Closing the skills gap in offshore wind – what’s the solution?

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To date, the wind industry has generated nearly 1.2 million jobs globally and with major industry expansion in full swing, GWEC predicts that wind power could create an additional 3.3 million jobs over the next five years.

In UK terms, with £60.8bn of private sector investment committed to developing, constructing and operating offshore wind projects, the number of people working in direct and indirect jobs in offshore wind is set to rise from 26,000 currently to 69,000 by 2026, according to RenewableUK.

All very exciting and welcome news.

But if we are to deliver the UK target of 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030, we need a highly skilled, competent and future-proofed offshore wind workforce.

Even on current capacity levels, it is hard to ignore the increasing strain on talent pools and the impending skills gap within the sector.

For example, at the moment we are seeing a growing shortage of qualified talent for the ‘hard-to-fill’ positions. Roles in categories 3 and 4 require very specific skills, qualifications and, most importantly, experience – or ‘offshore wind competence’.

As more projects reach FID, demand in these areas will inevitably grow larger and the shortages more acute, so candidates with these attributes are in increasingly high demand and short supply.

There is no immediate solution to this particular issue, and businesses must continue to develop the talent they have, to bring them up through the ranks to fill those positions.

So yes, we are starting to see skills shortages in the sector. However, it is reassuring to see some positive signs of support coming from government. The recent Queen’s speech highlighted that, ‘we must realign the system around the needs of employers so that people are trained for the skills gaps that exist now and, in the future, in sectors the economy needs including clean energy.’

How can the UK develop the necessary skills?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, we need to take a holistic view and consider a combination of short and long-term approaches that embed sustainability at the core of educational and vocational programmes at a local and national level.

By understanding the current situation, industry, government and academia can work together to implement the roll out of priority programmes and initiatives across all levels, to deliver a pipeline of talent primed for net zero.

Here are 6 priority areas of focus:

1)     Transition of skills from non-renewable sectors

The offshore wind sector is in a strong position to lead the transition by transferring and retaining the skills of highly experienced specialists from traditional energy skillsets into cleaner technologies.

A recent survey found that more than 75% of offshore oil and gas workers would move between sectors, with half stating their first choice would be a switch to wind energy.

But it’s not without its challenges. The two sectors are not the same, and there are some real differences we need to be aware of, for example:

  • Salary – levels and expectations
  • Culture – cost reduction and innovation versus traditional engineering approaches
  • Offshore wind competence – creating barriers to entry for those with relevant transferable skills but who lack the real-world wind experience

That being said, we’ve already seen some encouraging developments recently with the announcement of the North Sea Transition Deal, and Green Jobs Task Force, set up to ensure that high-skilled oil and gas workers and the supply chain will not be left behind in the transition to a low carbon future.

2)     In-demand skills for the short and long term

Traditional engineering, technical and project management skills will continue to be in demand in the offshore wind sector. However, the landscape is changing thanks to rapid and exciting technology innovation. For example, as data, digitalisation and robotics gain more traction in areas such as blade inspection and condition monitoring, the dynamics of the wind workforce will evolve and open up exciting new opportunities for a tech-savvy generation eager to make an impact.

From a skills perspective, we need to fully understand the current situation and skillsets, the potential gaps and the requirements for future skills, which should then be weaved into the national curriculum and training programmes.

3)    Training, retraining and upskilling

Training will become a true enabler in the scaling up of the offshore wind sector. Businesses are already beginning to focus on upskilling existing talent and creating career progression pathways for employees to develop within the industry.

There is also huge opportunity around retraining existing skills, whether that be successfully transitioning talent from other sectors, such as GWO training, or shining a spotlight on local training programmes to develop a local workforce and rejuvenate the key regional clusters poised for increased offshore wind deployment.

4)     Apprenticeships

Demand for UK offshore wind apprenticeships is set to grow significantly, by as many as 300 per year to 2030.

This presents a fantastic opportunity for collaboration between government, business and academia to develop relevant, short-term, practical training courses to attract a more diverse mix of young people into the industry.

Offshore wind businesses across the UK are increasingly offering apprenticeship schemes and graduate programmes, and this can only be a positive step forward in building the foundation of a solid, high skilled workforce for the industry going forward.

5)     Education

Increasingly young people are demonstrating a growing interest in the climate crisis and the negative impact of fossil fuels on our planet, spurred on by the ‘Greta-effect’. In a recent survey, almost a quarter of young people aged 15-18 consider pursuing a career combatting climate change.

The longer-term solution needs to start with education. The appetite is already there, and the time is now to really drive home the message to schools and universities of the outstanding opportunities presented by the offshore wind sector.

We need a sustainability strategy immersed in the national curriculum at all levels (also reflected in teaching qualifications), and access to relevant technical and non-technical training courses to equip the workforce with the skills and expertise needed in a net zero emissions economy.

6)     Attracting a diverse workforce

The UK Offshore Wind Sector Deal aims to increase the representation of women and BAME employees to 33% and 9% respectively, by 2030.

A real challenge, but the wind industry is making progress here with initiatives such as the Switch List, and we are seeing a far more diverse range of industry experts profiled across the main platforms, thus promoting the role models the sector has sadly lacked in the past.

Re-skilling, apprenticeships, and training programmes can all play a huge part in encouraging more women and ethnic minorities into the industry. Education is really at the heart of this for a longer-term solution, and we need to improve the representation of girls in STEM subjects, by providing a clear and exciting pathway to pursue inclusive, stable careers in green energy.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the rapid growth in offshore wind development, leading to a sharp increase in jobs, is set to put real pressure on the current talent pipeline.

But we must also look for the opportunity this presents. We are in a position to identify the right solutions and really make a positive impact on the make-up of the future offshore wind workforce. By working together, government, industry and academia can deliver long-lasting employment and economic growth, using a top-down approach, from the transfer of skills to training, all the way down to education to find the short and long-term solutions needed to secure a skilled labour pipeline capable of delivering the UK’s net zero ambition.

 

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

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