Skills shortage: The biggest challenge to offshore wind in 2021
If we want to support the increased electrification of transport and heat proposed in the Energy White Paper, this will require a radical change in the management of our energy economy. Managing and driving this new economy requires the development of a skilled workforce.
The problem is, it’s not clear where the skills will come from. Professor Mike Barnes from the Power Conversion group in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at The University of Manchester addresses this issue and shares seven ways we can leverage the huge opportunity offshore wind provides for a green recovery.
- The skills shortage has been recognised by the government’s Energy White Paper as a major challenge, and the creation of a Green Jobs Taskforce is a welcome first step. However, the problem isn’t just the immediate technical specialists (eg divers for subsea inspections); to persuade companies to relocate their high value manufacturing to the UK, we will need to develop skills to support longer-term innovation.
- Bottlenecks are already occurring that risk our ability to deploy offshore wind at scale, but governments have the power to address skill shortages by funding and extending initiatives.
- By prioritising activity in seven areas – investing in R&D, developing specialist doctoral colleges, creating conversion programmes for graduates, scaling local training programmes, retaining existing skills from oil and gas industries, driving industry collaboration and by using best-practice in existing agencies – we can address it before it becomes a crisis.
Wind represents an easy win in the net zero challenge. It’s ready to be deployed at scale to immediately reduce our carbon emissions. In turn, this deployment will also support job creation, support the levelling up agenda, and consolidate the UK’s position as a global leader in wind technology. Deployed at scale, it will help deliver a green recovery and will play a key role in creating a green industrial revolution.
We need to get to 40 gigawatts of wind to support the ambitions of the Energy White Paper. Currently, installed offshore wind capacity is about 10 gigawatts and we are just about managing with the workforce we have.
However, bottlenecks are starting to occur. The industry is trying to address the emerging skills shortages with headhunting but more must be done to address the skills gap – we need to start now, and we need to focus on the quick wins; the initiatives ready for roll-out.
Build back better
Firstly, we can invest in research that will help overcome the skills gap. For example, our work on the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPRSC)-funded HOME Offshore project looked at ways we can use machine learning, robotics and advanced sensors to do remote inspections using AI.
As a result, we were able to identify advanced sensors and robotics that could undertake potentially hazardous, expensive and time-consuming activities like surveying turbines. This allows highly skilled operatives to focus on remote diagnostics and repair, rather than waste time being transported by helicopter, winched on to turbines, and then having to undertake complex technical work at heights close to that of the Eiffel Tower.
Research allows us to drive rapid innovation: five years ago, we didn’t consider the use of robots; today we use drones daily. Investing in research means we can develop the technology vital to support and protect high-value jobs in this sector in the UK.
Investing in improving the technical literacy of our workforce is critical. It can allow us to manage all activity from within the UK and avoid globally outsourcing aspects of operation. Furthermore, we can develop a generation of innovative technical thinkers – engineers who enable us to embrace change and new ideas. The creation of new fully-funded doctoral training centres in engineering will establish a means to maintain our prowess in wind generation.
We also need to consider ways to convert talented students, with proven ability, into scientists and engineers. Master’s courses like Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REACT) or Electrical and Power Systems Engineering at The University of Manchester are great examples.
By providing these students with a means to transfer to a technical skills-based career, we give them the opportunity to embark on a well-paid, secure career in wind energy. We need more courses like this, that can also ideally be accessed through distance learning and in conjunction with on-the-job training, to allow students the chance to leverage opportunities in the UK, and maximise their potential in the job market.
On-the-ground training initiatives
We need to support the offshore wind opportunity with on-the-ground retraining initiatives. There are a lot of jobs associated with offshore wind: from helicopter operators to onshore logistics to auxiliary jobs, and there will be higher demand for them as the North East coast and Scotland are likely to see a lot of offshore wind development. Wind is injecting regeneration investment into places like Grimsby, Hull, parts of Newcastle and Hartlepool which are poised to benefit after having suffered (in varying degrees) from decades of industrial decline.
There are some good examples of such initiatives already – like the East of England Offshore Wind Skills Centre which has been set up to provide local people the chance to retrain. We need similar schemes across the North of England to drive local employment which will be key for longer term prosperity, making these areas attractive for future investment thanks to a local, skilled workforce.
Using UK know-how
Offshore wind energy has the potential to be a major industrial sector if we retain existing skills and capabilities developed from years of oil and gas know-how and access to companies experienced in operating in offshore environments.
Work offshore has traditionally been a younger person’s field, requiring as it does high levels of fitness to rappel down a rope from a helicopter to work on large machinery at the top of a 100m wind turbine. With the introduction of new technology like robotic inspection or condition monitoring for remote fault signalling, future inspection could be done by remotely piloted drone, with resulting data sent onshore directly for real-time analysis by a team of experts.
The skillsets required mean that people who would historically have been excluded from working offshore have no restrictions in these new roles. This means, there is no reason that remotely piloting a drone from an onshore control centre could not be done by someone who has worked in oil and gas for 35 years but no longer has the physicality needed to do so.
Finally, governments need to drive initiatives that will get the energy industry to collaborate.
G+ supported by UK Energy Institute is an excellent example of industry collaboration, bringing in companies to share best practice on offshore health and safety. There could be a lot more activity in this space and it needs to be led centrally.
If the government could bring industry together to create something approaching a common industry training programme for all UK-based offshore wind technical education, it would be hugely beneficial. It would make the UK the beacon for safety standards, for best practice application, and it would ultimately reduce costs. To ensure its success, we need to get key stakeholder champions on board early. The Green Jobs Taskforce is an excellent start in this direction but needs to be followed up by getting buy-in from industry stakeholders from key sectors.
Governments should utilise the skills and experience of existing agencies where possible, engaging the great number of agencies with excellent track records (OWA, ORE Catapult, Energy Institute/G+). Also given EPSRC’s excellent track record with Centres of Doctoral training, they can contribute extensively on the R&D skills side.
Investing in skills as an urgent priority provides people in the UK access to safe long-term jobs, creating populations of skilled operatives to help achieve the levelling up agenda. It will ensure that the UK has the research capability to drive innovation and remain at the forefront of this industry. From an investment point of view, building wind farms and locating the supply chains in the UK becomes a ‘no-brainer’, as we have both the geography and local skills.
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Energy is one of The University of Manchester’s research beacons. Our energy and climate change researchers are at the forefront of the energy transition, collaborating with governments, businesses and institutions to develop innovative, real world solutions to drive a green recovery and help achieve next zero. As the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate summit, read our collection of blogs on climate change for more evidence-based policy solutions.