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December 10, 2013

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Plugging the skills gap in energy and utilities

The energy and ultilities sector is being transformed as the UK moves towards a low carbon economy. Neil Robertson explains why huge investment is needed in skills and training to ensure it is fit for purpose in the future.



The uk’s energy and utilities sector is undergoing radical change. New technologies and ways of working mean that the workforce requires updated training to ensure that employees are armed with the right skill set to be competent in the workplace, as well as safe and healthy in their respective roles.

The shift towards a lower-carbon economy has had a significant impact on the renewables, water, waste management, power and gas industries. In turn, this has prompted an urgent need for renewable energy solutions driven, in part, by governmental policy and targets.
This change in infrastructure requires skilled employees across the board from entry-level to senior management. 
However, drawing on a number of data sources EU Skills has identified a significant recruitment and skills gap in the sector. 
It is estimated that the sector needs to attract 208,000 new recruits over the next 10 years.1
To future-proof (and thereby ensure that the energy and utilities industry has a sustainable future), significant investment will also need to be made to enhance staffing and knowledge levels. 
The solution to this ongoing challenge is employer/stakeholder collaboration. Partnerships across the sector are developing training in order to benchmark standards for current and future workforces, thereby assuring competency and their health and safety in a low-carbon economy.
Government’s role
Increasing the Use of Low-carbon Technologies, a joint policy document from the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Transport, includes key targets that need to be achieved by 2020 surrounding the sourcing of power from renewable solutions.2
The aim is to ensure that the UK can secure its supply of energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and stimulate jobs and investment in new business. 
By 2020, the UK must provide 15 per cent of its energy demand from renewable sources. Onshore and offshore wind, marine energy, and biomass electricity and heat will be vital in achieving this goal. 
While the energy and utilities sector pursues this drive towards new technologies and undertakes research and development into the best sources of tidal and wave power, it also faces a growing demand for a highly skilled workforce armed with new and emerging skills. 
Faced with this inevitable development, it is essential that any future workforce has the proper health and safety provision and remains competent to carry out its duties. The Government needs to demonstrate that it understands that the creation of new roles must be matched with health and safety competence.  
The Government’s deregulatory agenda will shape future legislation. The focus on the red tape challenge and ongoing consultations on regulations relating to the environment, such as carbon reductions and waste, impact on the processes employed by the gas, water, waste management, power and renewables industries.  
Löfstedt’s review of health and safety legislation threw light onto the levels of protection that must be preserved for high-risk industries, like the energy and utilities sector. 
As the UK makes its transition to a low-carbon economy, roles will undoubtedly change. This in turn begs the question — will staff be adequately protected by current legislation? 
Day-to-day work will need to encompass new technologies, such as maintenance on large offshore wind farms, operations on tidal energy sources and safety processes associated with biomass. Any legislative shift around health and safety will need to be built into training and competency for the industries to ensure safety is second nature.
Skills and employment
Working for a Green Great Britain and Northern Ireland 2013-2023, a recent joint report by EU Skills and RenewableUK, looked at the renewables sector to generate a picture of the current levels of skills and employment.3
The report found that over the last two years direct jobs in the renewables sector have increased by 74 per cent to just under 18,500, with almost 16,000 people in related positions. 
Further research carried out by EU Skills found that the gas, waste management and water industries currently employ around 16,500 people a piece — 49,500 in total — in technical and engineering roles. This means that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills will be absolutely critical to ensure these industries have a sustainable future. 
On its own, the power industry employs in excess of 35,000 staff, and has its own specific demands for specialist skills to match agreed levels of competency and standards.4
Horizon scanning 
Any industry that faces a gap in its recruitment and skills levels could experience a negative impact on its health and safety record. 
This is due, in part, to a shortfall in the knowledge of processes that will protect workers, and an increased pressure being put on a smaller number to get the job done.
Where there is a skills and recruitment gap, this will also have a significant impact on how effective the safety and risk management strategies will be in the business. In the energy and utilities sector, this issue will exacerbate over the next 10 years unless something is done. 
Interestingly, projections in the Working for Green Britain and Northern Ireland 2013-2023 report show that, depending on whether high or low growth predictions occur surrounding the wind and wave power boom, between 16,443 and 55,683 direct jobs could be created. 
However, to achieve this, the relatively immature renewables skills infrastructure that currently exists in the UK needs to be made more flexible, with robust skills and clear standards developed in collaboration with employers. Qualifications must be adjusted by working with providers to achieve industry requirements, and improving standards from entry level. 
A series of foresight reports from EU Skills, due to be published in early 2014, present a 17-year picture of the skills and recruitment needs of the gas, waste management, water and power industries. The research shows that 4,277 full-time employees in the gas industry are projected to retire in the next 15 years — about a quarter of the total workforce. 
