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Developing an all-energy workforce for a net zero future

OPITO CEO John McDonald
Opito chief executive John McDonald

The transition to a lower carbon economy, including commitments by the UK and Scottish Governments to achieve net zero by 2050 and 2045 respectively, coupled with increased urgency around climate action plans leading to COP26 in November, have sent a clear message.

We are moving rapidly towards a more integrated energy system. And if we want to protect the UK’s reputation as a global centre for energy, we need to do more than simply lay the foundations; we need to have started building the house.

The availability of a multi-disciplined energy workforce will factor highly in our ability to deliver; backed by well-organised, integrated education and training programmes designed to ensure the skills needed for a just transition. This cannot be achieved in isolation.

That’s why, a year ago, we established the Energy Skills Alliance (ESA), in response to data within two skills dynamics reports delivered by OPITO in 2018/191. Those reports told us, in no uncertain terms, that to make the most of energy transition opportunities, a more flexible workforce – able to work across the breadth of the energy sector – would be required.

As Camilla Roman, a policy specialist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), said: “Climate action is not the enemy of jobs, the opposite is true”. I agree with this statement. If we know anything from previous industrial revolutions, it is that people need to be front and centre.

I also know that it is no small task. It involves a shift change that impacts all of society, including skills development that spans the entire spectrum of education and training. Significant investment is required – of time and money – as well as meaningful collaboration across many key players.

This is vital, not only in terms of the opportunities it will create for the existing workforce, but also for those seeking to forge a new career path in the energy sector. We need to look at this through the eyes of the next generation too, with the prospects of the young workforce among those most severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That is the ESA’s one single purpose. To deliver an all-energy career proposition.

This formidable, cross-industry group represents multiple organisations2, with like-minded leaders from across the whole UK energy sector, as well as regulators and trade unions, and both the UK and Scottish Government. Their membership is imperative in ensuring our efforts are workforce-centric, and aligned with the ambitions of the Green Jobs Task Force and the Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan.

The ESA is now in action and delivering across three key programmes that play into the broader skills agenda, including:

· Future energy skills demand and supply

With the rapid changes that the energy sector is going through, ensuring a suitably skilled workforce and future-proofing the industry’s talent pipeline will be vital. Yet currently, there is no single source of consistent, comparable and robust employment and skills data for the industry. Claire Mack, Chief Executive of Scottish Renewables, is leading a project – in partnership with Oxford Economics – to create a clear overview of skills overlap between sectors, skills distinct to specific industries and any potential gaps. This will help us define a skills transition pathway and timeline. We expect to have this aggregated view of energy skills demand and supply later in the year, crucial in supporting planning by government skills agencies, and in signalling a more predictable transition pathway for academic institutions and those in industry delivering work-based learning.

· My Energy Future

The My Energy Future programme, led by OPITO, will launch in Spring this year. A dynamic online platform and digital campaign, it will signpost a range of practical and engaging information, supported by a community of real-life energy influencers. It will provide a positive learning environment designed to inspire and engage young people, and bring the future of energy to life for the next generation.

· All energy apprenticeships

While nobody can say precisely what the energy mix of the future will look like, what is clear is that both it – and the associated roles – will change. The apprentices of the future will also need to be able to diversify and work across a number of areas. Through this programme, led by the CEO of UKPIA, Stephen Marcos Jones, our objective is to deliver an ‘all energy’ apprenticeship pathway; one that provides companies with a comprehensive route to giving apprentices the right skills to meet the needs of an integrated energy sector. To that effect, we are working to identify and engage with a coalition of companies keen to be part of a pilot scheme in early-2022.

Why does this work matter?

Well, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was also the year in which the energy transition really came to the fore. The need for cross-sector working is greater than ever and the ESA is a ready-made leadership group; one that is in excellent shape to take this forward and present a holistic, cohesive view of the energy sector in the UK.

I am incredibly proud to be able to work with such a knowledgeable and active group, working to create the opportunities needed to reskill and upskill our workforce, inspire the next generation and develop a truly integrated energy system.

With these efforts and by working together, we will deliver a co-ordinated skills strategy which will enable the transfer of skills between different sectors, and produce effective and enduring results.

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