Guest Blog: Mervyn Bowden – The energy skills gap…

This subject is very close to my heart as I’m closely involved in many aspects of training in the energy space and have been on the receiving end of the […]

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By Vicky Ellis

This subject is very close to my heart as I’m closely involved in many aspects of training in the energy space and have been on the receiving end of the impacts of skill shortages in key energy services on many occasions over recent years.

Given its growing importance to the world my view is that “energy” should be a subject very much in its own right, on a par with physics and chemistry – and taught in schools from a very early age.

The early stages of energy learning could show young people exciting ways to get involved in the future of communities and “the planet”. As with all mainstream subjects, opportunities to specialise in later years are endless.

Energy is also a genuinely gender-neutral field. There has been much debate about whether energy attracts sufficient numbers of women. There are no obvious barriers and, indeed, fantastic opportunities for everyone to have interesting, progressive and rewarding careers in the sector going forward.

Education, education, education

Education is vital to on-going success in the sector. There needs to be a robust framework at all levels of education, supported by the core bodies in the industry – such as the Energy Institute, in which I’m involved myself – which deliver people in the right numbers who are suitably qualified to deliver the needs of a major, demanding and vital part of the economy.

Energy is a massively important sector for all sorts of economies, whether advanced and mature or developing, sometimes making the difference between success and failure in the rest of the economy. It is also a determining factor in the employment of huge numbers of people.

Skills gaps?

OK, so where are the skills gaps? Basically……… everywhere.

On the generation side of the industry many of the skills associated with traditional forms of generation, such as coal, are disappearing as those energy sources decline. But there is a desperate need for highly qualified engineers in high efficiency gas turbine and nuclear generation.

Not least, the gaps in this sector are in the research and development which will determine future best practice and the evolution of low carbon technologies.

Similarly on the distribution side of the industry there are even greater challenges. ­­­To provide flexible, smart grids capable of assimilating the burgeoning volumes of renewable energy from geographically diverse places is a massive task.

Unfortunately there is a massive shortage of qualified people in this space, whether that’s just in the UK or pan-European. But this means there is a massive opportunity for those nations which take up the energy challenge and run with it.

Managing millions of pounds worth of energy

So, we’ve looked, briefly, at the generation and distribution sides of the industry. How about those who manage and procure energy at a practical level?

Again in this space there is a crying need for useful training in the incredibly diverse skill-base needed to manage the energy supply and demand of large and technically advanced companies.

These skills are definitely not lightweight: in a large organisation the main energy manager potentially controls TWh of consumption and budgets in the Opex zone of £100m+ p.a.. On top of that, they can control capital investment budgets which are measured in £10’s of millions.

These people tend not to be the traditional engineers but managers with a mix of technical, financial and management skills – and there aren’t that many around.

The age profile is skewed well towards advancing years and retirement – all the more reason to try to plug the gaps as soon as is practical.

Plugging the age gap

Fortunately many of the most experienced are interested in helping train the next generations but there needs to be immediate focus on the best way to find the top energy managers of the future.

The right people need to be attracted to energy – and kept here. Career paths need to be visible, clear and progressive while good learning opportunities, courses and research facilities need to be created by the Government. This is where the commercial sector and academia can work together.

Would you buy shares in that? OK maybe not, but perhaps if it was all kick-started by the commercial sector with a bit of help from the others?

There are lots of small companies (and the odd big one) out there providing great training – and I’m not decrying them for a moment. Plenty of universities and colleges are doing more than their share, but there need to be more, bigger, better and all part of a greater plan.

I think the Government, of whatever shade, needs to urgently promote training within the energy world – whether that’s through tax breaks, bribes or whatever it takes. Perhaps some of the questionably high subsidies thrown at certain renewables projects would have been far better spent in training large numbers of new energy managers. Maybe a Government subsidy on university fees for energy-related subjects may help, who knows – perhaps you do?

What should that plan look like?

I’d really appreciate everyone’s (concise) thoughts and ideas on this vital subject – I’ll collate them and feed back at a later date as I’m sure the information may spark some support. In fact, if I’m deluged with replies you probably won’t hear from me again……

So send us your top 3 ideas on what should be done to ensure we plug our energy skills gap…… Email [email protected]