The US offshore wind sector is on course for exponential growth in the coming decade, with capacity set to grow from almost a standing start to 30GW by 2030. The current US offshore wind workforce stands at around 1.2 million – but to reach its potential and the Government’s 30GW goal that number needs to triple, to about 3.3 million.
Attracting that volume of skilled people presents a significant challenge for the industry, and at this year’s IPF Conference in Atlantic City, NJ, our CEO Tom Hopkinson chaired a workshop addressing the importance of workforce planning. The panel discussed how we can make offshore wind attractive to candidates, and how to train and retain the volume of workers needed to meet the sector’s ambition.
Our workshop identified five actionable steps toward building the numbers of skilled workers needed to meet the sector’s ambition. Here, edited for clarity and length, are those insights in the words of our expert panellists.
Understanding the scale of the US offshore wind workforce challenge in order to meet it
Jeremy Stefek, Researcher, NREL: The Department of Energy publishes the US Energy and Employment Report every year. The report says there’s currently 117,000 people that are employed in the wind industry throughout the United States. For the offshore wind industry, we’re talking about adding an additional 44,000 jobs between now and 2030. That’s a sharp curve: a drastic increase over a short period of time.
So it’s important to understand what the number of jobs will be and what those types of roles are – but equally important is understanding the supply, so how many education programmes do we need, how many students can those education programmes be providing, so that we are efficiently training the workforce and ensuring everyone can also participate and gets a part of the workforce and a part of the economic development that comes alongside.
Rolling out specialised wind technician programmes
Bruce Carlisle, Managing Director of Offshore Wind at Massachusetts Clean Energy Centre: This explosive growth is going to drive significant challenges with workforce, across all the different phases of an offshore wind project. In the US, we’re very strong on the project planning and development segment because of our existing adjacent markets: there are engineers, scientists, permitting experts, and so on. So I think as we see [offshore wind] projects stack up, we are going to probably start to run into some deficits there.
We know that the construction and installation for the most part will be governed by project labour agreements, and those will be largely our union and trade partners. So there’s some upskilling and some lessons learned that they’re bringing to the table: they’re already experts in their areas of focus.
What we don’t have, especially on the East Coast, is operations and maintenance (O&M) technicians for wind farms. We’ve got plenty of them onshore – the US is a global leader in onshore wind, but offshore wind is a different beast. So we are going to need some of these customised education programs, like the one out on Martha’s Vineyard, supported by Bristol Community College and their technicians. We’re going to need more programmes like that – times a hundred.
Fostering joined-up regional collaboration and aligned training
Jeremy Stefek: What I want to start moving toward is more coordination and to start thinking on a regional level rather than a state level. How can we have partnerships between unions and educational institutions and industry? And how do we have everyone working together to make sure that we’re providing workers education and experience to grow them into skilled tradespeople and professionals, giving them offshore wind training so that we can effectively attract people to the workforce. I think that regional formation is going to be important to share resources and make sure everyone gets a share of the benefits.
Jennifer Menard, VP of Economic and Business Development, National Offshore Wind Institute at Bristol Community College: As Jeremy pointed out, we have a very high jump in training requirements approaching, and at the moment we don’t understand what that schedule is and how it’s going to impact our educational and training facilities. We’ve been really working hard to understand how we can be reactive and support what’s coming.
We’re in Massachusetts, where Vineyard Wind One is coming very soon, and we’re going to be up and running in the first quarter of 2023 to be able to provide a full suite of training. And as those projects continue down the Eastern Seaboard there’s going to be a need for other types of training.
Andy Williamson, Head of Energy Transition at OPITO: To give some UK context, under the Offshore Wind Sector Deal the industry is obliged to deliver on certain targets in return for project development rights. From a people perspective, we originally needed to add 27,000 by 2030 – and the recent data that we’ve just analysed is looking at adding significantly more than that by 2050, particularly given the UK’s targets have now shifted to 50 GW by 2030. So this is a significant ramp-up.
The challenge we’re facing is that we’ve also floating wind now, which puts a different perspective on it. We’re seeing significant pressures ahead and eye-watering numbers by way of capacity. The UK is still learning that it’s not just about technical skills and being on the turbine: there’s a significant lack of numbers in planning and consenting, we still have grid issues, it takes on average seven years to consent a wind farm because there’s just not enough people. We’re struggling in the UK and I think if you extrapolate globally you might use the term “gargantuan”.
If there’s anything the US can learn from the UK: one thing we underestimated under the Sector Deal was people. So the focus was on supply chain, investment, delivery, getting the cost of energy down to make it competitive. But the skills piece was to an extent, left behind. We’re now looking for that workforce development piece to be supported moving beyond Auction Round 4 and ScotWind, so our message would be: “let’s help get it right over here.”
Creating standardised terminology around offshore wind skills and job roles
Jeremy Stefek: We really need to start coming to a consensus around these skillsets and job requirements. One of the most exciting things about offshore wind is that it’s very inclusive of a lot of different education levels. All the way from engineering to skilled trades, from business and finance to lawyers, to people operating vessels. So there’s a lot of different types of positions for everyone to participate.
But one of the challenges is that there are so many different ways you can advertise a position, and that creates confusion across the industry and in training programmes. So when we say “welding,” who are they supporting: is it a manufacturer? And then what kind of skillsets do they need, what kind of certifications? So that is important.
Jennifer Menard: That’s absolutely been an issue for us. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Centre’s work mapping out those occupations has been so helpful, and that could definitely be something we could look at a national level: if we’re going to collaborate across states, we’re going to have to collaborate across the nation. And the language needs to be common.
Boosting interest in STEM education
Bruce Carlisle: We’re bumping into issues with STEM’s lack of attractiveness in the US, and this isn’t offshore wind-specific – it affects many, many industries.
Jennifer Menard: We’re always trying to focus on STEM fields at a middle school and high school level in the US and certainly in Massachusetts, we have a lot of different ways to incentivise it, make it interesting and show why it’s important. And I think offshore wind is in the same area – it’s about showing the dividends of investing in education, and what’s on the other side. Students want to know what they’re going to get out of all the time they put in, and it’s up to us to show them what all this investment means in the end.
Bruce Carlisle: We’re really trying to support our educational institutes and training providers by connecting with the industry and understanding the specifics, to reduce the onboarding or transitioning time from your training programme to an employer. So there’s a lot of work to do but we’re trying to incentivise the learnings from the industry, getting very specific, so you might have an undergraduate pathway through an engineering degree, but you could focus in on an offshore wind-specific degree.
Andy Williamson: It’s important to understand education and lessons learned in the UK when it comes to STEM. It’s not just about science, technology, engineering, maths: It’s about communities. It’s incumbent on all of us to push what a fantastic opportunity this is. In the UK we’ve seen the decline of the coal industry, but those communities have come full-circle and some are now thriving offshore renewables clusters. I’ve been bowled over by my dialogues with colleges and unions and community groups about how they want to engage and drive STEM so that everybody rises, and we’re absolutely passionate to make that happen.