Meanwhile, the water industry will create almost 21,000 vacancies in the next 15 years — 127 per cent of the current total workforce. In power, 37,000 positions will become vacant from now until 2024, partly due to natural wastage and retirements. 
Turning the tide
If the sector is to replace this workforce with a new generation that is adequately equipped to meet future challenges, we need: 
  • more clarity in government policy, as well as support for the sector and recognition of the key role it plays in the economy;
  • more apprenticeships and traineeships, with an industry-specific focus;
  • adjustments to current qualifications and the development of new ones to provide the necessary skills; and
  • greater emphasis on the take-up of STEM subjects in schools, colleges and universities to direct pupils and students towards a career in renewables. 
EU Skills’ foresight reports also show that the gas, waste management, water and power industries are facing a range of technological developments and shifts to a low-carbon future, which will impact on health and safety management.
Gas sector 
New equipment designed to help households manage their gas usage is becoming more prolific across Britain. A supplier-led roll-out of smart meters is set for 2015. This will mean that operatives and supervisors will need training to ensure the equipment is fitted correctly. 
Not only will the workforce need to be trained so that it understands how to install and maintain equipment properly, but it will also need to understand the health and safety implications. 
Beyond this, the increasing use of ‘unconventional’ types of gas to secure future supply — such as energy from biomass — is changing workforce skills. More stringent, remote monitoring systems and processes will be installed to improve efficiencies. 
Water industry
By 2030, the water industry will have very different demands on skills and training. Growing pressures to increase efficiencies and reduce costs could increase the likelihood of managers being inclined to cut corners and pay less attention to health and safety standards.
Fast approaching are changes such as universal water metering, automated systems for leakage repair, and in the most idealistic of situations, a free-moving water grid linking suppliers and service providers. These will call for adapted, across-the-board standards in health and safety, as well as agreed processes that mean competency is benchmarked across the industry.
Any move to try to eliminate pollution at the source may see current water treatment technologies used only rarely, while more sustainable drainage systems will require a radical shift in the training and knowledge of new standard operating procedures. 
Waste management
As the UK moves to a ‘zero waste economy’, the emphasis will increasingly be on minimising waste and maximising the value from it by recycling and recovering energy. Legislation and industry strategies around landfill limits and generating power from waste are shaping workforce skills. Stringent recycling targets, pressure on supermarkets and manufacturers wrought by packaging and food waste legislation will also have a major impact. 
All this will result in more pressure put upon employers to invest long-term in skills development. 
In short, the waste management sector will need to account for radically different processes, while maintaining productivity and health and safety standards. Within its workforces, there will also be a greater need for management to foster good working practices where competencies are refreshed and safety is the focus.
Power industry
Against a backdrop of reducing reliance on fossil fuels, changing consumer behaviour driven by rising energy costs, community generation of power, electric cars and supply and demand driven by smart networks, the power industry is changing.
Policy makers are weighing up the merits of wind, nuclear, gas and coal-fired power generation, while government strategy remains uncertain. The danger is that this shifting arena is manifesting itself in a lack of commitment to the future workforce, both in terms of training and recruitment. 
EU Skills, together with various employers, is working to add new elements to existing training and qualifications. Rather than a radical overhaul of the system, new areas to do with design, installation and maintenance of new technologies are being added, where health and safety plays a central role.
Cornerstone of training and competency 
Health and safety is inextricably linked with training and competency. Universally-recognised sector standards are vital because they offer an independent, robust way of assessing whether workforces are equipped with the right knowledge and skills to work with new technologies and processes.  
The Energy and Utility Skills Register (EUSR) plays a part by fostering competency and allowing employers to verify the abilities and skills of staff and workers. It provides a clear benchmark on skills, as well as a route to develop recruits through their career. 
To provide for this sector’s future, the opening recruitment gap must be tackled in order to protect current and future workforces. If left in its current state, pressure will be placed on a dwindling supply of talent to maintain productivity, quality and efficiency, even when staff levels are below what they should be. 
The recently announced Energy and Efficiency Industrial Partnership (EEIP), which brings together EU Skills with Asset Skills, Capita Talent Partnerships and National Grid, has already encouraged 67 employers to sign up. 
With funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as part of its Employer Ownership of Skills (EOS) pilot, the EEIP will tackle the skills and recruitment gap in the sector by developing training programmes, as well as thousands of apprenticeship and traineeship opportunities.
It is with these tools and industry partnerships like it, that the energy and utilities sector can assure the health and safety of its current and future workforces, raise standards and collaboratively plug its skills and recruitment gap.
  1. Sources include: EU Skills’ Workforce Planning Model, Working for a Green Britain and Northern Ireland 2013-2023 — a joint research project with RenewableUK — and Working Futures 2010-2020 (commissioned by UKCES).  
  3. Working for a Green Britain and Northern Ireland 2013-2023 — a joint EU Skills and RenewableUK report, at:
  4. EU Skills’ foresight reports into the gas, waste management, water and power industries, published in early 2014.
Neil Robertson is chief executive of Energy and Utility Skills

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