Energy & Utility Skills Written evidence (EDU0051)

 

1 Energy & Utility Skills (EUS) is an employer representative and standard setting body whose members include many of the major businesses in the power, gas, water, waste & recycling industries. These employers are central to the decarbonisation of the UK economy and the achievement of Net Zero. The Chair of the Energy & Utility Skills Partnership (EUSP) of 32 sector Chief Executives is co-chair of the Government’s Green Jobs Delivery Group (GJDG), and the work and plans of both are featured explicitly in the suite of Net Zero documents published in March 2023 by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

2 Sector attraction is a perennial issue for energy and utilities employers, particularly in craft and technical roles. EUS supports its sector workforce in a number of ways: competency schemes and registrations, independent End Point Assessment of technical apprenticeship standards, standard setting for safety critical skills in the gas industry, the coordination of Trailblazer Groups for new apprenticeship standards, research, workforce planning, and other collaborations. Workforce recruitment support is offered through the dedicated Energy & Utilities Jobs web site.

3 Research in 2020 estimated that, of a sector workforce of just over half a million people, some 277,000 roles will need to be filled across the present decade. However, rapid changes in the sector’s industries, in response to the opportunities and challenges of Net Zero, mean that more new or adapted roles will need to be filled. These range from installing air and ground source heat pumps and electric vehicle charge points, to new roles in hydrogen distribution, to the many craft, technician, and other roles in the evolution of the UK power grid, the gas distribution network, the water supply system, and waste management processes. 

4 Energy and utilities sector businesses are naturally present everywhere and many employers engage with local schools in supporting careers education about the sector and raising awareness of routes into the industry. Businesses recruit at all ages from 16 onwards. They engage with Government backed recruitment and training programmes and operate well developed apprenticeship and graduate recruitment programmes.

5 Sector employers recruit to the full range of business roles (Customer Service, Business Administration, Marketing, Finance, Legal, Management and Senior Management, etc.) Energy & Utility Skills has a unique focus on the technical and safety-critical roles that are crucial to the integrity and continuity of the UK’s infrastructure, and which will be critical to the development of a decarbonised economy. Many of these can be justifiably classed as green jobs, and many will have an increasing digital or cyber element. Sector employers will be increasingly interested in the green skills and digital skills that recruits emerging from full-time education have, and they will continue their interest in the practical engineering skills and knowledge of candidates for craft and technical level roles.

6 We have focussed our submission on two key areas of the published scope of the inquiry:

 

Sector Research and the Employer Experience

Hand Skills

7 From our position as the skills voice of industry, Energy & Utility Skills is engaged in a series of research deep dives focussed on workforce issues in the four industries that make up the sector. The insights below are taken predominantly from very recent in-depth interviews with power industry employers and also some water sector firms. However, a number of sector employers have previously raised the issue of the importance of “hand skills.”

8 Some power industry employers, (that are responsible for the long-range transmission, (generator to grid connections, pylons and high voltage cables), voltage transformation (transformers, sub-stations), and shorter-range distribution (electricity mains and local connections) of electrical power) have voiced concerns about the lack of both the knowledge and the practical application of hand skills amongst engineering recruits to craft, technical and higher roles – including both apprenticeships and graduate programmes.

9 One major employer puts its graduate entrants through engineering hand skills training, even when the graduates are being recruited for management rather than operative roles. This illustrates the importance that employers with engineering roles place upon the future workforce having a good understanding of the needs of work that they will be commissioning, managing, or supervising.

10 On the importance of practical skills, employers from the power industry commented:

“The alternative route for us is people join as electrical fitters – ‘on the tools’, as we would call it….They maintain electrical plant and then typically get put through further education later on….you often find that the individuals that didn't excel at school academically….they've really done very well, picked up the theory - we've got some of our very best engineers through that route.”

“If somebody is coming in from the water industry to work with live electricity, the academic part of it is of course absolutely fundamental. You must go and learn that part - but that's a level of learning in a college course. Once you've got that, it still goes back to the hand skills which were most important in the first place.”

