British energy sector needs skilled workers

British energy sector needs skilled workers

The long-term shrinkage of Britain’s industrial base, relative to financial services, has not helped.

A recent report this year by RenewableUK, an umbrella organisation for the British wind and marine energy industry, has warned that there are not enough trained and experienced workers in the industry to install, run or maintain the technology that it will require to achieve its full potential.

The group says action is needed to encourage science subjects at secondary schools and relevant engineering degrees at universities. It says professional development courses are also needed to allow workers to develop new skills that the sector will demand.

The University of Buckingham Centre for Education and Employment director Alan Smithers said the problems stemmed from the current structure of science education.
“Expert and enthusiastic teachers that will motivate and encourage pupils are in chronically short supply in individual science subjects, particularly physics and chemistry,” Smithers said.

A 2008 study by the center found that one in four secondary schools in Britain did not even have a physics teacher. That number rose to one in two in inner London and was on track to worsen, since 26 percent more physics teachers were leaving or retiring than were being recruited.

The number of students studying physics at A level — the second, or advanced, level of British secondary-school examinations, used as a qualifying test for university entry — dropped by about half, to just over 28,000 in 2005, from a peak of 55,728 in 1982, according to a study published in 2006 by  Smithers and a colleague, Pamela Robinson.

In 2008, the Labour government under Prime Minister Gordon Brown introduced an initiative to promote the sciences in primary and secondary schools, and Smithers said the situation had improved slightly since then. But he said that science student numbers, which had dropped sharply in the past decade, were still a long way from returning to past levels and that a large part of the problem was convincing students that math and sciences led to attractive careers with opportunities and a financial premium.

“This is starting to be felt,” he said. “But it will take some time to turn it around.”
The long-term shrinkage of Britain’s industrial base, relative to financial services, has not helped. The most recent figures, for 2007-2008, show that, even before the recession, only 76 per cent of British-domiciled students who graduated from engineering and technology degrees were in full time work or further study six months after graduation, and many of those were employed in other sectors, like financial services.

“Financial industries can use the quantitative skills that an engineering or a maths degree provides,” Smithers said. Inevitably, many of the best students have been drawn into financial careers in search of better job security and higher salaries.

They include Bryan O’Neill, who graduated from Strathclyde University, in Glasgow, with a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering in 2004, and quickly realized that the best opportunities for someone with his qualifications were in the financial sector.

“Finance seemed to offer better money, better opportunities and give you the option of working in London or New York — it felt exciting,” he said.

O’Neill took a job at a global financial services company but found that while he enjoyed his work, he could not get used to the environment at the company and the people he worked with.

Four years ago, he noticed an increase in openings for traditional engineering jobs, and in 2007 he joined Frazer-Nash, a leading British engineering consultancy company, where he is now a consultant and senior engineer in the electrical control and instrumentation team. “I noticed more and more jobs springing up with a renewable-energy focus and went after them,” he said. “I get a real kick out of what we are trying to do now. The work is so much more rewarding.”

Some universities have noticed this shift and are adjusting their curriculums. Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, and Kingston University London now offer a one-year postgraduate course in renewable engineering to give engineering graduates the skills for what they see as a rapidly expanding sector. Heriot-Watt’s prospectus describes the course as capable of delivering graduates “of a caliber capable of developing and implementing creative solutions to the problems encountered in renewable energy capture, conversion, storage and management.”

“We have a reasonable number of students coming to the course,” said Heriot-Watt’s Engineering School teching director Kevin McCullough. “We’re optimistic about where we’re going.”

Meanwhile, however, British universities, after enduring substantial cuts to their annual budgets over the past year, face the prospect of further cuts under the government’s plans, to be announced this week, to shrink its budget deficit and debt. And even leaving aside that funding cut, say engineers like O’Neill, now 28, the growth in engineering student numbers is not happening fast enough.

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