Developing skills for the renewable revolution

by Apr 08, 2011 No Comments
A new skills centre aims to power Scotland’s renewable revolution

Students at the Whitlock Energy Collaboration Centre
A report last year predicted that by 2020, Scotland’s offshore wind industry could be on a par with the oil and gas sector.  It would generate £7.1bn of investment over a decade and create 28,000 jobs.

But that forecast came with a caveat.  According to the research, commissioned by Scottish Renewables, this scenario can only become reality if all the right pieces are in place.  And skills is one of them.

Carnegie College is alive to that challenge.  Embracing the opportunity, the college has established a new energy skills centre to work in partnership with industry.  The £1.5m Whitlock Energy Collaboration Centre in Rosyth has already been selected to provide the UK’s first wind turbine apprenticeship. And with renewable skills guru Jim Brown at the helm, its ambitions are high.

Launched in September, with the help of a $1m donation, Whitlock’s mission is simple: giving industry the skills it needs to grow.  In partnership with companies like Siemens and Scottish and Southern Energy, the centre is working intimately with the sector to develop qualifications.  And it has just been crowned the UK Education and Training Provider of the Year 2011 for its efforts.

With the First Minister predicting that 100 per cent of Scotland’s electricity needs will be met by renewable energy by 2025, there could be little doubt about the opportunities.  And as head of the new centre, Brown is visibly excited by that potential.  But it will only be realised, warns the expert, if Scotland has the right skills, in the right places, at the right time and in the right quantity.

“It’s huge. And I’m very passionate about that. We’re talking about significant numbers here, and not just across renewables, but across the traditional energy sectors as well – oil and gas, thermal and emerging carbon capture storage,” says the former head of renewables for the Energy and Utility Skills Council, who was last year brought into the Scottish Government to drive forward the renewable skills agenda.

“There are significant numbers being forecast for jobs and skills are imperative.

“Some people will be transferred in from other industries but there’s going to be a heck of a lot of turbine technicians out there.  That has got longevity to it as well, because once things are constructed, they’re constructed, it’s operation and maintenance thereafter. The companies we’re dealing with are looking at doubling their staff year on year.

“So yes, it’s going to be big! And it’s fantastic to be in at the start as we are, to support industry at this stage. It’s challenging but very, very exciting and rewarding.”

Whitlock is currently piloting Britain’s first Wind Turbine Service Technician Apprenticeship, in partnership with Siemens Wind Power and Repower, with 16 apprentices in the pipeline.  Indeed, the centre is supporting other providers to roll the apprenticeship out across the UK, at three colleges in England, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.  It is even in discussions with wind energy companies in Brazil about potential partnerships.

Many of the skills required to power the revolution ahead will be vocational, Brown argues.  The new wind turbine qualification will help meet that need.

“Vocational skills are imperative. All the work that has been done highlights that it is at a technical level that the majority of the skills are needed and where the new jobs will be.  For Scotland, the figure’s around 30,000 new jobs in the offshore wind sector per se. And the majority of those – 80-85 per cent – will be at a technical level. 5-10 per cent will come through apprenticeships and around 80 per cent will come through transferring in from other industries,” he says.

And with an experienced wind turbine technician earning up to £50,000, these are high-value jobs.

Scotland is on the cusp of something “phenomenal”, Brown believes.  But it also lies at a critical juncture.  Now is the time for investment in skills, he argues.  Yet with companies uncertain about whether they will be awarded contracts, they are naturally cautious.  This is where targeted public investment comes in, to kick start the process.

“I think this is the year where it’s on the cusp, where things are going to take off.

“Until contracts are actually signed then people don’t know what staff they need. But we have a challenge in that it takes time to get people prepared for work. So we need to invest now for the future, but companies don’t have that certainty themselves. They know there’s going to be the work coming but they may not have the contracts themselves in place. So there’s a kind of a chicken and egg situation going on.”

For this reason, the Energy Skills Investment Plan, launched last month by Skills Development Scotland, is key, says Brown, “to deliver the workforce that we need to take things forward and to maximise the economic benefits to Scotland.”

With an estimated 25 per cent of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal potential, Scotland is endowed with the natural resources to become the green energy centre of the continent.  But will it be able to capitalise on this opportunity?

“I think we can if we get everything in place. It’s going to take a heck of a lot of hard work, a heck of a lot of close working with industry,” says Brown.

“It’s hard work for industry, it’s going to be quite a lot of investment for them. Some of it’s going to be apprentices but the vast majority will be through transitioning from other industries, so we need to have the flexible interventions.

“I think it’s the seed funding to get things moving in advance of them happening that’s going to be the biggest potential barrier. There is work going on on that but we’ll just have to wait and see what actually comes out of it. I think we can deliver. I think we’re well on the road to getting things in place but we just need to make sure everything is in place.”

Once the industry has made the initial transition, Brown believes, skills investment will be industry-led.  But at this crucial point it needs that catalyst for growth.  And if it doesn’t come, Scotland risks losing out.

“The feeling that I get is that people want the jobs to be developed here for Scottish folk, developed in the UK for jobs in the UK. But if there’s a staff shortage then they will import labour. So it’s pretty key that we actually get these things in place, to seize the economic development opportunity and the job opportunities that present.”

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