UEA helps engineer high-level skills for the energy industry

When the new master of science degree (MSc) in energy engineering with environmental management at the University of East Anglia was approved earlier this year it was hailed a great milestone.

Not surprising when a growing energy industry in East Anglia is shouting about the potential for jobs, but bemoaning a lack of high-quality energy engineering skills.

With local industry backing and close involvement from the East of England Energy Group (EEEGR) the aim is to create some of the best engineering education in the country at the Norwich-based university.

After years of work it has finally become a reality and the first intake of 10 students has completed their first term and senior engineering lecturer Lawrence Coates arrived in October.

While the UEA has not had an engineering department – a state of affairs long lamented in a region with such a strong engineering tradition –the new MSc draws on the university's faculty of science expertise in applied mathematics, energy resource, environmental management and electronic engineering.

As the course has kicked off, the call for highly-skilled engineers in the next decade is reaching a crescendo.

Dr Coates cites the Cognent report on the Next Generation Skills for New Build Nuclear which indicates a peak of more than 10,000 in 2020 and similar figures are estimated in other sectors.

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Mark Boyd, from offshore engineering specialists Aquaterra, said the course was significant news for East Anglia's energy economy.

'It is something that has been long overdue. All credit to the UEA.'

He hoped it would be the 'foundation stone' of a strong engineering department at the UEA.

Dr Coates understands the challenge he is facing.

'Whereas many sectors of engineering are temporarily shrinking, the energy sector simply cannot because demand is showing little sign of declining and planned closures and decommissioning of old nuclear and fossil fuel power stations is suggesting a gap of at least 15GW (gigawatts), and probably nearer 30GW, will open up over the next decade,' he said. 'Add to that pressures to reduce CO2 and it is clear that there is much to do.'

But where the course is really important for the region is the industry involvement.

The MSc was chosen as an appropriate first move as it will produce graduates more quickly than an undergraduate course.

Business leaders on the East of England Energy Group's Skills for Energy board are engaged with the degree.

Dr Coates said: 'This has, for example, led to provision of a part-time version of the MSc spread over two, three or four years so that those already working in the industry can have their skills enhanced.

'In going forward we are establishing an industrial advisory panel who will assist in the evolution of the degrees towards our aim of providing some of the best energy engineering education in the country.'

So who is the MSc aimed at?

Current student Kip Morton said that his course was a real mixture from managing directors to science graduates.

Dr Coates said the course would take bachelor of engineering graduates and provide them with the additional skills and knowledge that would allow them to ultimately seek chartered status. It could also admit environmental scientists, geographers, physicists, chemists and others who were concerned about the issues and bring a variety of skills to the industry.

'The programme has included a significant amount of mathematics and by the end all students will have enhanced communication skills. Both of these issues have been highlighted in our discussions with industry,' he said.

Dr Coates cannot overstate the importance of industry involvement.

He admitted students to the first technology degrees at Birmingham University and was asked by Recom – which reconditions old PCs for providing to charities – for a group of his students to help it survey 200 charities to find out why they declined the offer of free PCs and instead preferred to pay good money to large chain stores.

'I watched these first-year students tackle this problem with such enthusiasm and so professionally largely because the project was real and the real client wanted answers,' he said.

'Ever since I have exposed students to real-world projects in all years of their degrees, culminating in supporting teams entering and winning the npower Energy Challenge in 2010 and 2011. So industry involvement in providing case studies and motivating young engineers is crucial.'

But he also strongly believes the degree must be fit for purpose.

'In the current fees climate it is unacceptable to produce graduates who are not fit to practise as trainee engineers. So it is equally crucial that we talk to all sectors of the energy industry from the micro-generation suppliers to the multi-nationals.

'In parallel with this we have to attract applicants to energy engineering courses. Sadly, just because industry is desperate for graduates doesn't guarantee that students will apply for engineering courses. So we have to articulate the value of the significant support we have had from EEEGR when talking to potential applicants in year 12 right down to those in year 8 when they start to think about specialising.'

At the Skills for Energy board meeting last week industrial members were asked to commit to a variety of schemes designed to maximise attractiveness to applicants. This included sponsoring laboratory equipment, providing prize money, membership of the industrial advisory panel and support on open days such as the one set for Thursday, February 2.

It is early days, but the course is up and running.

The industry and UEA have shown great determination in getting the course under way.

It is now up to the next generation of engineers to seize the opportunity.