The lack of skilled engineers in the power sector has now grown into a gaping skills gap and the industry faces a challenge to increase the pool of talent with a new generation of graduates. The situation has become so severe that expansion in many sectors, most notably nuclear power generation, could slowly grind to a halt unless that gap is bridged.
Despite the stark reality of the situation being raised at the highest level in the UK and throughout Europe, the scale of the problem is nowhere near to being tackled.
"It is a very serious problem. The amount of business companies in the power sector can address is limited by the skills available to them. Their expansion is not limited by raw materials, or any other such consideration, but by a lack of engineering graduates," says Professor Paul Acarnley, manager of the E3 Academy, which provides sponsorship and support for engineering scholars seeking careers in new technology development, power electronics, control systems and automation.
Acarnley also notes that the generation and distribution sector faces the same challenge and that the problem is felt around the world.
"It is a global problem. Companies have gone around the world – looking to Eastern Europe, Brazil, India and China – but none of these steps have sorted out the problem. In terms of the skills to develop new products, most reside in the UK. There is an awful lot of hard work left to do," he adds.
It is the UK, however, that has seen the skills shortage highlighted most acutely. The number of engineering graduates has steadily fallen over the last ten years, from 11% of the annual total of graduates in 1998 to 7% in 2007, despite a rising trend in the number of students at university.
This shortfall has not gone unnoticed, and the voices of warning have been growing louder. In last year’s ‘Energy Pulse’ survey by energy services company Doosan Babcock, an overwhelming majority of energy experts highlighted the UK’s serious lack of skills as a major problem. Chief executive Iain Miller noted that there is now an "increasing unease about the ability of the industry to implement all the investment required."
Earlier this year, the UK’s David Lammy MP, Minister for Innovation, Universities and Skills, acknowledged the seriousness of the problem, saying: "The energy sector itself is something that we shouldn't be too eager to take for granted. We know that skills have been an issue in this country for decades, especially in the technical and scientific fields."
The skills shortage has come to the fore in the nuclear sector. Although 20% of the UK's electricity is supplied by this sector today, it is a figure that will increase significantly with the government’s plans to expand nuclear generation capacity in the years ahead. It is also a focus for expansion in many parts of Europe, but access to the right skills could put the brakes on.
Europe has seen very little nuclear development in the last two decades, except in France, so the pool of talent has dwindled. The first nuclear power station commissioned in Western Europe since the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 is Finland’s Olkiluto-3 reactor, originally planned to start operation next year, but now delayed until 2011.
It is estimated that up to 9,000 graduates and 4,500 people in skilled trades will be needed in the UK to support the nuclear industry in the next decade, hence the government’s formation of The National Skills Academy for Nuclear in early 2008.
Lammy has said that there is a sense that this should be a huge boost to the nuclear industry.
"[It] puts employers at the heart of the training process, giving them the opportunity to directly shape all aspects of the design and delivery of skills training in the nuclear sector."
Another key area for politicians, power companies and their customers is renewable energy, but yet again the development of new technologies could be hampered unless more skilled engineers are found.
"Investments in alternative energy are already going on, and they must continue, but you cannot take any action on climate change unless you have access to the right skills," says Acarnley.
The E3 Academy is one example of how the UK is trying to address the skills problem. Students accepted as part of the E3 Academy intake at Newcastle or Nottingham Universities receive substantial support during and after their studies. This support can include an annual bursary, paid training during the summer, reimbursement of tuition fees after graduation and employment with an academy partner company.
"The value of E3 is in the strong relationships between the academy, the scholars and the companies. We must develop a strategy in which everyone takes responsibility and works together to make engineering an attractive career option. The E3 Academy will expand, but it addresses just one small area of the technology within engineering, so there needs to be a series of academies for each sector of engineering," he adds.
Indeed, the involvement of industry is crucial, especially as many engineering graduates do not subsequently pursue careers that use their specialist skills.
"Engineering graduates are almost unique in that they are trained to be problem-solvers. That mindset means they have valuable and transferable skills that are recognised by many industries," says Acarnley.
Many major energy companies are already involved and signed up to the Skills Pledge – a public promise to drive their business forward by training employees. Politicians and educators alike would like to see more companies make this commitment.
"Science, engineering and technology employers should look hard at their own recruitment practises before complaining about what the Government or the universities are doing," said the UK Government’s Lammy.
Skills and experience do not appear overnight, so the commitment in the UK and across Europe must have a long-term focus. There is no shortage of job opportunities for skilled engineers in the power sector. The question, however, remains as to how soon the supply of key skills can catch up with demand, and only a concerted effort by all parties will provide the answer.