Great Jobs podcast: Episode 4

Energy sector - Debunking myths and upskilling new and existing talent on the road towards Net Zero

In this episode, Craig Smith, Managing Director of City & Guilds Gen2, is joined by Melanie Onn, Deputy Chief Executive of RenewableUK. They explore the energy sector, a sector which has seen a great deal of public attention as it has risen to the top of the political agenda; however it still faces a significant skills shortage.


Melanie Onn  0:00  
We know the industry is going to be around for, you know, the foreseeable future,

you know, probably beyond my lifetime. So we are just going to keep needing a pipeline of people with kind of skills, you know everything from kind of welding skills up to Naval Architecture skills, which is just a vast, vast difference. So there's a role for everybody.

Craig Smith  0:36  
Welcome to the latest City & Guilds Greater Jobs podcast, where we will be exploring some of the issues highlighted in our grid jobs report, which looks at the skill shortages impacting some of the most essential industries in the UK. I'm Craig Smith, Managing Director at City & Guilds Gen2 and your host for today. In today's episode, I'll be having a conversation with Melanie on deputy chief executive at RenewableUK about the challenges and potential solutions facing the energy sector. Obviously, this is one of the most critical industries in the country and has seldom been out of the headlines of the past few months. So I think we'll be in for an interesting discussion today around how the energy sector is evolving and the opportunities a career in the sector can offer. Welcome, Melanie, it's lovely to have you with us today. Thank you. Nice to join you. Thank you for inviting me.

Before we get started, I'll provide a bit of a background for our listeners. The energy sector is facing a period of change and transformation linked to the green agenda with last year's cop 26, serving as a watershed moment for commitments being made by governments around the world to cut emissions and timelines set for Net Zero. Recently, we saw Liz truss his government announced plans to pledge 50 million pounds in additional funding to support British businesses to move away from reliance on fossil fuels, as well as a commitment to support the development of more onshore wind generation to support the transition to net zero. With a new team in place in the department for business, energy and industrial strategy under Rishi Sunak premiership, we will get further news on what their priorities will be in this space. However, making these ambitious plans a reality will depend on upskilling huge swathes of the workforce, with new green skills for the 2019 report from engineering UK, estimating that the sector may be facing a shortage of up to 59,000 workers, equipping people with the skills needed to deliver these essential jobs is clearly a high priority.

That's why I'd like to start our conversation today by asking you, Melanie, how you found your way into the energy sector. Yeah, I've taken quite an unusual route and

Melanie Onn  3:09  
probably not one that is open to very many people. So prior to joining RenewableUK, I was actually a member of parliament. And the reason that I have ended up in this sector is because during my time in Parliament, I did a lot with the offshore wind sector because I represented a seat called Great Grimsby, which has got the UK is in fact, I think it's the world's largest ONM operations for offshore wind based right here in a very small town on the East Coast. And I worked really hard and really closely with those companies to try and open up the opportunities for local people in those businesses as they were going to be here for a minimum of 25 years. And the reality is that looks as if it's going to be even longer now. And I wanted to try and open up as many opportunities for local people as possible. And what was a very exciting,

completely different, we haven't seen anything like this in our area before. And a big shift from what was a traditionally fishing area. So I worked, I worked quite closely and was part of the announcement of the industry sector deal in Parliament.

So I was really pleased I lost my seat unfortunately, I was really pleased to to be able to join renewable UK and continue some of that work and get the chance to focus on skills and really understand the issues around the skills challenge for the sector. 

Craig Smith  4:45  
Great. Thanks for sharing that Melanie really interesting. So for myself, I guess I entered the industry through a fairly traditional route. So initially, I started as an apprentice with national grid where I spent 14 years in the energy industry so initially

In an engineering role, however, the bulk of my time there was spent in learning and development focusing on skills development internally, but also externally working with other employers through our sector Skills Council, then following the time, that national grid and then spent a period in the defence and aerospace sector, again, in learning and development, but also with a focus on on talent and talent attraction,

before moving into a City & Guilds a short while ago, I think so I think that's it's quite common now. Isn't it crazy that, you know, people do kind of move around and do get experience? So you know, your engineering background, I think, you know, across different industries, it's quite common to see people moving into emerging sectors like renewables from more traditional sectors. Yeah, it definitely is. And I think I think for me, the the kind of the the energy, energy, green skills kind of sector, it's kind of commonplace that people come in through those through those kinds of routes, whether it's apprenticeship programmes, graduate programmes are similar, and then absolutely spend a whole career there. 

