The skilled engineers keeping our kettles full, the lights on and the energy powering our central heating systems are never as essential as they are on Christmas day. And as most of us start to enjoy the festive season, our thoughts turn to their hard work for us in all weathers and inevitably reflect on the achievements and industry challenges faced this past year.
Brexit may have dominated the headlines for the past 12 months, but our sectors have faced their own complex challenges and negotiations, at the same time as making sense of the news from Westminster and Brussels. As always, it has been a year of highs and lows, with much to celebrate and even more change to keep pace with in the New Year.
One of the key themes of the year has been collaboration. It has been personally rewarding to see the power, gas, water and waste industries work together so well to drive the workforce resilience agenda forward and change the whole approach to skills and labour market planning.
One year on, we continue to welcome and support the UK government’s Industrial Strategy focus on people and infrastructure, although it disappointingly remains very England-centric and cautious of tackling the big challenges. All the main policies for work, migration and labour markets still sit centrally, yet UK skills competitiveness is still being managed through an increasingly devolved approach.
Every devolved nation and party is working diligently on their piece of the puzzle, but without seeing or tackling the bigger picture. The labour market simply doesn’t appreciate the geographical borders and, as we look to exit the European Union, there has never been a greater need for a cohesive UK-wide strategy. Securing labour market resilience is a topic that we will take forward as a priority in 2019.
Elsewhere, the National Retraining Scheme is pleasingly gathering pace. Delegated to the CBI and TUC, the innovations within the West Midlands Combined Authority pilot are looking promising and we strongly encourage CBI Scotland and the STUC to now press for Scottish parity. In 2019 there are also further opportunities arising from this work, as we press for more employer centred approaches to the Apprenticeship Levy and targeted upskilling.
The sector’s positive attitude to dealing with the Levy has paid dividends. Our ATEAG (Apprenticeship & Technical Education Advisory Group) has proved a credible and powerful UK-wide body thanks to its focus on maximising value. The Levy is of course UK-wide, but the recovery mechanisms only sit in England; ATEAG is working on pragmatic solutions with the four nations policy makers and the results on apprenticeships are instructive. As an industry, the utility world is securing one of the highest Levy recovery rates in the UK economy.
In October, the Chief Executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships regulator, Sir Gerry Berragan, joined the sector at the House of Lords to celebrate our Energy & Utilities Independent Assessment Service reaching its 500th graduated apprentice. This was a proud day for everyone involved, and the apprentices were the star attraction. Sir Gerry described the utilities handling of the policy reforms as exemplary and praised the trailblazing nature of the collective effort. Sir Gerry was right, our sector is leading the way – we currently have 649 graduations at a time when major business sectors are struggling to secure their first.
Shortly after meeting Sir Gerry, the ATEAG group hosted Dr Graham Honeyman, Chair of the Engineering & Manufacturing Route Panel (the group designated for utilities to work within). The performance of the utility companies that day gained us another advocate and did so purely by demonstrating a total commitment to apprenticeship quality and a ‘can do’ approach to the policy reforms.
This year our sector has seen record numbers of Apprentices qualifying and making a real difference to our industry. No other business sectors are likely to reflect the same.
The senior level Energy & Utilities Skills Partnership also celebrated its achievements. It’s CEO Council and high-profile Delivery Board has successfully steered a meaningful change in the skills conversation.
Talent Source Network secured support from water and energy regulators and policy makers and continues to set new precedents in demonstrating why a career in our sector is attractive over the long term. The initiative reached an audience of over four million people, secured over 50% female inquirers, helped 3500 to be actively seeking careers today and the sector attraction work included valued contributions from highly collaborative unions, professional bodies and representative groups.
The Diversity & Inclusion Network Forum also took hold and is a vital alliance of industry employers driving forward collective action so that the people we employ are ever more representative of the communities we serve. Ensuring that we attract a range of talent from all kinds of backgrounds is essential to the success of what is arguably our most valuable asset – our workforce.
Support for the Procurement Skills Accord grew well beyond the targets set by our CEO Council, and now has 56 sector organisations all working as one on increasing the talent pool and investments in training. This collaboration is making a tangible difference to the sustainability of the supply chain and to targeting training at known skills gaps. This work sets us up for the coming year, as we seek Achilles UVDB accreditation to further drive partnership between the asset holders and their vital supply chain.
Workforce resilience, crucial across the sector, is now a requirement for the PR19 price setting process. Regulated water companies in England and Wales are now required to think about their workforce, including the supply chain, for the 5-year period – and demonstrate long-term thinking for the next ten years. Water companies submitted their draft business plans back in September, and there are new and notable investments in people, including new skills academies. Energy & Utility Skills Group continues to support and champion workforce resilience right across the UK for all the companies that ensure the business model delivers effectively.
The supply chain has become an area of increasing importance for sustainability of the sector, and a few weeks ago I hosted a roundtable discussion for the leading contracting companies with the Ofwat CEO and Director of Water 2020 strategy. The evening was arranged not to talk about water contracts or individual water companies, but to help the regulator better understand the sheer scale and potential of these partner businesses and help the contractors better understand the regulator’s strategic approach. These companies are in our sector by choice, and have many other audiences seeking their talents and workforces. We must all work hard to retain their confidence in the utility market, in just the same way we do the City audiences.
Our work in assisting the regulatory price reviews continues to grow, with our National Skills Academy for Power asked by Ofgem to host a RIIO2 group for the GB gas and power transmission and distribution network operators. This group is tasked with agreeing how workforce resilience can be achieved in regulated energy and with making recommendations for inclusion in the December Sector Scenarios.
Alliances and partnerships have been building throughout this year and notably, the total support given to the workforce resilience aims by the unions: GMB, Prospect, Unite and Unison. They have been knowledgeable and insightful partners, active in promoting the sector to fresh audiences and passionately calling on regulators to demonstrate explicitly how their statutory duty to sustainable development will be met for the human assets. Together we are calling on the National Infrastructure Commission to include labour market resilience in the new infrastructure resilience review commissioned by the Chancellor.
Finally, the Energy & Utility Skills Group itself ends the year on a high, as we work to deliver our commitment to reaching new levels of excellence in our approach. We attended the prestigious Utility Week Awards on 10 December and are thrilled to have won the first ever ‘Utility Partner of the Year’ award.
We were also recently awarded ‘Investors in People Gold Accreditation,’ achieving Platinum in many of the categories. My team and Board are very proud of this recognition and accreditation, not least because it helps us attract and keep the best talent. If the Energy & Utility Skills Group are to keep giving optimum support to the sector in the coming years, we need to bring our ‘A’ game each time, every time.
We can be very proud of all we have achieved as a sector this year. Despite the intense political and regulatory challenges, we have strived to put our people first and prepare our workforce for the continual and safe delivery of essential services to millions of homes and businesses. I look forward to strengthening our collaborations and working with industries to inspire and attract the best talent to our sector next year.
On behalf of the Group, I wish you a merry Christmas and a safe and successful 2019.