With a series of colossal nuclear construction projects looming on the horizon, the energy sector’s skills shortage is an elephant in the room that can no longer be ignored. James Molloy, Energy services director at Omega Resource Group, says it is time to face the problem head on.

Over the course of the past 20 years, a number of industry leaders from across the spectrum of the energy sector have voiced concerns that the volume of construction and maintenance projects will prove too large a task for the existing UK skills base. These concerns were fuelled in January 2008 when the government announced in January 2008 that a new generation of nuclear power plants would be constructed – projects that will require a huge workforce of highly skilled, highly experienced engineers and specialist construction workers.

When the global recession struck in the summer of 2008, these fears were quickly, if not conveniently, forgotten. According to the Engineering Construction Industry Association (ECIA), the number of workers employed on major projects has plummeted from 13,000 to between 7,000 and 8,000 over the course of the last year, suggesting that employment in the industry has dropped by almost half in 2009.

With many out of work and budgets severely restricted, it seemed incomprehensible for the industry to pour funds into addressing a skills shortage. The truth is, however, that the global downturn has drawn a veil over what was, and remains, a serious and as-yet largely unaddressed skills shortage.

Shock to the system

But, according to Michael Hockey, Managing Director of the ECIA, the UK Engineering Construction Industry will be well on the road to economic recovery by mid-2011 and, when this happens, a new set of issues will arise.

“When the upturn comes,” says Hockey, “it will come quickly. While energy demand is currently low, largely due to the low activity in the manufacturing industry, we are expecting to see a sharp rise as we move into 2011/2012.

“As demand increases, the future security of energy supply will depend upon the industry’s ability to provide the skilled workers required to construct new plants, including nuclear – it is then that the industry will begin to feel the effect of the skills shortage.”

Each nuclear power plant is predicted to require around 5,000 skilled workers to complete – a colossal workforce that dwarfs even the largest energy construction project currently underway in the UK. The Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) notes that the demand for skilled energy-sector engineers in the UK is therefore forecast to rise by between five and 15 percent per year for the next few years.

At this rate, around 45,000 people will need to be either recruited or up-skilled by 2014, and even more by 2018 when the first tranche of nuclear plants are completed. With the only 25,000 suitably qualified workers recorded to be currently available in the UK, staffing such a high volume of construction projects seems to be an insurmountable task.

Fishing in the same pool

The skills problem has been exacerbated by a lack of clarification of specifics regarding the future development of the UK nuclear industry. The type and quantity of staff that will be needed and the guidelines that will govern this workforce, for example, remain largely unclear. As a result, there is a general reluctance by industry players to put their head above the parapet and take decisive action by establishing robust and effective nuclear training programmes or academy schemes.

“Unfortunately, very few seem to be willing to look at the bigger picture when it comes to this skills shortage,” remarks Michael Hockey. “There are a lot of big players in the industry who are looking to up-skill existing workers, but few are placing resource against encouraging new blood to join the industry.

“They are all fishing in the same pool,” he explained, “but very little thought is being given to how to widen that pool.”

An ageing workforce

The prevalent desire to look first to the existing workforce is an understandable one. To train one person to engineering construction standards for nuclear projects from scratch will take between two and three years, and cost in excess of £40,000.

The 25,000-strong workforce currently operating in the energy sector, on the other hand, is highly skilled and experienced, and would require only a ‘booster’ to make the switch from a combined cycle gas turbine, for example, to a nuclear plant. This is, however, a strategy that lacks foresight, says Hockey.

“Our industry has a predominance of over 55 year olds, and we are expecting to see a great deal of workers enter retirement over the next 5 years – this means we will need to find new blood, and find it fast.

“Not only this, but in all likelihood we will need to be training workers who are even more capable than the current workforce, simply because the volume and complexity of work will only increase over coming years.”

Widening the pool

Various organisations such as Cogent SSC, the National Skills Academy for Nuclear and the ECTIB have taken considerable steps towards tackling this need for ‘new blood’. In the South West, for example – one of the regions highlighted for considerable nuclear development, with four new plants planned over the next decade – there is a clear remit from local colleges to support and drive the up-skilling of graduates and existing workforces to prepare the region for the influx of nuclear jobs. Both Bridgwater College in Somerset and Gloucestershire College in Gloucestershire have been approved as Quality Assured Providers for the National Skills Academy for Nuclear.

Progress has also been made in achieving some clarity over what will be needed over the coming decade of nuclear developments. The Nuclear Passport, for example, has gone at least some way to providing insight and a measure of order to skills within the nuclear industry which has, historically, been disparate and fragmented with regards to training and qualifications.

Similarly, the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI), commonly known as the ‘Blue book’ – which sets the terms and conditions of employment for skilled workers in the energy industry – has been highlighted as the logical choice to help regulate and stabilise employment regulations in the nuclear industry, and will go some way to at least understanding what will be needed to tackle the skills shortage.

Plugging the skills gap

Unfortunately, there is still a seemingly irreconcilable rift between between the skills base and the labour-intensive requirements of a burgeoning nuclear industry. Taking into account the predicted number of retirements over the next decade, the cost (in time and resource) to train staff to ‘nuclear standards’ and the rate at which suitably qualified workers are coming through the ranks, the ECIA predicts that the industry will be approximately 40,000 workers short by 2017.

“Thoughts are now turning to the idea of using non-UK labour,” says Hockey, “but this is by no means a long-term solution, and can only go some way to plugging the skills gap.

“Security clearance makes the sourcing of non-UK labour incredibly difficult when it comes to a nuclear construction programme,” explains Hockey. “It can take up to six months to secure clearance for a British worker. For a foreign engineer, it could take much longer, or even prove impossible to process.”

Whether clearance can or cannot be secured for foreign workers, it is not a solution to the skills shortage – it is merely a means to alleviate the strain while other measures are undertaken. What is clear, however, is that the more time goes by without a robust training and employment infrastructure in place, the worse the skills shortage will become.

“We need to find ways of investing in the training of UK workers, and we need to do it now,” concludes Hockey. “As we come out of recession, every available bit of resource within the industry needs to be put into finding a solution, or we will have even greater problems to worry about further down the line.”