Melanie Onn  6:06  
Yeah. Which is, which is great. I mean, being able to offer people that security. I think one of the things that I saw, as a member of parliament and talking to people in the local community about what they wanted from jobs, that security element was really important to them, because we've got so many

renewables companies that are based around the coast, and traditional industries have dwindled, and the work that's left tends to be agency work, not entirely exclusively, but you know, you get quite a lot of zero hours contracts. So people don't feel like it's something that they can progress in. And this just provides a completely different opportunity. 

Craig Smith  6:48  
Yeah, absolutely couldn't agree nor Melanie.

Moving us on slightly,

are great jobs research found that the energy sector is definitely seen as a really good career choice, as we've kind of recognised there already for a large number of people. With lots of them, citing, you know, things like high levels of pay on offer. However, we did find there was a significant gender gap when it came to whether or not people would consider a career in energy. Almost a third of men said that the word but that compares to just 15% of women.

With a serious skill shortages in the energy sector, attracting people from a diverse range of talent pools, there's got to be a priority. I'd like to ask you what can be done to change these attitudes and where progress has already been made, and improving gender diversity in the sector. 

Melanie Onn  7:47  
I think that's that's a huge way to go. In terms of gender diversity. I mean, one of the good things is that I think the industry recognised it. So part of the sector deal in 2018 19, the industry set itself targets, which we haven't seen across other sectors. And it also embarked on a programme of measuring. And so every year, it undertakes a full survey of companies working in the renewable offshore sector. And,

you know, only by measuring really can you see, either the progress or otherwise, that you're making as an industry. And the progress is slow, but it's happening. And I think what struck me over because I've been working with RenewableUK now for about two and a half years, what struck me is the increase in the number of visible women in more senior positions.

And I think that that's a positive thing. Because that role modelling, being able to spot somebody, identify them and think I want to be that person. And thinking it is possible for me if they can do it, I can do it, too, is really, really important. So we've tried to do some of that work.

During COVID, obviously, it's very difficult to kind of do a lot of outreach work. But we did a lot of webinars. And we worked with a lot of young people from 16 to 24. And we did, introducing senior women, and did a session specifically for younger women who were interested in possibly joining the renewable sector. And so there's, you know, good work that is taking place, I think that we also need to look at some of the structural barriers within the industry. It isn't easy in this sector, particularly the offshore side of things, to be a woman and work in some of those technical roles. It has not been built for comfort, shall we say? That that can be quite off putting. But I think we also need to talk about the range of different roles that really exist in the sector because we fail to do that quite a lot. So you know everything from

At the very start of a project, where people are looking at securing, leasing, understanding consenting and planning, there's a real shortage for those kinds of skills. So anybody who's got any kind of marine biology, or geography or geology type background, they are absolutely well suited to the sector. And I don't think we shout about that there's a real shortage of people with marine skills. So anybody who's got any kind of background or an interest in, in working on board vessels, you will be snapped up, anybody with health and safety interest will be snapped up any corporate roles, you know, we've got loads of different roles that perhaps are a little bit more inviting, you know, going into a warm office, rather than getting all kitted out in, in bulky gear to go offshore, might suit people more, but all of those roles do exist. And, you know, it's, it's, it's really the, the breadth of the roles that I think we need to talk about. And then there are some other things as well about making sure that, you know, when we are advertising, that we are not setting the bar too high.

I think that we have had a bit of a history of expecting people to have 25 years experience in offshore wind, which is completely unreasonable and unfeasible. So bringing down some of those barriers, and opening up some more training routes and pathways into the sector, because I think from the outside, it can seem quite closed. And the roots in don't seem very obvious. But there are a lot of high skill jobs that require quite high qualifications.

But giving people opportunities to reach those qualifications within the structures of the industry, I think would really help. So I think we've got a good understanding. And I think there's a real desire to improve it. And we'll see if we hit that to hit that 30% by 2030. And we've got a long way to go. But we keep trying.

