Train for transition – functions

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Could a shortage of skilled workers prevent the path to net zero? Not if we act now, says David Nash

With the recent release of the UK government’s Net Zero strategy and the announcement of the first two carbon capture and storage (CCUS) sites, the energy transition is firmly underway. But despite the rhetoric about green jobs, we see a mixed picture of skills that cannot be ignored.

Another week, another net-zero announcement. In the past few months alone, they have come thick and fast. And although the timing was obviously coordinated with COP26, this is not just a promotional measure. The hundreds of pages contain substantial commitments and policies that shed crucial light on how the transition to net zero will take shape.

Recent announcements have included funding for the first two carbon capture clusters, which are expected to be operational by 2025.

The East Coast Cluster and HyNet in Liverpool Bay will have the capacity to store up to 37 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year and will play a key role in decarbonising the industry in their respective regions.

Industrial plants need to cut their carbon emissions by two thirds over the next 15 years if the UK is to stay on track to net-zero by 2050. For the process industry – including chemical manufacturing – this means using energy efficiency and fuel switching technologies and CCUS on a large scale.

Industrial plants need to cut their carbon emissions by two thirds over the next 15 years if the UK stays on track to net zero by 2050

opportunities

As daunting as this transformation may sound, it offers engineering services companies significant business opportunities in the decades to come. Analysis by Element Energy suggests there are over £ 40 billion in revenue to be found in areas such as fuel conversion and hydrogen production.

And that’s not all. The UK engineering services sector already has the expertise to deliver many of these groundbreaking projects. Engineers who design and maintain chemical plants and oil refineries will transfer many of their core competencies directly to low-carbon projects. The HyNet cluster will produce low carbon hydrogen at Essar’s Stanlow Manufacturing Complex in Ellesmere Port. Known processes such as amine absorption and regeneration are used in converting fossil fuel gases from the refinery to hydrogen. So while the technology may be relatively new, many of the technical skills required will not be.

The challenge lies not so much in the type of qualification, but in the amount of skilled workers available. The Net Zero strategy suggests that the energy transition will create 190,000 jobs by 2025 and increase to 440,000 jobs by 2030, as demand comes with the construction of more hydrogen and CCUS systems, new nuclear power and a massive expansion of offshore wind power reached its peak. Still, large parts of the supply chain have shrunk in the past two years due to Covid-19. An analysis by the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) shows that the number of employees has decreased by 15% in 2021 compared to 2019 and is not expected to fully recover until 2023.

The risk of a skilled labor shortage hindering the path to net zero is increased by the decline in the number of continuing education students and apprentices in engineering courses (in England by 36% and 42% since 2018). Add to this the age of the employed (38% are over 50 years old), with many likely to retire in the years to come. If this imbalance is not addressed, the UK will have to rely more on importing skilled labor to fill the gap.

The other major challenge facing the workforce is adaptability. The energy transition requires engineers to work in new industrial contexts where practical experience is limited. You need to understand how new technologies integrate into existing industrial plants and work towards new technical standards for the compression, storage and transport of hydrogen and CO2. New employees need a forward-thinking mindset where flexibility and problem solving are key attributes. Digital skills are becoming more important than ever in areas like CO2 monitoring and advanced leak detection.

We must act now to ensure that we have enough skilled engineers to drive the energy and industrial transition forward. Without this, the net zero goal remains just that: a goal, not a reality

Get active now

All of this now requires action to train and educate a new cadre of net-zero engineers. In the UK’s latest budget, the Chancellor acknowledged a welcome and long overdue increase in funding for skills, including additional funding for skills bootcamps. We must now see how the political commitments are put into practice.

The ECITB is determined to do its part. Our new Energy Transfer Technician Scholarship, a two-year, fully-funded training program that prepares young technicians for low-carbon careers, began last month. We have also launched an Energy Transition Technology Leadership program – a modular master’s program for senior engineers. Our new strategy will further refine our plans to support the teaching of vital transition skills.

Developing a skilled workforce for free requires concerted action from industry and government. While there are many positives, we must act now to ensure that we have enough skilled engineers to drive the energy and industrial transition. Without this, the net zero goal remains just that: a goal, not a reality.


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