Above: Industry-backed Skills Academies are focused on developing the workforce needed for the Net Zero transition

Recognising the challenge of advancing the UK’s drive toward achieving net zero, the Energy & Utility Skills group, which works with government and industry to develop skills for employers, has established a specific Power Generation Group under the umbrella of the National Skills Academy for Power (NSAP).

The National Skills Academy (NSA) network was established by the UK government to address the need for a workforce with better skills, working with industry bodies to achieve the employee priorities. Broadly, National Skills Academies are employer-led centres of excellence, delivering the skills required by each sector of the economy.

Stephen Barrett, Director of Membership and Strategic Engagement at the Energy & Utility Skills group explains the rationale behind the decision: “The National Skills Academy for Power was originally intended to cover the entire power value chain. Given the trends and changes across the sector, the strategy group decided that the time was right to reinvigorate this Power Generation Group to encompass renewables, energy from waste, and other means of power generation like nuclear, purely because of the decarbonization elements. Nuclear is a key component of that and in fact we work very closely with the only UK commercial nuclear power generator, EDF Energy.”

The group notes that the UK’s devolved governments are investing billions in hundreds of major infrastructure projects, a good proportion of which are energy-related. However, they warn that a failure to secure the skilled workforce required to deliver such infrastructure projects could lead to higher project costs, delays, reduced quality, reliance on overseas skills, loss of intellectual property, stifled innovation and damage to the UK economy. This is particularly relevant to the nuclear sector which is already ready facing skills shortages as the aging workforce leaves the industry. At the same time, the UK is planning a major expansion of nuclear power.

As Barrett says: “If you want to hit net zero we’ve got to recruit thousands of people one way or another and this kind of organisation is key to that, working with industry to try to set standards, but also encourage training and apprenticeships as well.”

Barrett continues: ““One of the things we’ve been looking at with government is a joint initiative for an Industry Charter which really makes sure that we continue to invest in skills and drive a more diverse workforce that is perhaps more representative of the customers which we’re serving. We are trying to make sure that not only do we attract a diverse workforce to the industry, whilst also ensuring that we can retain them and that they’re moving up through to senior roles within industry to create true diversity.”

Industry-backed recruitment and training

In 2017 the Energy & Utility Skills Group, in partnership with 28 Chief Executive Officers and organisations from energy and utility sectors employers, launched the first-ever Energy & Utilities Workforce Renewal Strategy. This plan called for collective action to ensure a sustainable skilled workforce is in place both now and in the future. To do this they provide employer solutions as well as registering and assessing competency standards within the energy sector and other utilities industries, offering guidance as well as consultancy.

Membership brings companies together to collectively identify and address the unique workforce renewal and skills challenges the sector faces, while engaging governments, regulators and other senior stakeholders to help them develop an informed and supportive policy and regulatory environment.

Barrett explains the importance of working with the nuclear industry to achieve those goals: “A lot of the collaboration with government has been through the Green Jobs Delivery Group working alongside industry, including EDF Energy.”

He continues: “the National Skills Academy for Nuclear was initiated in close collaboration with the NDA, focussing on the decommissioning side. On the power generation side we’ve engaged with EDF and Rolls Royce SMR to support their needs in the space of everything which sits outside of the nuclear island. We know on a nuclear power station somewhere in the region of about 30% of the skills are associated with nuclear. Everything else outside of that is in the more traditional space, such as turbines and motors and mechanical, civil, and electrical engineering, C&I and so on, so there’s quite a big piece to go at”.

Above: EDF is a member of the Energy & Utility Skills Group which is helping to develop a skilled workforce for the UK nuclear sector (Source: EDF)

The National Skills Academy for Nuclear (NSAN) is a similar skills-focused membership organisation led by nuclear sector employers, from both civil and defence, to provide practical nuclear skills to organisations. “There’s a really good crossover that goes across the nuclear skills side of things, but very much sat alongside our National Skills Academy for Nuclear. We’re definitely not trying to get involved in that area of the nuclear skills landscape,” says Barrett.

Looking to the future

Alongside industry, the Energy & Utility Skills group works with central and devolved governments as well as regulators in calling for explicit recognition of skills and workforce renewal in regulatory and policy documents to ensure that a sustainable workforce is in place to deliver the clean energy agenda development programmes. One positive aspect is the shift in perception of an industry that has long been associated with managed decline and largely focused on decommissioning. This attitude has been turned on his head in the last couple of years, especially with headline-grabbing breakthroughs in areas such as fusion and growing awareness of climate change which has attracted more STEM graduates to the nuclear sector.

“I think the green skills agenda is really interesting because if you want to be part of decarbonising the UK, then you need to be involved in this industry. It will ultimately be the industry for a greener world. We need to be building more nuclear, considering how to create that generation capacity that’s not susceptible to weather conditions. It’s got to be a real energy mix right the way across the board. I call it industry for a greener world, nuclear is part of that future economy and all studies show that young people today want a future and a future for their children. They are invested. But we can’t stand by, we owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to make sure that we are fulfilling that vision.”

Here Barrett sounds a warning, saying: “The worst case scenario is someone comes into our industry thinking that it’s the green future only to find that it’s not diverse, and we’re not really investing in a green future or in digital technologies, which really would be a bit of a disappointment.”

Nonetheless, he also points to the fact that the industry is on the right trajectory: “We do know that industry is changing if you look at things like cybersecurity, AI and other technology changes. I think where we’ll also win and start to attract those brighter young future leaders that would have perhaps gone away from us is through new build across nuclear and making sure that people do understand that there is a requirement. Then I think we will start to bring those people in.”

It is clear that attracting, retaining and developing a productive workforce is key for sustaining the nuclear sector. In a world where the transition to net zero is of critical importance, the focus on green skills by the Power Generation Group within the National Skills Academy for Power is a significant step forward.

Author: Stephen Barrett, Director, Energy & Utility Skills group