Craig Smith  12:05  
Yeah, absolutely, Melanie. And that's really interesting point around the breadth of the roles in the sector. I mean, if you look at the kind of lifecycle of, you know, some of the projects, whether it's new coolant new build, or you know, some of the other exciting kind of developments going on

of the whole kind of lifecycle, which is kind of yours, the different roles that the different stages and the breadth of that. Yeah, it's quite staggering moving. And I guess for me, you've kind of touched on both of these already, I suppose it's how do we get those, those influences and role models kind of up to speed and educated and all of this, and it's kind of interesting, where we're recording this on the run up to the first evergreen careers week, which, which, which happens seventh to the 12th of November. So hopefully, that can be a good catalyst for teachers and young people to really get to grips with some of these technologies and careers that that are kind of emerging as the world world kind of changes for the energy sector. I think the other thing for me as well,

is a bit of myth busting. So you mentioned some of the realities there of working in the sector role Rolls Royce ran a really great social media campaign probably 1218 months ago with some of their apprentices, it was really simple.

Couple of apprentices sat in a room with a baseball cap full of pieces of paper with myths about the sector written on, and they just took it in turns, picking up an odd having a bit of a giggle about it, but setting the record straight about what jobs in the sector were kind of really like. So I think the more of that we can do just to help people realise the realities of the sector.

I think it'd be really helpful. 

Melanie Onn  13:42  
Yeah, I mean, I think that that's right, because you know, that the peer to peer is invaluable. So you know, having young people speaking to young people is great. And we need to look at the mediums through which young people are accessing their information. Now, I think that we, you know, we have been a little bit slow considering we are a kind of technology. In a way we're ahead on technology and leading technology development in the country, that we have had a bit of a reputation of being a little bit behind when it comes to diversifying our communication channels. So I think that there's something there, so it does reach the right people. And I think there's also frustration in the sector, so around


education piece, so the information that's available at schools, the detail in the national curriculum, at the moment, renewables is kind of contained within environment and the information around that is quite negative, and it isn't up to date. And we think that that should be updated and amended, with industry and also looking at other established ways that young people access information.

for careers advice and looking at things like BBC bite size, which also needs to be updated so that, you know, those, those resources fully understand the opportunities and and how people can get into it, and that it is a realistic option for them.

Craig Smith  15:15  
Absolutely, yeah. I couldn't agree more Melanie.

Okay, so let's, let's move on slightly. So when we, when we ask people what put them off, considering a career in the energy sector, those 31% said that they lacked the skills and qualifications to get the job.

So from your point of view, is the lack of skills a blocker to security job in the field? And where are the opportunities for people to gain the skills required? Whether that's on the job via short courses, or are similar in the sector? 

Melanie Onn  15:56  
Yeah, I think it's a real problem, I think, you know, we've got a mix of a labour shortage at the moment and a skill shortage, and I don't just think it's the energy sector, I think it's, it's across the piece. And, you know, there are some incredibly technical roles in,

in the sector, but equally, you know, increasingly, we are looking at people's skills and their experience, and how they can transfer those skills into the sector. And some of that is an awareness piece. So one of the interesting pieces that we're doing at the moment is working with an organisation called Mission renewable, which is reaching out to the veteran community, because we know that there are, you know, limitless kind of resources amongst veterans that are leaving the armed forces, you know, people who have been Submariners and working in the Navy, you know, while they have got marine skills, which is where we've got a shortage, we know that there are people who've been in the Army who've got experience working with high voltage, electricity, cabling, and they will not necessarily see that their skills and their knowledge can be transferred into the sector. So we're directly working with that community to explain it to them and show where their skills fit. And some of it, I think, is a communications piece. Because, you know, people need to be given a chance. And I think that within the industry, there is a bit of its own language. And, you know, we're on very tight deadlines, I think that there's quite a lot of pressure to get things done and get things done, right. But I think we just need to be a bit more aware that people need supporting into some of these roles and get some of the training programmes in house, which some companies are starting to do, and looking at some of those external training providers, and making sure that they are easily available and not too expensive. And where we can deduplicate from other industries that we do that if possible, without compromising safety. 

