure on the industry to generate power more efficiently and the increasing need for more renewable energy, power engineers need to adopt an innovative approach to create effective power supply solutions. The renewable sector particularly is benefiting from major investment so urgently needs more power engineers, but this is not just about having enough people, it is about ensuring that these people have the right skills to meet today’s challenges. As a result, we are advising companies within the industry to adopt a strategy that sees them not only recruit a greater number of skilled engineers, but also retrain current talent and ensure that the experienced workers can successfully pass on their skills and knowledge to the next generation.

There is an international commonality when it comes to the skills shortage in the power sector, which sees companies across the globe stating that the biggest need is for electrical engineers, control and instrument engineers, protection engineers and electrical engineering graduates.

Falling intake of engineering graduates

A definite reduction in the number of young people pursuing power engineering as a career is cause for concern; in the UK, the number of engineering graduates has steadily fallen over the last ten years, with a 45 per cent decline in the number of electrical engineering students between 2001à‚—2007. This is a pattern which is echoed across the globe; the lack of interest in engineering careers in China has resulted in the number of engineering specialities in Chinese universities being reduced by more than half since 1997, whilst in the US, despite university enrolments at an all time high, the number of students enrolling on engineering courses has not risen in the last 25 years.

Three decades ago, when many of the current power engineers were training, there simply were not many options when looking at a career, as people either trained as an engineer or in a trade. This is simply not the case anymore; the choice of careers for young people today is vast à‚— in sectors that simply did not exist 30 years ago. The birth of computers has seen a wealth of opportunities open up in the IT and digital arenas, whilst careers in the arts and entrepreneurial fields are also booming.

This problem is compounded by the fact that around 60 per cent of those that do graduate with an electrical engineering degree do not subsequently pursue a career in the industry. This is largely down to the draw of higher salaries within other industries; engineering courses involve teaching mathematics to a very high level, a skill which is very attractive to the banking and financial sectors. Companies operating within these areas can offer higher salaries and the widely reported large bonuses are already making their way back for those working in banking. This can often tempt graduate engineers to switch to a career in the financial sector, further adding to the current skills gap the power engineering sector is struggling with.

Attracting aspiring engineers

There have been many educational initiatives implemented in recent years with the aim of encouraging more young people to progress a career in the power engineering sector. The British University in Dubai (BUiD) is launching a pioneering programme in a bid to reduce the shortage of qualified power engineers across the GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates). The region’s first Master of Science in Systems Engineering will commence in September 2009, and will train students for work in the energy sector and hopefully go some way to addressing the gap that currently exists within the Middle East engineering sector.

The Australian Power Institute (API) was established in 2004 by the electrical power industry to boost the quality and number of power engineering graduates in Australia. Recent research by the API reveals that there are currently 5000 power engineering professionals working in the region and forecasts that 700à‚—1000 additional graduates will be needed in the next five years to meet growth and fill the vacuums left by retirements in the industry. The API is currently working to combat this shortfall by launching a range of initiatives, including implementing a bursary programme for first year engineering students and providing funding for activities within selected universities to improve their power engineering capabilities.

A more integrated education/industry approach is needed to bridge the skills gap
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In the UK, there have been several similar developments in the industry. STEMNET (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network) works to encourage young people to consider further education in STEM subjects. The network’s current main initiative to help achieve this objective is its STEM Ambassadors programme, which sees 18 000 volunteers from companies within the industry going into schools to talk to students about the reality of a career in the industry. The introduction of the Diploma in Engineering in September 2008 has also served to increase awareness of careers in the sector and help young people find a way to start their education in the subject.

These developments are positive, but it is important to build on this and link the education initiatives to the industry. This is beginning to be realized in the UK through plans to set up a National Skills Academy for Power, which will aim to tackle the skills shortages in areas from electricity (including renewables and fossil fuels) through to power transmission, distribution and metering. It will be a collaboration between power sector employers and Energy and Utility Skills, the sector skills council for electricity, gas, waste management and water.

The National Skills Academy for Power will work closely with education and skills providers to ensure quality and consistency of skills development across the UK, however there is a still a need for a more ‘joined up’ approach when it comes to addressing the skills shortages in the power engineering sector.

Industry must collaborate

This is something that has been achieved to great success in the US, and other countries need to be following this lead and adopting a similar strategy. The US Power and Energy Engineering Workforce Collaborative is a partnership of industry, government and universities working together to address electric power industry workforce challenges. The collaborative estimates that there are currently 800à‚—1000 undergraduate students graduating in the US each year with an interest in electric power engineering jobs, in addition to 550 people enrolling to do a doctor or masters in power engineering.

Electric utilities alone will require an estimated 7000 new power engineers over the next five years and with other areas needing similar numbers, the total number of power engineering professionals required is predicted to be 14 000 over the same time period.

With this is mind, the US Power and Energy Engineering Workforce Collaborative is working to double student graduations in this sector over the next five to eight years, but this can only be achieved through the cooperation of everyone involved in the sector. Educational establishments need to enhance the education curriculum and teaching techniques, as well as build communications and collaborations with industry. Industry bodies and associations should provide opportunities to bridge promising student talent and industry and explore ways to support the retraining of engineers whose education and experience is in fields other than power and engineering. Employers need to offer student placements to provide them with real-life experiences and help them to understand the industry.

This is happening to some degree in the UK but in a very disjointed manner. There are employers which are supporting young people through placements, apprenticeships and graduate schemes. Morson Projects, for example, is committed to taking on a number of graduates and trainees each year to ensure that there is a constant intake of young professionals to complement the expertise and skillset of the more experienced members of the team. Within its power engineering division, almost half of the engineers are aged 18à‚—30, as the company believes it is important to achieve the right balance of experience and knowledge combined with new techniques and ideas to ensure its international clients are provided with the outstanding service its reputation is built on.

In addition to taking on promising youngsters, Morson Projects also retrains older professionals who are currently struggling for work in the current market, which helps to fill the skills gap; 38 year old John Barker recently graduated with a 1st Class degree in Mechanical Engineering, which Morson Projects sponsored him to undertake at Bolton University, UK. At any one time, Morson Projects has over 20 young engineers at various stages of development and on courses starting at Ordinary National Certificate (ONC) level through to Higher National Certificate (HNC) and then on to an appropriate degree course.

Other employers need to be making similar commitments and they need to be cooperating with education establishments and industry bodies so that everyone is working together with a common goal. The massive growth of the power and energy sectors worldwide is creating a demand for power engineers that currently are just not there, and this major shortfall needs addressing quickly to insure the industry can grow apace. This is the responsibility of everyone that makes up the industry and people need to work together to address this shortfall and highlight the benefits and opportunities of working in power engineering to young people.

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