Engineering is at the heart of so many things we take for granted. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the technology we use and, of course, our country’s energy systems. We’re all dependent on the energy sector to fuel our everyday lives. It’s a growth sector which adds billions to the economy each year. It’s particularly important to the East Anglian region.
But expansion and productivity growth in many sectors, including the energy sector, could be severely limited by a shortage of skilled workers. This is by no means a new problem. But in a competitive global market place, we can’t afford to let this high-level skills shortage become any worse.
Why is there a skills gap?
The numbers vary from report to report and sector to sector, however it is estimated that the UK needs tens of thousands of trained engineers annually to keep up with the estimated demands of future industry. That’s despite the higher recruitment levels of engineering, technology graduates and apprentices in recent years.
A 2015 report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) highlighted that the total of number of jobs within the energy sector alone is forecast to grow by 15.5% by 2022. This should be fantastic news! But in the UK, we’re suffering from a distinct lack of experienced power system engineers, substation design engineers, engineers with expertise in low carbon energy generation and system design, and other distribution network operator engineers to fill those jobs. Not to mention project managers and maintenance technicians with energy expertise.
There are several factors which have contributed to the current skills gap:
Increased demand for skilled workers
We’re at a critical time in the UK where aging and inefficient energy systems need renewing or replacing. That needs workers.
During the economic downturn, a lack of investment in projects had eroded the demand for skilled engineers. As national attention on energy efficiency and renewable energy increases, the number of project feeding through is increasing, as is the demand for skilled engineers.
An aging workforce
The current engineering workforce in the energy sector is aging. 27% of energy’s technical workforce is expected to retire by 2024. Of these 80% are in positions that require a higher skillset*. That’s an awful lot of knowledge we’re about to lose.
Lack of new entries
There are fewer graduates or appropriately qualified apprentices entering the field. Engineering as a career seems to have an image problem here in the UK. But poor visibility of (and consequent interest in) engineering, and the energy sector particularly, as a career prospect among young people, and potential entrants from other industries, is also a problem. People simply aren’t aware of the opportunities.
The nature of the industry
The ever-changing nature of the energy industry as technology shifts means the specific skills needed also shift over time. Staff need ongoing training. But an increasingly mobile workforce working on short-term contracts means some employers are reluctant to invest in formal training and upskilling.
How about renewables?
The renewable energy industry faces its own set of problems. The UK is seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. This transition to a low carbon economy, and its associated policies, makes energy one of the fastest changing industries in the UK. It is likely to see huge growth in the coming years. New entrants to the sector have a fantastic opportunity to play a major part.
With an ever-changing policy landscape, predicting future skills requirements can be a problem. This uncertain path can make attracting new talent something of a challenge.
Engineering in energy in our region
A diverse energy sector already exists in the East of England. We have a mix of offshore, onshore and nuclear enterprises, including some of the world’s biggest wind farms. Some of the world’s leading experts in renewable energy are based here. The sector is one of the area’s most productive economically.
Over the next 20 years more than £50 billion will be invested in the East of England’s energy industry.** The East of England Energy Group is working hard to attract new investment and it is predicted that the sector will be worth in excess of £281 billion over the next few years.
This represents a whole host of fantastic career opportunities right here in our region. But without skilled workers coming through “the system”, there are going to be challenges delivering this work.
What’s the solution?
It is predicted that we need 87,000 new engineers and technicians each year to maintain economic growth. Current output is just 51,000***. It’s not a small issue. It’s not overstating the problem to say that society at large needs people with these skills to support the evolution of the 21st century economy. So what’s the solution?
Short term solutions
In the short term, I believe the key is transferable skills. Whilst each sector does require some detailed, industry-specific knowledge, much of the engineering work will be familiar to skilled engineers from other sectors. That’s what enables us at Padgate to work with clients in the energy sector.
So there are several options to help plug the gap in the short term:
- Outsourcing work to experienced engineering companies, like ourselves, who can apply transferable skills to the energy sector.
- Attracting skilled staff with transferable skills from other industries (e.g. ex-Armed Forces is a rich seam of talent)
- Implementing programmes of internal mentoring to cascade skills from experienced employees to the newer generation, before those skills are lost to retirement
- Conducting in-house retraining of existing employees to work with the new technologies coming through. Technical training will be a growth area for us at Padgate in the coming years as more companies and sectors identify this as a key need.
Long term solutions
The long term requires new, qualified recruits. And lots of them.
British engineers have a good reputation for possessing world-class skill and innovation. But we risk falling behind other countries that invest heavily into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) unless we do the same. We need to take steps to bring new talent to the industry:
- We need a “charm offensive on educators and students” (the words of Paul Maher, Chair of the Talent Management Board, Siemens). We need to challenge the perceptions that a career in engineering is boring or dirty. The energy sector offers a chance to build a career in an industry at the heart of our economy and at the cutting edge of innovation. We need to find a way to get young people excited about that.
- Introduction of more work-based learning programmes to give practical, hands-on experience. This includes starting them young with work experience for kids at school to open young people’s eyes to engineering as a career path. We have recently started supporting some work experience for a student studying for a baccalaureate in engineering as our small contribution to this.
- More apprenticeships and vocational options (we can no longer just rely on graduates).
There have been various private and government-led initiatives which have tried to address some of these issues. Some argue, however, that these opportunities simply go unnoticed, or aren’t introduced to young people early enough in their education. Schools, employers, universities, institutions and government all need to develop a coordinated systematic plan for developing the engineers of the future.
Want to know more?
In our region, the East of England Energy Group’s Skills for Energy programme is focused on delivering skilled people to the industry. It is centred on addressing core skills needs across all energy sectors. You can find out more on their website.
If you want to find out how Padgate Services can support companies within the energy sector with their short and long-term engineering needs, get in touch.
And if you want to hear more about why engineering is a fantastic career , talk to any engineer you meet and they will convince you to give a career in this area a go!
* According to 2014 Powering the UK report by Ernst and Young
*** According to Siemens report Skills in Energy: Bridging the Gap