East Anglia region is finding the energy to solve skills shortfall

With many business opportunities in the energy sector on the horizon more pressure is going to be piled on an industry already bemoaning a lack of skills. ANNABELLE DICKSON finds out what the challenge is and what is being done.

When the latest generation of schoolchildren grow up the energy industry wants them to be engineers, project managers, geologists and technicians.

The established view that the industry is lacking the skills needed from this area has been confirmed in a new report out this week.

The Skills for Energy partnership commissioned report, Meeting the Energy Challenge, concluded that, at present, there are persistent skills shortages across the sector in most engineering disciplines from highly qualified engineers and experienced technicians to project managers with qualifications in engineering and more specialised areas such as geology, marine engineering and aeronautical engineering.

But it is not only the engineering skills. The report said more generic skills are needed in project management and business development skills are in demand.

Getting our act together, the report concludes, is critical to the region's competitiveness, and will directly impact on it maintaining its current position as a significant energy hub.

So what is to be done?

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Since 2007 this region has been piloting the Skills for Energy, which is a partnership between leading energy sector bosses, their direct supply chain together with training providers, schools, colleges, universities and the wider academic and skills sector and the public sector.

Head of UK operations at Perenco UK John Sewell, who is on the Skills for Energy board, said: 'There is no doubt in my mind that for the next 15 to 20 years at least there is going to be a skills shortage.'

But he said: 'We certainly think we are going in the right direction working with Skills for Energy and trying to get new talent into the region.'

Progress has been made. The Energy Skills Foundation Programme – a 12-month structured training programme which is an NVQ pre-apprenticeship course – is now in its third year at Lowestoft College giving students basic skills and a knowledge of the industry at an early age and the course is now being rolled out nationally.

Of the 21 students who have completed the course, all but one are in employment or further training. A further 16 are on the course this year.

Ferlin Quantrill, head of engineering at Lowestoft College, said: 'There are plenty of opportunities and everybody is talking about the energy industry.

'This particular area seems to have a good share of it with oil, gas, wind and nuclear. We are well positioned and the college is geared up for it.'

At the other end of the spectrum the University of East Anglia, which currently has its first cohort of MSc energy engineering students, has recently approved a BEng three-year degree and MEng four-year course in energy engineering with environmental management.

And it is not just the schools and colleges that are working hard.

As well as targeting those about to set out on their career, work is being done in the region to attract former Armed Forces personnel.

Kip Morton, who has set up the company Forces4Energy to help former military personnel get into the energy sector, said: 'We all know there is a skills gap and lots of companies are looking for people who can hit the ground running.

'The military guys have a high base level of skills and the discipline and experience of working in an engineering environment can easily adapt.

'It is not being used by employers as there is a problem with comprehension between what the military guys do and how they use them.

'We explain what the guys do and how they do it. When we talk plain English to the employers they realise the guys have a lot more to offer,' he said.

Plans are also being finalised for a new Energy Production Innovation and Skills Centre (EPIS) which has been supported by many industry heads.

The centre will allow regionally based small and medium sized businesses to develop their skills and capabilities.

The plan is that the new building will provide physical infrastructure, networks, facilities and equipment that is needed for training.

Mr Sewell said that as well as fully supporting the Skills for Energy programme Perenco itself had apprentices, was working with universities to provide year long undergraduate placements and is also running a post graduate training scheme.

But, Mr Sewell said: 'I do not think there will ever be as much as we need to do being done.'

He said although the government was making a step in the right direction there needed to be more apprenticeship schemes.

'We are going in the right direction but there is always more to do. We have got to do more in the schools and educate both teachers and pupils about what the energy industry is about and the great opportunities there are in the industry.

'We haven't been great at that and we are still not hitting all the right buttons.'

Celia Anderson, executive director at the East of England Energy Group who is leading the Skills for Energy programme said: 'We have a single opportunity to exploit the huge opportunities ahead of us.

'The industry in the region wants to remain as a major generator and supplier of energy within UK and play a significant role on the world stage.

'This could be a period of the biggest growth that this area has ever seen. To support this we need to raise the ability of the local people to be the source of the skills, to be the first point of call when the companies are looking to develop and expand the workforce. That way we will ensure we maximise the economic benefits to the region. Otherwise, the business and the businesses will simply go elsewhere.'

She added that the most exciting conclusion of the work was that the industry believed it needed a body like Skills For Energy to be able to make this happen.

'With the third cohort of Energy Skills Foundation apprentices going through Lowestoft College, the first post graduates completing the MSc at UEA and recruitment starting for the bachelors and masters energy engineering programmes in 2013, a steady flow of people from the military, we are making progress.

'The EPISCentre will provide the focal point for the future industry training and an essential part of the education and training infrastructure.'

She said the next big area of focus was to establish an apprenticeship training agency to remove many of the barriers to companies wanting to take on apprentices both commercial and technical.

'We are working with Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex County Councils to improve the engagement with and support for schools through platforms such as U-Explore,' she said.

There is plenty of work to be done and many roles to be filled, but a pioneering industry-led body to address the issue.

What is clear is there are great opportunities and a buzz around the energy industry and the opportunities are there to be seized by the next generation.

Tomorrow the EDP will be looking at the potential for businesses to become part of the energy industry supply chain and what is being done to help them.

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