11 There currently seems to be limited scope, from the 11 to 16 core curriculum aspect, for the teaching of engineering hand skills that could better prepare young people for training and careers in engineering at all levels. Engineering employers right across the profession, not just manufacturing and fabrication, should be consulted on how engineering hand skills could be embedded in a reformed curriculum. There is no doubt that the transformation required for Net Zero will need many more engineers and there is now a timely opportunity to ensure that engineering careers benefit from a better foundation in schools.

12 The current imbalance between the school curriculum academic offer and the vocational offer at Key Stage 4 is glaring. This area remains unreformed, and the list of available vocational qualifications is subject to the vagaries of prevailing policy needs and funding priorities, which creates uncertainty in school curriculum planning. Whereas GCSEs are directly designed to support progression to higher levels of study, the vocational offer does not enjoy the same integrated approach. Alongside the 5 core GCSEs there are no clear vocational options that that support progression to, for example, apprenticeships, T-Levels or employment. Properly reforming this area of the curriculum with a credible, consistent vocational offer would allow it to integrate with progression opportunities, support young people who have, to one degree or another, rejected or failed to engage with academic study and do not adequately attend school, and support the national skills needs that employers are concerned about. A Level 2 Technical Award in Hand Skills would be a valuable benchmark for employers, could be taught by Craft, Design and Technology staff, could be assessed in an appropriate practical manner, and could be added as an entry requirement for relevant apprenticeships.

 

Craft Skills

13 The recent research, which we undertook with members of the National Skills Academy for Power (NSAP), describes current recruitment difficulties that illustrate the context for their concerns about technical skills amongst young people entering the sector from full-time education. 

14 The research suggests that around half of power sector employers are currently experiencing difficulties in recruiting into a number of roles, which include maintenance technicians and utilities technicians.

15 Welding was also reported as a key area of concern in the important and expanding floating offshore wind industry.  Reflecting the significance of this need, High Integrity Pipe Welder (where the job requires 3 or more years related on-the-job experience) is currently on the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee Shortage Occupation List (SOL). 

16 In relation to employers’ concerns about these types of craft skills specifically, two important points for consideration of the 11 to 16 16 full time education curriculum became apparent:

One major power sector employer also commented that:

17 There is a clear opportunity to develop and offer more practical skills programmes (including hand skills) as part of the Key Stage 3 and 4 curriculum offer.  These programmes would be designed to equip young people with practical skills that could be used in a variety of contexts but would also demonstrate the importance of these skills and the roles that are enabled by them.

 

Data, Digital and Cyber Skills

18 According to the Royal Society’s Dynamics of Data Science Skills Report, demand for data scientists and data engineers has risen by over 231% in the past five years. Correspondingly, the World Economic Forum reports that the top emerging job roles in the energy and utilities industries are artificial intelligence specialist, data scientist and data engineer. The research undertaken amongst members of the National Skills Academy for Power suggests that around half of them are experiencing difficulties in recruiting software developers or software engineers.

19 The Shortage Occupation List, inclusion on which can be taken to indicate Government acknowledgement of roles that have serious and significant shortages of people to fill them, includes several families of data/digital/cyber occupations including:

20 There is a wide range of underpinning skills requirements in these areas ranging from the basic IT literacy that almost all employees need, through to software engineering and skills in using Artificial Intelligence in the energy industry context.

21 The power network is becoming vastly more complex because many of the policies that are driving Net Zero require it to have millions more power and data connections. For example, a sophisticated power and data connection is required to allow an electric vehicle to both buy electricity from the grid when needed and sell it back to the grid when in surplus. These advanced power management and metering systems are natural cyber-attack vulnerabilities and more cyber security specialists will be needed to manage the risks.

22 Cyber security roles in the power industry would benefit from a dual cyber security skillset, meaning they need to be proficient with both the relevant information technology and operating technology. Understanding communications technology and engineering equipment, as well as their interactions, is a niche skillset that not many individuals possess in the wider labour market and will be a key aspect of training and development of these people within the power industry. This dual cyber security skillset will be increasingly vital in the energy industry as IT and OT continue to merge, suggesting that the future workforce will need to be trained in explicitly energy-related skills.

