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The Skilled Future of the Global Wind Market

Technological advances, particularly in onshore wind power, have moved the wind sector onto a more level playing field, making it competitive with traditional energy sources. More expert engineers are being employed to develop next generation technology, like larger offshore turbines (6 MW - 10 MW), and turbines capable of operating at much lower wind speeds inland, for example.

This influx of projects is consequently leading to an increase in demand for staff with the necessary skills and qualifications. The sector already employs 12,000 people; in his speech to the Global Offshore Wind Conference this year, UK energy secretary Ed Davey said this number could reach 97,000 by 2020. That’s a huge skills base to build in under a decade, and an increasingly complicated undertaking when you consider the global nature of the skills pool and the emergence of new markets around the world. 

It is clear that the growth of the wind energy market across Europe may result in a skills shortage. The development and deployment of offshore wind farms is expected to put a strain on local specialists in roles including planners, environmental impact assessment specialists, engineers, cable jointers, wind turbine technicians and project managers. Other general skills in areas like health and safety will be at a premium too. One short term solution for this is the transference of talent between sectors. For example, recruits could be sourced from offshore oil and gas backgrounds. Unfortunately the current pay on offer in the renewable sector means that the opportunities to do this may be limited. 

The other solution is to source workers internationally. Although this process can often be more administration-heavy for employers - not to mention expensive, with relocation costs and the need for attractive remuneration deals - it will likely be necessary to meet the demands of the fast-growing, global market. But while the international nature of the sector will alleviate recruitment pinch points, it also has the potential to cause skills gaps further down the line. The attraction of sunnier climes and increasingly competitive financial incentives abroad often proves too strong to resist for home workers at a certain level of seniority. At the same time, junior staff from overseas regularly move home once they have gained their valuable experience. The result is a potential middle management skills gap.

To plug this gap in the short term employers might consider promoting existing workers - in which case the gap will be shifted down to the junior ranks and may be ‘easier’ to tackle.   Whether employers decide to promote internally or seek middle-managers from outside of their company, recruiters must be prepared to react as the market changes.

Global Trends

Until long term measures can be undertaken, the renewable energy skills market is going to be significantly stretched – especially when Round Three (UK offshore wind projects) begins in parallel with the construction of the French offshore wind market. Combined, these schemes will lead to one of two outcomes: either there will be a mass departure of skills from countries such as the UK towards these projects, or there simply won’t be enough skilled workers to move them forward. 

Factor in the up-and-coming Far East market and its growing appetite for wind energy, especially offshore projects where a significant number of turbines are erected every day, and the skills shortage is further compounded.

In all global markets there is a need to focus on building skills and supply chain agility, as this will play a crucial role in supporting projects and avoiding bottlenecks, though the specific requirements of each territory varies.  For example, the US has a well established onshore market and, as a result, numerous units already in operation. This means they’ve already got an established skills base of individuals who can service and maintain the country’s onshore turbines from a mechanical and electrical perspective. Their workforce is typically flexible and operates across large regions. 

In contrast, in emerging markets, where there has been a rapid growth in the wind industry, there is a less well developed service capability and therefore a continuous demand for skilled workers. The current trend is for these individuals to be brought in from the West to work as service contractors. 

These issues are particularly acute offshore, where the necessary skills are more niche and specific to the project or location. We would anticipate this talent pool to be drawn from ‘established’ offshore markets such as the UK and Denmark, and, in the future, to become globally tradable as the offshore markets in areas like France and the Far East continue to develop.

The Importance of Education

Education has a crucial part to play in raising the profile of renewable energy as an attractive career. Universities must offer specific degrees and other programmes to promote a culture of 'on the job' training with clear progression paths for young talent. And there are signs that this is beginning to happen, with respected universities offering specialised renewables degrees. 

To guarantee a continual flow of talent into the industry, governments need to place a stronger focus on engineering at universities. An increase in the number of workers holding electrical and structural engineering qualifications, for example, would serve to support both on and offshore projects. An influx of, for example, quality electrical engineers qualified in grid connection and electrical design would provide a vital source of talent.

But we do need to tackle ingrained problems within the system to address the inherent skills shortage we’ve already touched upon. We believe it is due not only to a lack of focused engineering courses at universities but also to the general perception of the market. 

From local wind farms to international development initiatives, wind power is a global, growing business. Advances in technology have driven the sector's expansion; in order to keep pace with this growth, and to ensure that the skills pool remains fresh and available we must adapt our education and training structures and work on attracting young people into programmes and apprenticeships.

In the meantime, with plans for cross-continental supergrids taking shape, and emerging markets establishing rapidly, we risk widening skills gaps as our middle management emigrate – unless we can give them a reason to stay. The future of renewable energy will be played out on a global stage, and the delivery of wind projects will rely, above all, on a skilled, committed and flexible workforce.

This article is abridged. For the full version look out for the January-February edition of Renewable Energy World magazine – or why not subscribe

Lead image: Wind turbine worker via Shutterstock

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