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Written by on 9 December 2014 in Feature

How the skills gap in renewable energy can be plugged, despite uncertainty

In 2011 Skills Development Scotland (SDS) published an Energy Skills Investment plan which predicted 95,000 opportunities in the renewable energy sector by 2020. However, the same document is currently being refreshed and Energy Skills Scotland Director Mike Duncan says: “The numbers are very significantly down. They’re nothing like 95,000.”
The Scottish Government has blamed the UK Government’s Electricity Market Reform process, which replaces the Renewables Obligation model with a new funding structure, for deterring private investors. The reform has been “lengthy and delayed”, according to the Scottish Government, and led to a number of projects being postponed or worse, for example the high profile case of Pelamis Wave Power, described as the world’s most advanced wave energy technology and company, which was forced into administration last month.
UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey addressed the uncertainty during his speech to RenewableUK’s annual conference. “For some in the industry, that early introduction of competition has been scary. But you have to remember, my job is to look after the electricity bill payer, just as much as it is to bring on vital new renewables, so it is a balance. Not every project will get through.” he said.
Despite the growing uncertainty in the sector, the lack of skilled workers remains an issue, especially in engineering. Duncan says the sector has found it hard to compete for graduates with the oil and gas industry, which still meets “60-70 per cent of UK energy need” but also struggles with a skills gap. Renewable energy is less visible, he says, but growth in the sector is inevitable if climate targets are to be met. “It’s certainly coming, and I think we need to prepare learners for that and explain the migration from fossil fuel,” he says. 

“It’s certainly coming, and I think we need to prepare learners for that and explain the migration from fossil fuel”


At the beginning of 2014, a report by Scottish Renewables (SR), found renewable energy companies in Scotland were in need of more engineers. It was, the body said, the “most comprehensive jobs study to date.” Of the companies who responded and were able to identify skills gaps more than a third told SR they were in need of more graduate level engineers.
The promise, in January, was to do “all we can to plug these gaps,” working with partners in Government and further education. As the year closes, what progress has been made?
Duncan says SDS has been focusing more on schools. Sparking interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) at primary school can lead to the subjects being more attractive by secondary school, he says. “Sciences are not as popular as the arts and humanities subjects. Certainly by the time you get to university, even more so. This is taking us back into primary schools to create that initial spark into very young learners, so by the time they’re coming up to secondary school they’re much more receptive to taking these subjects, but I think equally you need to build on the awareness and interest in secondary school.”
SDS can engage more with careers guidance, says Duncan. “There’re many job sectors out there. I work purely across energy and I struggle to know everything about this sector which is big enough. To understand everything from energy to food and drink to tourism, finance, you name it, is a major challenge.”
Employers in the industry are going into schools to deliver “interventions”, says Duncan, including awareness days or projects, but it could be better linked with careers guidance and building longer-term relationships. “These days need to be much more around mentoring from industry professionals, so we can actually get that real experience of what the job feels like and opportunities for work experience and site visits,” he suggests.
Awareness of the industry is essential for addressing its long-term needs says Duncan. “We’ve started running a series of national events in a school or college, getting in employers, pupils, teachers, students, and we run open sessions for parents as well to come in and talk to employers about what the careers look like. I’m certainly a parent, and my youngest is very interested in chemistry, but there’s a world of difference between doing chemistry at school and doing it as a career, so I’m trying to help him get a better awareness. That would relate even more in renewables, because you certainly hear a lot about renewables, round where I am up in Aberdeenshire there’s certainly plenty of turbines on the hills. But I think a lot of the industry is at that development stage, you know, research and development, so it hasn’t got such physical ‘there it is, go touch and feel’ opportunities.”
In the short term however, further education carries a lot of responsibility. The Energy Skills Partnership was established to develop a co-ordinated response across the college network to develop the talent pool across the energy sector. Its director Jim Brown says there is an interest in green energy which can attract young people to renewables as a careers choice. “The majority of jobs do tend to be at the technician level, and it’s the colleges which have a real role to play in developing that workforce for the future,” he says.
Brown was at Carnegie College in Fife when it developed a wind turbine technician apprenticeship with the support of RenewableUK. The course was a success and after the merger of the colleges what was now Fife College then cascaded the learning from the course development to other colleges around Scotland. This then evolved into Energy Skills Partnership, co-ordinated by Colleges Scotland. “Really what we’re there to do is make sure the demand-led provisions are in place, and that the colleges are developing the skills for the future. We’ve worked quite hard to establish kind of a formal network to support industry, but it’s very much around industry demand,” says Brown.
Initially Fife, Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway colleges formed the network and linked with Scottish Power renewables on specific local renewable projects. Inverness and North Highland College were also on board, but the course evolved to take in Orkney College, in order to link up with the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC). Edinburgh College has now also joined “because composites is a key challenge,” and it is expected developments in the Moray Firth will see North East Scotland College join up too. “So although it’s a formal network it’s flexing, and the membership changes depending on industry need,” says Brown. The formal co-ordination, he says, prevents colleges from teaching areas where there isn’t industry demand. Indeed, industry has been involved in the design and delivery of programmes. “We’re working with some of the major contractors and they are recruiting from the pipeline programmes we’ve put in place. The feedback is that the guys coming out are absolutely spot on for industry needs. Getting that endorsement from industry is really quite reassuring, that we are doing the right things.”
The growth in micro renewables could be the next big opportunity, according to Brown, and colleges are working with plumbing federation SNIPEF to give apprentices a micro renewables option over and above their core apprenticeship. “With micro renewables we’ve tried from the top down over the past couple of years, and it’s had some success, but we feel now we should do it from the bottom up, mainstream these things and get the apprenticeships, then to the college programmes, building the skillsets as they come through rather than trying to do it retrospectively.” The potential of the sector, if mainstreamed, would be “massive”, he says.
A remaining challenge is making sure college staff are developing the right skill sets and are up to date with the latest technology in a fast developing sector. While the development of new technology maintains its pace, the uncertainty in investment from UK-wide policy remains a concern. Brown says significant investment in employable skills in national colleges in England represents a challenge for Scotland.  “We just need to make secure our position as a leader, is the key message. Don’t rest on our laurels.”
Scotland’s work is being admired from overseas, says Brown.  “We’re working with France and Norway on a project to look at courses to fill gaps. The international dimension is quite interesting there. We’re working with SDI [Scottish Development International] on a bridge project in the Caribbean, with sustainable energy, and with other partners as well. There’s quite a lot going on. I don’t think I’m getting to go…”  

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