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What now for UK Renewable Energy Sector Skills?

BY DAVID KIRKHAM  As the dust settles on election rhetoric in the UK, David Kirkham, Chief Executive of not for profit skills organisation Employer First, explores what employers in the green business sector can expect by way of support for their efforts to employ people with the right skills to accelerate the growth of their companies.

The advent of a majority Conservative government seems to have met with mixed reactions from the renewable energy sector. At Employer First my particular interest is in skills availability for the Low Carbon sector companies that make up our membership, among which Renewable Energy is well represented.

Skills Gaps

A good availability of relevant skills is necessary to ensure that an industry is able to take full advantage of opportunities for growth and development as they arise. The problem in the UK is, however, that science, technology and engineering based industries face a current and future gap in core skills. All Employer First business members receive a detailed Skills Diagnostic and a typical profile shows science and engineering skills concentrated in the older end of the workforce, with recruitment of suitable candidates in lower age groups proving increasingly difficult.
Add to this the need to ensure that current employees keep their skills up to date through training in new science and technologies and it can be seen that there is a storm brewing on skills that could decide whether the UK will remain a major player in the development and implementation of renewable energy technology.

Skills difficulties in the renewable rnergy sector share the same origins and characteristics as for other science, technology and engineering based industries. For many decades, the perception of careers in these sectors has been stereotyped in ways that has diminished their professional image, to the extent that young people who do not have contact with these industries through friends or families tend to view them negatively as career options. Add to this a significant failure to engage girls with commercial science and engineering beyond secondary education and it becomes clear as to why so few young people are available with the right skills to take the renewable energy sector forward.

The skills gap crisis has been clear for many years but has proved largely resistant to actions taken by education, industry and government thus far. Do the proposals in the Conservative manifesto demonstrate that they are tackling the skills issues that threaten to derail some of the UK’s most promising industries?

Apprenticeships and Training

The new government will primarily point to their commitments on apprenticeships as evidence that providing skills to the young work force is a major priority. At one point in the election campaign the various parties seemed to be holding an auction on how many apprenticeships they could offer the electorate, with the Conservative party committing to the creation of three million over a five year period. This compares with the 2.5 million they claim to have created in the last five years of the coalition government. These are certainly big numbers but will they provide the impetus to skills that the renewable energy sector needs?

The risk in having this abundance of government investment in apprenticeships is that the approach becomes “supply driven”, in which providers are driven to recruit more and more learners, but in which there is no guarantee that the fit with the needs and technical demands of industry are properly reconciled. Employer First, in our role as a lobbyist on skills for the Low Carbon sector, is making it very clear that a surge in apprenticeship outcomes will do nothing to address our skills gaps if business overall isn’t listened to and engaged in the process.

The problem for a company in pursuing the apprenticeship route is in finding established schemes which best suit the needs of the company. The strength of apprenticeships are that many are well-established and providers/colleges are familiar with their content and know how to deliver them. The weakness is that often they have been designed by providers who define competencies in ways that do not meet the needs of industry.

Particular examples in the renewable energy sectors include an Electrotechnical apprenticeship framework, which doesn’t specifically cover solar PV and a Heating and Ventilation framework that doesn’t cover biomass or solar thermal. Similarly, while a Sustainable Resource Management framework covers anaerobic digestion at an advanced level, it is not in the standard apprenticeship.

It may also be the case that for some technologies there is no adequate apprenticeship framework at all. To help plug such gaps, Employer First is presently working on ‘Trailblazer’ apprenticeship standards, developing them in consultation with employers to provide training in such technologies. We are presently working on standards for apprenticeships for Anaerobic Digestion Technicians and Biomass Installation Engineers.

It is hard to avoid the impression that there are mixed motives in government for the rush to apprenticeships. Vocational training for young people will clearly provide some with relevant skills for sectors such as renewable energy where there are noticeable gaps. Many apprenticeships are, however, not necessarily in areas where there are noticeable skills gaps and a cynic might suggest that mass apprenticeships are an expedient way to get young people into employment, rather than seriously being focused on the needs of specialist industries.

Because of the focus on providing skills to the low skilled and unemployed there is also a danger that the most able young people will already have pointed themselves at careers in other sectors, choosing university rather than vocational training as their career path, and not choosing science technology and engineering as their career aspiration.

Education

This brings forward the subject of education as it relates to the skills gap. A major reason for the skills gaps in science, technology and engineering are that young people simply don’t see these as careers that inspire them. This is particularly true of girls and such views are based on misconceptions and lack of good information about these subjects and the associated available careers. It is very welcome that the Conservative government has committed to appointing 15,000 new maths and physics teachers over the next five years but the issue is more fundamental than simply having sufficient teachers for these core subjects.

Evidence strongly suggests that young people’s perceptions about science and engineering careers can be turned around very quickly both by meeting role models in the relevant careers and undertaking projects that allow them to see their school curriculum being used to solve real world problems. A much more intensive programme of school/business linking to provide effective careers information and advice is therefore needed.

There is a need for a good flow of able, motivated and qualified young people from education into the renewable energy sector. The problem is that there are too few leaving school inspired and motivated to do this and it is those who struggle to find other opportunities who are then drawn into apprenticeships, which may only partially qualify them for the needs of the sector.

There are signs of change within a more flexible education system. The academy system does mean that some schools are much more focused on science and engineering as possible careers for their students and the new government promise of a University Technical College near every major town gives the opportunity for feeder schools in technical subjects for local industry. Alongside this, Degree Apprenticeships are due for expansion; these allow a motivated young person to be employed, earn a salary, whilst also experiencing the academic rigour of a university education.

These are promising initiatives but the core issue of changing young people’s perceptions of careers in science, technology and engineering needs to be more aggressively addressed with government support.

The perfect world

The perfect world would be to have a vocationally focused education system that seamlessly takes inspired and informed young people early in their secondary school careers, educates and engages them well in the relevant subjects, and then gives them a number of routes into industries such as the renewable energy sector. These options could be NVQ’s, apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships or university degrees, with the young person picking the option that suits them best.

The present system is failing to inspire early enough and is then seeking to shoe-horn large numbers into skilled jobs via apprenticeships which are largely provider driven. This approach is not efficient and there is room for government engagement to enable considerable improvement. This can be achieved by developing a much more streamlined process throughout the years of education, which guides able young people into our sector with appropriate industry ready experience and qualifications.

For further information see http://www.employerfirst.co.uk or email enquiries@employerfirst.co.uk or Tel: 0845 6099 001

About Auhtor

David Kirkham is the Cheif Executive of not-for-profit skills organisation Employer First

 

Posted 12/06/2015 by Libi Israeli

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