Craig Smith  18:02  
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that's, that's really interesting. So I think for me,

you know, I'm always gonna be a big advocate of apprenticeships. And I think programmes like that are a great starting point for many wanting to enter an industry but much less accessible for those who are kind of changing career and, you know, mid mid career type people looking to transition from kind of one industry to another say, I think boot camps at the minute have a really interesting kind of roots for for people. And there's, there's more and more well, there's a lot of funding out there and therefore more programmes kind of emerging. So I'm, I'm kind of hopeful that that will give people kind of a route into into the industry. It was interesting, that example me around, supporting people transition outside of, you know, surfaces and things like that there was some work we did when I was at National Grid,

around transferrable skills, and particularly around roles within the gas distribution business. So we have first call operatives that are essentially the people that will

respond to a gas leak. And when you really stood back and looked at their role, a large part of the role was actually customer service rather than real hard technical skills. So we looked at recruiting people with the customer service skills, which which actually was a totally different talent pool to where we've been fishing in the past. And then giving them the technical skills once the joined us. And actually, it really opened up that new talent pool but also a much more diverse talent pool. And longer term, the customer satisfaction scores overall for the business improved no end. So actually, by just stepping back and viewing job descriptions and the requirements overall slightly differently, really reap some some positive benefits for for National Grid there.

Melanie Onn  19:49  
Yeah, I mean, I think that there's, there's lots of things out there, I think. I think we, I would say that we struggle a little bit because we can't land on one single thing to do and it will be

great if we could just decide on the best thing, and I think, you know, having your kind of experiences and advice is really helpful just to clarify what we can do to make sure that, you know, we do bring the right people in and, and really work hard to identify those core skills, if it is a customer service type, you know, main focus, and then you can train other people up in doing some more technical work. And then I think that that's really beneficial. And I think what we haven't talked about, I suppose, is the, you know, the wider industry, because it's not just the developers, it's not just the operators. It's not just the manufacturers, you know, got a whole supply chain. And reaching some of those SMEs is, is a bit trickier.

And we've had some good success, actually with apprenticeship levy transfer, so supporting the growth of the supply chain by transferring the levy further down supply chain to bring people in, so we have got a bit stronger pipeline skills coming through.

Craig Smith  21:02  
That's really interesting, Melanie, I was I was talking with

Federation for small businesses, a while back around green skills, actually.

And, you know, the feedback from them was, you know, basically, that element of green skills, we were looking at the supply chain was probably four times the size of some of the primary companies kind of working in that area. And trying to engage them was absolutely a challenge. But I think now we've kind of emerged from COVID businesses kind of getting over that, and some of the immediate challenges and starting to look again to the future. Certainly, the conversation I had was much more around building those skills for the future. And I think businesses are now in a much better place to start re engaging with, with the longer term and building that that kind of longer term, pipeline.

Melanie Onn  21:51  
Yeah, I think so. I mean, the ability for people to kind of congregate and share their experiences is invaluable. And I think that that's, that is helping to focus people's minds on, you know, the, the key challenges and trying to overcome them collectively, and have solutions that are for the long term as well, not just a one off

a one off activity, but a big gimmick, because I think, you know, that's, that's the worry, you can you can do something as a pilot or a trial, and then it kind of fades away. But having something for the long term, I think is what we need to do. Because we know the industry is going to be around for, you know, the foreseeable future,

you know, probably beyond my lifetime. So we are just going to keep needing a pipeline of people with kind of skills, you know, everything from kind of welding skills up to Naval Architecture skills, which is just a vast, vast difference. So there's a role for everybody. 

Craig Smith  22:52  
That is exactly what I had, in my mind that felt like the literally is a role for kind of anyone wanting to enter the sector, it's just, it's just no one about it, as you mentioned earlier, you know, it's that,

you know, people understanding the breadth of those roles and kind of helping them do that and navigate the sector.

Right, okay, so we touched earlier on that there's going to be this, this real need to upskill the current workforce in green skills to enable this transition to net zero, what sort of training interventions are employers in the sector likely to need to roll out to enable the current workforce to upskill and allow the energy sector to transition to net zero.

Melanie Onn  23:42  
I mean, it's a really interesting period of time, because, you know, we are seeing kind of traditional energy providers, changing the shape of their business, and they are moving increasingly out of that fossil fuel side of things and into renewable, so they know their staff. And I think, you know, the interesting thing, although it will grow, a lot of those staff will be exactly the same people, and they will move to different parts of the business, and there'll be able to move between different parts of the business. And we're seeing some of those companies partnering with other traditional renewables companies so that there can be a sharing of experience and growing that learning. So there's quite a bit of on the job training that takes place. And I think that that's an important thing to recognise. Because some of that will just be happening quite organically. And then there are other things where we see you know, people being brought in from other countries for manufacturers specific manufacturing processes, to train a domestic workforce for brand new products, which is also you know, it's interesting, because that's quite intensive, but I think that there's other things that are also taking place. So if we need kind of higher skills, then you know, people are using apprenticeship

levies to support people to achieve those higher skills with their current employees.

