Focus On The Future

Nick Ellins, Energy & Utility Skills’ group chief executive, explains how a pioneering strategy is putting the focus back on the waste and resources sector’s future, in an article originally featured in the CIWM Journal

The energy and utilities sector industry is vital to UK society, supporting public health, protecting the environment and powering the economy. In addition to delivering essential services to around 65m citizens every day, the combined energy and utilities sector is responsible for delivering the majority of the National Infrastructure Plan – a plan that is recognised as the backbone of industrial strategy and forms the foundations for economic growth. Yet while there is a UK Government-owned National Infrastructure Plan for Skills that covers housing, construction and transport, no strategic workforce renewal and skills plan has ever existed for the vital businesses in our sector.

Nothing exists either at government level to ensure that the priorities of UK quality, environmental and economic regulators can be delivered; and even those very long-term sector regulatory strategies, statements of direction and price review documents have no explicit recognition of the workforce challenge to ensuring sustainability and resilience.

The energy and utilities sector employs around half a million people, but requires 221,000 new recruits over the next 10 years. This includes 31,000 new jobs, 100,000 vacancies from existing employees that are set to retire and a further 90,000 people who will leave to find new roles. Recruiting to meet our evolving skills needs has not been easy.

While some individual companies either have high profiles and/or find local recruitment achievable, the collective sector has low visibility, often failing to explain the vital nature of the work it does for society and struggling to attract school or college leavers. Around one percent of higher education leavers choose to enter the UK energy and utilities sector, with fewer than five percent of engineering graduates employed within it, compared to the retail sector which attracts twice as many science, technology, engineering and maths graduates.

Resolving The Disconnect

Energy & Utility Skills has been working to find a solution to that disconnect and industry leaders from across the UK utilities spectrum have collaborated to build and release the first ever workforce renewal and skills strategy.

From that strategy will now flow sector-wide initiatives aimed at bringing new energy and focus to the areas of workforce renewal that are testing employers most.

There are economies of scale from such collective action, and perceived wins for improving resilience, competence, productivity, transaction costs, innovation, sector attractiveness and sustainability.

Together, we are demonstrating leadership in workforce renewal and skills enhancement, combining the views of employers from across the four nations as to how we create an optimal safe operating environment, and secure the right people, with the right skills and behaviours, in the right place, at the right time, at an affordable cost. This strategy sets out for the first time the evidence for those views, including the pressure points locally and regionally, and the tensions that will exist as other sectors also find themselves competing for talent to deliver their critical investment plans.

This Strategy seeks to help accelerate collaboration with governments, regulators and relevant audiences across the four nations, encouraging joint action, and calls for explicit reference to workforce sustainability in the main policy, resilience and regulatory strategies. Failure to secure the skilled workforce required to deliver such infrastructure projects could lead to higher project costs, delays, reduced quality, reliance on overseas skills, loss of intellectual property, stifled innovation and damage to the UK economy and its global competitiveness.

The achievement of success requires us all to work and act as one. This document begins the discussion, through providing a strategy framework that seeks to secure successful skills provision to 2020, and will continue to evolve as part of an extensive programme of change and cooperation.

Notably, improving technical education did feature in the recent Spring Budget, with the Chancellor announcing a £500m a year investment that will include introducing “T-Levels” as the technical equivalent of A Level education.

Nick Ellins is the chief executive of Energy and Utility Skills and the National Skills Academy for Power. Previously he held posts of director of policy for the Rail Delivery Group’s rail strategy body and was the director of policy for the Association of Train Operating Companies.

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