Managing the Skills Gap

Our Chief Executive, Phil Beach CBE, explains the challenges the sector faces in recruiting 277,000 people in the next 10 years.

I joined Energy & Utility Skills a little over four months ago from the qualifications and assessment regulator Ofqual. I was responsible for the day-to-day regulation of around 17,000 qualifications and apprenticeship end-point assessments. I also led Ofqual’s work on government reforms, ranging from apprenticeships and T Levels to functional and digital skills. This gave me clear insight into the government’s vision for future skills development and a strong desire to be involved in delivery.

I was drawn to the energy and utilities sector not just because it delivers a range of nationally critical services, but because it is central to the delivery of net zero carbon targets and addressing the climate emergency. The sector’s importance has been further emphasised in recent government announcements – the 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, the Energy White Paper and the industrial strategy. Government has set clear net zero targets that rely extensively on the energy and utilities sector.

I read with interest the government white paper on ‘Skills for Jobs’ published on 21 January. There are encouraging signals including a desire to “put employers at the heart of the system so that education and training leads to jobs that can increase productivity and fill skills gaps” and a reference to the need for flexibility in terms of through-life training and supporting funding. But other than a reference to “building back better”, it was disappointing to see few direct links to the government’s green agenda.

The pressing need to develop new skills in the sector is set against a backdrop of a root and branch reform of the vocational and technical qualifications system in England. These changes could have implications across devolved administrations too, and I would urge all employers to take interest, as there will be fundamental changes to both the number and type of vocational courses available in the future. But this reform programme will not deliver the skills needed by the sector in time.

It takes around five years to develop an apprenticeship or qualification, from employers describing a demand, to completion of a course. The lack of agility is acknowledged in the skills white paper that notes the intention ‘to align the majority of technical and higher technical training to employer-led standards by 2030’. So, with new skills needed now to meet a carbon-neutral future it will fall to the sector to take the lead. This means collaborating to coordinate our efforts as we face the skills challenge ahead.

In meeting the skills requirements of emerging technologies, immediate attention must be focused on the existing workforce for two reasons:

  • To meet challenging net zero timelines, we need to develop new skills quickly by conducting a series of skills gap analyses of the current workforce to upskill them.
  • This approach trains the trainers of tomorrow. Whether an apprenticeship, T Level or other vocational qualification, work-based learning is critical, and requires in-place expertise.

The opportunity is ours to seize and develop the skills the sector needs. I believe working together will enable the development of training that is cost-effective and consistent. In turn, this allows us to inform the qualifications and apprenticeships of the future, really putting energy and utilities employers in the skills driving seat.

And there are quantitative as well as qualitative skills challenges. The Energy & Utilities Skills Partnership estimates 277,000 vacancies in the sector over the next decade. The sector must draw from the widest possible pool of talent, and in discussions with chief executives, all have prioritised improving diversity and inclusion. This is underpinned by the sector-wide Inclusion Commitment which has 45 sector organisations signed up to inclusion principles. Working with The Equal Group, we’ve recently published the findings of the first sector inclusion commitment measurement framework providing a baseline for measuring progress.

I recognise that 2021 has started in challenging circumstances and the sector continues to do a brilliant job for the nation, keeping water running, homes lit and heated, businesses operating, and waste collected and recycled. This is also the year of COP26 where the gaze of the world will fall on the UK and how we are meeting our carbon reduction commitments. By then, I hope we can reflect on the significant advances we have made in upskilling the sector’s workforce to meet the challenges of tomorrow. It will require collaboration, coordination and commitment across the sector and I very much look forward to being part of it.