So that's, that's a positive thing. And it also frees up them some of the more junior roles. So people don't have to have such high qualifications to enter.

And, and broadening those apprenticeship schemes. I know that organisations like the the catapults have been blys are really closely involved with the education sector up there and the local authority and establishing a new

wind energy Academy. And we've also got, you know, you've already got a good network of

colleges that are that are specialising in some of this in the areas where we've got a lot of offshore wind activity. So I think we'll see more development and more growth of those kinds of initiatives, I think the critical thing is about scale, and how many numbers are really going to be needed, and when are they going to be needed. So trying to match up the trained people at the time that they are going to be needed in the place that they're going to be needed, is quite a challenge. But if we fail to do it, now, I think we're just leaving ourselves open to having a long term skills gap that we're just going to be moaning about in five years time. So we've got to, you know, got to get that sorted now and get the government to understand that we do need in a coordinated skills plan. And that's not necessarily about, you know, having one energy apprenticeship. But it is about making sure that, you know, modules can be swapped in and swapped out to support the kind of

support the kind of qualification that people are looking for. 

Craig Smith  26:47  
Wow, that's, that's, that's really interesting, Melanie, that. I totally get that if we could get down to, you know, individual modules being much, you know, across a number of different apprenticeships, where it makes sense that that kind of transfer transferability is much more clear, then.

Melanie Onn  27:04  
I don't know where the I mean, I really don't know whether that's possible, you know, in terms of the structure of apprenticeships, whether you can have that level of modular flexibility. But if you could, then I think that that would solve quite a lot of problems.

Craig Smith  27:17  
Yeah, definitely. Definitely. There's an interesting point in there as well, Melanie, around bringing together some of the kind of all the traditional industries with the new wind support in kind of staff transferring one to one to the other. So a conversation that I've been having up in the Northeast is around more traditional manufacturers producing equipment for the energy industry, kind of downsizing, potentially work moving abroad. And therefore, what do we do with the workforce and building those partnerships between where we've got kind of pockets of industry that have traditional skills that are kind of almost ready for, for the for the new, we're just supporting that transition and supporting people moving around the industry? So I think partnership is going to be a really important piece to the structure. 

Melanie Onn  28:10  
Yeah, definitely, I think, yeah, making sure that those, the clusters and the way that the clusters operate, do provide the opportunity for skills transfer, and staff transfer, and that sharing of knowledge. Because I think sometimes, you know, skills does get left to the end of the conversation.

But you know, that that pipeline is going to be necessary, and it would be a real shame, you know, to see if people being people losing their jobs and not being supported into something else that is local and as long term for them. 

Craig Smith  28:46  
Yeah, definitely. Yeah. And we actually just come to mind that, you know, we've we've been working in partnership with a number of employers around evey charging, design and installation qualifications. So we've had kind of a number of employers and industry bodies involved in in that and designing the actual qualification. So you know, that's, that's kind of, I guess, us playing our part in making sure that the right qualifications are there to support the industry ramping up and meeting the kinds of 2030 targets around evey charging and doing it in a safe way.

Unknown Speaker  29:21  
And actually, on the bootcamps point, we're delivering these qualifications directly as well through boot camps through Magento. The business that I manage, as a route for electricians to move from, I guess, more traditional electrician roles into the green energy kind of sector and being part of delivering the rollout of charges. So, again, I think bringing people together to work on some of these solutions is absolutely key. 

Melanie Onn  29:47  

Okay, so I agree.

Craig Smith  29:52  
An outbreak of fierce agreement. Oh, no. Brilliant. Well, that's been really interesting. Chatting, Melanie

Transcribed by

For further information about the material quoted in this episode visit:

  • Great Jobs Report – Recognising the essential jobs that keep the UK working.
  • Mission Renewable – Armed forces engagement for the UK renewable energy sector.
  • Energy Careers 2050 – Providing resources to support training and competence for the Wind Energy Sector.
  • Green Careers Week – An exciting event that raises aspiration, supports diversity, challenges stereotypes, and promotes real opportunities for young people to have a career that will genuinely make a difference.