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Energy and purpose – how skills keep our lights on

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I’ve been reading UKCES’s new report on future job and skill needs in the energy sector and thinking on what it reveals about this economically vital industry.  Skills development challenges are often be unique to a sector, or even a sub-sector, so this type of “deep dive” into one area is fascinating.

But I also found the report interesting from a personal perspective. I’m a former chemical engineer and I worked at Shell early in my career; while I considered staying in energy, I still sometimes regret not doing so.

The research interviewed 90 people formerly and currently working in the industry. One of the main findings is that shortages of talent and skills are already, and will continue to be, the main risk for the sector’s future health.  As one interviewee comments, ‘We’ve recognised the skills gap too late - we’re now into crisis management.’

Actually, the skills gap has been known about for a long, long time. It’s great to see from the report that some employers are getting serious about it and are using a variety of smart approaches to deal with the situation.

One of the main suggestions is that dealing with sector-wide problems will require collaborative approaches, with employers working with one another and with universities, training providers and sector organisations to develop approaches that often cannot be supported by a single firm alone.

I also particularly liked the strategies mentioned in the report of targeting areas of high unemployment and either relocating to these areas or providing packages for people to work away from home, and also of transferring skills from older to younger, entry level employees.

Transferring skills inside a company is certainly vital. One nuclear professor quoted in the report suggests that, although young people are now moving into energy, there is a gap in middle grade roles which require experience that cannot be accelerated.  Now I am not and never have been an expert in nuclear engineering, but I know that in many areas, actually, often you can accelerate development, and mentoring and stretching young people, giving them opportunities to progress through a career and not just get a job, can certainly be one way to bring them along and in “your way”.

So, while I think these suggestions in the report are good ones, I also think it is important that changes do not only focus on recruitment and training. In this scenario, even if more people do join the sector, they may then still be likely to leave for pastures new (as I did).  So, from my perspective, a real need is for energy firms to provide a compelling career path for new entrants - the people they need to recruit.

I think there may be an opportunity around core purpose.  The younger generation often have a particular interest in doing something meaningful. I have always thought that the challenges in the energy sector – keeping the lights on, and dealing with huge issues around as climate change and new technology – are more naturally compelling than, say, banking or consulting (my post-energy career.) The report reviews some really exciting possibilities around mini-nuclear reactors, hybrid turbines, flying wind farms, geothermal boreholes and carbon nanotubes – what more meaningful opportunities could there be?


Find the report Energy sector: skills and performance challenges at GOV.UK.

Jon Ingham is Executive Consultant at Strategic Dynamics and also blogs about HR issues and approaches at

This post gives the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of UKCES or Commissioners.



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