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The time is now: tackling the Utilities skills shortage

How the industry is changing its image to attract more workers

Intense competition for the top talent and a greying workforce has the utilities industry in a real bind. The mushrooming skills shortage not only threatens to increase delays and reduce profitability – it could also deal a body blow to the entire UK economy. We take a look at the extent of the shortage and what’s being done to deal with it.

How bad is the skills crisis?

There’s debate about exact numbers, but general agreement among experts that the skills gap is a huge issue that’s about to get a lot worse.

The utilities industry isn’t alone in facing this problem, of course, but it does have its own special challenges – namely an unsexy image which means the kind of workers it needs are more likely to be attracted to competing sectors.

It’s bad enough to provoke Chris Wood, the CEO of leading UK training provider Develop Training, to warn that water and energy workers may demand salaries on par with Premier League footballers in the future. “Most people will be unaware of a looming catastrophe, one that threatens to literally turn Britain's lights out,” he said. “The chronic skills shortage in the utilities, energy and construction industries means companies are fishing from the same small pool of talent, which is inevitably pushing up salaries [1].

We need to fill Wembley Stadium - twice

While talk of footballer salaries may seem wishful thinking on the part of engineers, the number of workers needed in the next 10 years would fill Wembley Stadium more than twice over.  The Energy & Utilities Skills Partnership, a body made up of 29 leading organisations in the sector, has noted that an estimated 221,000 vacancies will need to be filled in the next decade, brought about through the retirement of 100,000 employees and 90,000 workers leaving to find new roles. [2]

What’s the cost?

If we can’t find enough skilled workers, the ramifications are huge. The Energy & Utilities Skills Partnership lists them as: 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: as the sector is one of the most productive in the UK economy, any decline in profitability could have a disproportionate impact on national GDP and productivity [3].

What’s the solution?

The industry has to tackle talent recruitment and retention on several fronts at once:

  • incentives to retain older workers and encourage them to work beyond retirement age: more flexible working hours, opportunities for up-skilling and mentoring, as well as competitive salaries
  • a targeted approach to improving the sector’s ‘boring’ image, especially among young people: the sector needs to do more to attract the attention of potential new recruits
  • a concerted effort to embrace diversity and inclusion as more than a public relations exercise: it’s no secret that utilities are failing to attract female workers, a vastly untapped potential talent pool
  • increased investment in skills training and retraining: from more apprenticeships to targeted programmes focussed on new technology for existing workers.

Stepping up to the challenge

Companies have already introduced a raft of innovative initiatives. The United Utilities specialist technical training centre in Bolton is a key hub in the company’s plan to recruit and train more than 1,000 new engineers and technical staff by 2023. The centre focuses on both building on the knowledge of older employees and teaching young apprentices, an approach which saw UU win the staff development award at the Utility Week Awards in 2017. Judges praised the company for the way it’s embraced a 'culture of continuous improvement and development' for all staff. UU is also leading a multi-company pilot programme to boost youth employment opportunities in the North West.

Meanwhile, Siemens opened its £9 million Energy Service Training Centre in Newcastle in 2011 to provide in-house training for technicians working on both fossil and renewable power plants.  The centre runs schemes for workers looking to transfer from other sectors, such as the Armed Forces, as well as apprenticeship programmes and training to up-skill existing workers.

Utilities and energy companies are some of the most active participants in school programmes which encourage young people to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

For example, EDF Energy’s ‘Pretty Curious’ initiative aims to tackle the under-representation of women in the industry by providing teenage girls with hand-on STEM experience at workshops and events and informing them of available career pathways.

Where to from here?

There’s still obviously a lot to do. It’s time for the industry, government and other key stakeholders to work together to address the shortage, building on the initiatives that are already proving successful. Just like Brexit, the skills shortage is so significant to industry and the economy that we’ve got to get the solution right.

Rullion is actively looking for the best, forward-thinking candidates who will play an important part in the utilities industry this year and beyond. We have links to some of the most rewarding utilities jobs in the country. See which positions are available today, or contact us to discuss how we can support your recruitment drive.

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