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Decarbonising the UK: Bridging the skills gap in renewable energies

Published on October 28, 2022

At the beginning of October 2022, the RSK group published a report unpicking the current state of play in the UK renewable energy sector. The report’s findings highlight a particular lack of applicable skills within the industry and how this is holding the UK back from its 2035 decarbonisation targets. Mike Kelly, Business Development Director for Renewable Energy at RSK group, lays out how we need to collaborate as an industry to get past this.

Public interest in renewable energy is at an all-time high. Despite this, there is a major shortage of skilled people across the industry, which hampers our ability to hit net-zero targets. As noted in the report, 50% of interviewees have seen a dip in available talent. That presents two big questions: do we have enough resources in the sector as it is? And how do we train the younger people coming through so, in the future, we have the expertise needed?

Right now, we are seeing a notable shortage of talent in the renewable energy sector. For a sector of this size to grow and meet demand, we need to see more people entering the industry at all points in the supply chain. As my colleague Andrew McGown, Solar PV Director at Absolute Solar and Wind, observes, “The people challenge is not just isolated to the technicians and engineers, we are seeing a lack of people across the whole supply chain. From the preparation of trenches to the installation of solar panels, we need to provide practical and meaningful training to those interested in a career in renewables at all stages.” Providing skills and training opportunities will have a big impact, and bringing these projects to life is a long-term goal.

Short term: Work together to make the most of what we have

At the moment, there is arguably significantly greater ‘churn’ of people moving around within the sector compared with the number of new entrants. This quickly creates a problem, as my colleague RSK Group Associate Director Joe Somerville, explains, “Companies that maintain or grow their business by recruiting experienced staff from rivals will have an advantage, but will also see strong upward inflationary pressure on their salaries and costs, which could well have an impact on their profit margins and/or ability to deliver work cost-effectively.” On top of this, it severely limits how much work the industry as a whole can complete, because the skill base is not growing sufficiently, just moving around.

Dealing with this is tricky, but I think there is an opportunity for more collaboration and both vertical and horizontal integration across the sector. A recent example of this principle is the announcement from Equinor and Technip Energies relating to a collaboration aimed at developing steel semi-substructures for floating wind. This instance of an engineering and technology supplier teaming up with a renewables developer and working together through the supply chain will deliver a solution that could ultimately speed up the process of developing offshore wind. However, it will also serve to pool talents and skills, and share knowledge to the benefit of each organisation and, ultimately, the sector.

In recent years, we have also seen a greater degree of collaboration in the contracting and consultancy sectors to provide more resources for project delivery, which again serves to cross-fertilise skills and knowledge. It is a good start but, overall, the supply chain remains narrow and increasingly under pressure, with developers appearing reluctant to trust a broader base of capable suppliers.

Trends that assist in skills and knowledge sharing need to continue and evolve to support the needs of the renewable energy sector. However, for the most part, this does not necessarily help to provide the significant net increase of resource that is required.

Long term: Cultivate the right skills across the market

Looking towards the future, we see from the report that there is a disconnect between what comes from university training and what is actually needed in terms of skills in the industry.

And here I think the onus is on us, the people working in the industry, to act. It starts with working alongside universities and colleges. If we cannot help such establishments deliver a real-life understanding of, for instance, how you build a solar or a wind farm, then we are only holding ourselves back in the long term. That might mean collaborating in writing course content, delivering guest lectures or being proactive with encouraging placements to give these graduates the skills they need. Most businesses in the RSK group offer these kinds of placement opportunities because they know that it is a valuable way to have junior staff join on what effectively becomes a paid one-year job interview, with the prospect of a graduate job at the end of it after the year-in-industry student returns to complete their degree.

This is not just a challenge at university level, though. As Andrew notes, training needs to be provided at all levels – to school leavers, graduates and those looking to change careers. Training, and offering opportunities, is needed across the whole industry. It might mean that actively, as an industry, we push apprenticeships to encourage practical learning. Scottish Power, right now, has a graduate scheme that is 60% work and 40% training, which is a great example of how to approach the problem. Finally, what we should not ignore is the opportunity to enable people to transition from related industries such as oil and gas. Although the energy giants are themselves transitioning and adding much to the renewables workforce and resources, staff will potentially look to transition to the renewables sector of their own volition, and we should be ready to embrace this by providing opportunities to retrain.

Collaboration is the way forward

Both short- and longer-term measures will be needed if we are to tackle the shortfall in resources in the sector. In particular, appropriately skilled junior staff reduce the workload on mid- and upper-level personnel, giving them more time to focus on ‘steering the ship’ rather than constantly firefighting. Right now, the lack of skills is holding the industry back, potentially putting the brakes on the momentum needed to meet targets. It is clear that this figures heavily in the deliberations of the contributors to the report, in which, although 100% of respondents thought that targets were achievable, 75% said they were unlikely to be reached.

Above all, cross-sector collaboration will be key to success. Working with each other within the industry to achieve more than we could alone, and investing the time into the young people coming into the industry, will mean the industry has a wealth of experienced and passionate young talent that will allow it to grow rapidly over the next 10 to 15 years – for the benefit of us, and the planet as a whole.

Can we decarbonise the UK? Recommendations from the renewable energy sector” is available to read here.

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ARTICLE AUTHOR

Mike Kelly

Renewable Energy Business Development Director, RSK

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Mike is an experienced environmental impact assessment (EIA) and environmental and social due diligence (ESDD) specialist with over 24 years’ experience, including as a developer within the renewable energy generation sector. As the renewable energy director at RSK, he focuses on developing the company offering and building strong alliances within the sector.

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