23 Companies are also looking at investing in software to manage/ optimise energy intensive activities e.g., pumping in lower tariff periods, adjusting water pressure etc. so this is something apprentice energy managers would need to engage with. This is an example of how data and digital proficiency will be key (and we should consider how the 11-16 curriculum could better prepare students for these types of roles).  

24 The increasing application of information technology across all aspects of life, but especially in occupations is increasing. The energy and utilities employers will develop new technologies in fields such as power network data communications, metering, drone operation, and robotics and artificial intelligence in cable and pipeline inspection and maintenance.

During the course of the recent research, employers said:

“There's lots of reporting and….data crunching, looking at trends and analysing the data to make informed trade-offs. Understanding where the data is coming from and why it's going to its destination and things like that….All of those kinds of skills are very valuable.” (Water employer)

“Most equipment being deployed in the field now requires some level of knowledge of data networking and a role which we’ve found very, very difficult to recruit for is to get somebody in with data knowledge.” (Power employer)

“We're constantly having new pieces of equipment put onto our sites, which means that there's more….to monitor both locally and remotely. People are going to have to become more competent on the technical side of things if they're going to stay in this industry.” (Water employer)

One major power sector employer also queried:

25 This provides the 16 – 11 curriculum with a clear opportunity to embed, increase and expand the provision of digital skills in schools, so that progression to higher education levels and to apprenticeships, vocational programmes and employment is better supported.

 

Electrical engineering and power electronics

26 There are a number of technology-based competencies that will need to be introduced into the skill sets of craft workers. These include drone piloting and various types of power electronics (Fault Location, Isolation and Service Restoration (FLISR), Volt-VAR Optimization (VVO) and Solid-State Transformers (SST)). Consideration should be given to some power electronics concepts and basic principles of electrical engineering to be a more attractive offer in the 11 to 16 curriculum and for programmes to include a more hands-on element.

27 Enhancing the electrical/electronic offer in the curriculum could also be useful from a sector attraction perspective as there is a shortage of electrical engineers and power electronics knowledge and skills generally. Employers felt that if young people can develop an interest early on, they’re more likely to be open to pursuing it at higher occupational levels.

28 Data produced by National Skills Academy for Power (NSAP), in conjunction with GB’s electricity transmission and distribution network operators, shows that over the next five years the total number of forecast vacancies at engineering level amongst them is likely to be in the region of 1,300. Between 25% and 35% of the sector engineering workforce, depending upon role and skill level, are forecast to retire over the next five years (compared to a wider workforce average of 20%). Recent research undertaken amongst NSAP members suggests that most of them are currently experiencing difficulties in recruiting electrical engineers from the external labour market – and demand is set to increase because of the progressive shift towards greater electrification.

 

Green skills

29 Energy & Utility Skills was a key contributor to the Skidmore Review of Net Zero and, subsequently is referenced in the revised Net Zero plans published in March 2023. The sector’s employers – who informed that input - are on the forefront of the drive to decarbonisation and the transformation to a thriving economy whose function has climate change mitigation at its core. A number of employers are keen to see a higher profile and a stronger offer for green jobs and green skills in the 11 to 16 curriculum. From the perspective of one major power sector employer:

30 It is noted that the Department for Education is currently inviting tenders for advice to schools and colleges on the development of their individual climate action plans. These plans will be required to include how green jobs and careers are being factored into the curriculum. The interest of employers, particularly those whose businesses place them at the centre of climate change mitigation measures, should be translated into opportunities to closely inform curriculum reform.

Vocational Education Reform

31 Through the Energy and Utilities Employer Advisory Panel (the first of its kind and hosted by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education) and Trailblazer groups, the sector’s employers are influencing the ongoing reforms of apprenticeships and technical qualifications in England and supporting the development of a skills system that is employer-led.

32 The decarbonisation of the UK economy, which is now happening apace, will require new skills and new skills delivery systems. The reform of the Key Stage 3 and 4 curriculum to include more industrial skills, and to raise their profile, is a powerful opportunity to ensure that young people enter vocational training, higher levels of education, and work with a much firmer foundation to their careers.

28 April 2023

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