How to fill the skills gap (pt 1 of 2)

6/12/16 | Blog

Engineers are the lifeblood of the renewables industry.

From the supply chain, through suite development and out to O&M, everything we do relies on those with the know-how to design, build and operate machinery, systems and structures.

Without engineers like James Blyth and James Francis, Scotland’s wind and hydro resource would remain untapped.

Because of them, and many others like them, renewables now produce almost 57% of the electricity we consume.

But the future could look rather different – because we’re running out of engineers.
EngineeringUK figures show the scale of the problem:

“Industry needs 107,000 new engineers with level 4+ skills each year in order to function and compete effectively. However, only 66,000 are being produced.”

On top of that, the population is getting older.

The number of 18-year olds will also decrease by 8.9% between 2012 and 2022, and over the next 24 years half of the current working population will retire.

Already, large wind farm operators are facing that skills gap.

ScottishPower Renewables is currently installing 221 turbines – a record construction period – and has a fleet of just under 1,000 turbines across the UK.

The oldest, at Llandinam Windfarm in Mid Wales and Hagshaw Hill in South Lanarkshire, are 24 and 21 years old respectively.

All need regular maintenance, but finding the right people for the job is a constant challenge – even when you help train them through Scotland’s colleges.
Everyone agrees we need more engineers, at all levels.

So what’s to be done?

Primary Engineer offers one solution.

The not-for-profit organisation works to promote STEM subjects to teachers and pupils by recruiting engineers to act as motivators for the next generation.

Their approach – taking teachers out of the classroom for a day to learn about teaching one exciting STEM project to their pupils – has backers including Jacobs, Allied Vehicles, Babcock, Caterpillar and Glasgow City Council.

Scotland Regional Director Lise McCaffery explains:

“The majority of our primary teachers are from arts and humanities backgrounds, so we aim to support them to develop their own STEM skills to, in turn, develop those of their pupils.
“Our programme takes them out of the classroom for a day and teaches them the skills they need to teach an age-appropriate engineering project to their classes over a few months.
“We also work to put practising engineers into schools for informal Q&A sessions, where pupils can quiz them about their job.”

Participating allows engineers to achieve competencies which contribute towards Chartership and Fellowship, and volunteers are also recognised as part of the Rogers Knight Award.

Another solution is providing higher education access to those who might not have achieved straight As at Higher or A-Level, but who nonetheless have huge potential

Strathclyde University’s Engineering Academy sees students take an enhanced HNC with practical skills at a partner college for one year, with guaranteed access into Year 2 of an accredited engineering degree for those with an A (currently over 91% of students).

Associate Director Stewart McKinlay said:

“The traditional route into higher education is leaving behind people who would be excellent engineers, and the idea of the Engineering Academy is to capture that talent.
“Some companies who take these students as placements say the students who take this alternative route into university are keener and more driven than those who come straight from school because they are working so hard to get their qualifications.”

There’s no doubt that renewables needs engineers.

But engineers need renewables, too.

Global recruitment consultancy Roevin, writing for EngineeringUK, say the number of renewable energy jobs advertised is on the increase – outpacing all other sectors in the 12 months to May 2015, for example.

In fact, Managing Director Chris Moore says:

“We expect [renewable energy] to continue as a major force for the next ten years”.

In the next of this two-part blog we’ll look at the gender gap in engineering – and how renewables, despite recruiting more women than other sectors, can do so much more

Blog by Jenny Hogan, Director of Policy, Scottish Renewables