UK: OMA Director Discusses Offshore Wind Skills Gap
David Martin, Director at Offshore Marine Academy (OMA) looks at where the skills gap lies within the offshore renewables sector and what the industry must do to ensure the gap is closed by the time Round Three construction gets underway.
RenewableUK has said that the offshore wind and marine energy sector could support 88,000 jobs in the UK by 2021, up from approximately 10,600 at present. In order to reach this target the right policies and financial conditions must be in place and, as obvious as it may seem, there will need to be an adequate amount of skilled recruits to fill these jobs.
Skills – where are we now?
At the moment we are facing a significant skills gap in the industry and this needs to be addressed if the UK is to reach the positive employment figures Renewable UK has stated are possible. There are two levels to this skills gap – firstly, the professional level including project managers and engineers and secondly the operational level which consists of staff including vessel crew members and electricians.
Over the next number of years we will see the ratio of operational to professional workers grow as we begin to move from the design and build phases to the operational phase.
This skills gap has been widening over the past three years but unfortunately has yet to be addressed successfully by the industry. Round Three windfarms will bring with them new engineering challenges beyond what we have already been faced with and it is paramount that the industry is prepared for this. When work on Round Three projects begins there will be a need for a huge amount of skilled offshore workers and preparation needs to begin for this now.
An outdated approach to training?
The 2009 Renewable Energy Directive set a target for the UK to achieve 15% of its consumption from renewable sources by 2020 – this compares to 3% in 2009. This has meant that the past number of years has seen an increase in offshore wind production and this will continue to grow, which, in turn will lead to an increase in investment and job opportunities within the industry in the coming years.
The skills gap can partly be attributed to this and the fact that, even though it is a rapidly growing sector, there is no industry standard for offshore training. Within the offshore renewables industry there exists a health and safety standard but outside of this there are different opinions in terms of what each company interprets as a high enough technical standard.
SMEs may not be able to afford to offer training to potential employees which makes it difficult to recruit suitable workers. As larger companies can afford to provide such training internally they may not be as aware of these issues, but I believe they too would benefit from a common training standard. The time and money they invest in bringing new recruits up to standard could be used to expand other parts of the business.
SMEs are the lifeblood of the renewables industry and in the past they may have had to try to poach offshore workers from the oil and gas industry in order to get the skills they need. This might have been a successful tactic in the past when jobs in the oil industry had been scarce.
However as new opportunities within the oil and gas industry are becoming more available again and with traditionally higher wages and workers preferring to stay within the industry they are familiar with, this has created a growing problem for SMEs. As a result of this growing gap smaller companies may be tempted to employ workers who may not be up to the desired level for the job and rely on them gaining the required training and experience whilst doing the job.
Closing the gap
Through working with our parent company Offshore Marine Management (OMM) we can see where the issues within the industry lie and I believe that the creation of an industry standard for practical renewables training is the way forward in closing this skills gap.
There are many skilled workers who may be unaware that their initial career has given them the basis to successfully train to work in the renewables industry. Construction workers and fishermen are among those individuals who may have skills that can be readily transferred to working on offshore renewables projects.
I am confident that many of these workers can be trained to utilise their qualifications or transferable skills for the offshore industry while maintaining high standards; in turn they can help any renewables developer – large or small – develop a competent, professional and well trained workforce.
But this is where we begin to see the need for an industry standard. At present a worker could train with our academy or another training provider but yet be deemed to not be up to a standard for a different company – which means that they must repeat the training once employed by a new company, wasting a significant amount of time and money.
Specialist training offers the opportunity to prepare for a life working offshore and is provided to enable the transition of technical skills to be more applicable for the particular needs of the offshore industry. In addition an understanding of this ever developing industry is provided along with the necessary health and safety training and instruction.
But this is not enough for the future; for us to encourage the sheer numbers of skilled workers the industry will need we must start at the beginning, working with colleges and universities. Even though work is currently being undertaken to provide courses and degrees dealing with renewable energy, there is very limited focus on the particular challenges faced in the offshore industry.
We, as an industry, need to work closer with higher education institutions encouraging them to include offshore training on their courses – industry can provide access to the tools they need including access to physical wind turbines and other offshore technology, and also to people who already work in the industry who can give first hand insight. There is simply no point in having highly educated engineers or project managers with degrees in renewable energy if they can’t apply this knowledge in an offshore working environment.
The training provided by OMA prepares individuals with relevant backgrounds to work offshore. When training staff for working offshore in renewables it is important to have a finger on the pulse of the industry. You need to be aware of the issues the new recruits will face to help them prepare fully for the experience. Working with OMM gives the Academy a current working knowledge of the industry. This allows us to identify what the industry needs and the trainers we use are fully skilled offshore workers who have experience of the industry.
It is going to take a united stance from companies – both large and small – to address the significant skills gap facing the renewables industry. We need to pull together and acknowledge the clear business benefits of creating this industry standard – and we need to work with each other towards achieving this. While the value to SMEs is clear to see, larger companies also have much to gain financially by recruiting workers who could, theoretically, be offshore on their first day in the job.
What can be done now?
While we may need to wait for an industry standard to come about companies can still address the barrier that is lack of experience. This is an obstacle that companies can ease if they start working on offshore projects collaboratively. At the moment, there seems to be a lack of understanding between companies in the renewables industry.
Businesses within the sector in the UK tend to be guarded, and this is not only at a recruitment and training level but also on an operational level. We need to start to understand the benefits of sharing ideas and experience for the benefit of any given project, as is more common in countries such as Germany.
Acceptance of there being a skills gap within individual companies will also help to ensure the smooth running of projects. Projects may begin slowly in the first instance as agreements and permissions are granted, but once these initial stages have been passed things can move more a lot more quickly.
Bearing this in mind companies need to plan well ahead – look at what they are bidding for, what they are winning or likely to win and once this has been taken into consideration make sure that the necessary skills are in place to carry out each task.
What the future holds…
Once companies, both large and small, start to work together mutual benefits will begin to become apparent – from cost and time savings for the larger companies, to new business opportunities for SMEs.
We need to learn from the continent and develop a more open-minded approach to the industry, helping us to become more aware and wiser to the skills and staff available to the industry. At this point we will realise how an industry standard in practical renewables training can really benefit offshore renewables as a whole.
As Round Three goes ahead it will bring with it bring sizeable commercial opportunities for developers and operators; at the same time it will introduce new engineering challenges which will require different ways of thinking, and new and innovative ways of working offshore.
I fully expect that there will be a moment of realisation when the sheer scale of the skills gap becomes apparent – but by thinking and acting more collaboratively the industry can demonstrate its maturity, its resilience – and its ability to adapt for the future.
Cyrus Mills had just graduated from University of the West of England with a degree in Environmental Biology when he began training with the Offshore Marine Academy (OMA). He now works as a hydrographic surveyor and believes that the training he received gave him a great starting point for working offshore.
As part of his training Cyrus undertook a variety of courses which he believes has given him a well-rounded understanding of the offshore industry. These included an introduction to fire-fighting, first aid, rigging and lifting. He was taught how to be an efficient deckhand and took courses on ROVs and hydraulics. He also learned the offshore regulations and what the roles of different offshore team members entailed.
To have staff with a broad understanding of offshore working can be invaluable to renewables developers and operators. Not only is Cyrus aware of the job that he needs to get done but he is also aware of how his presence may reflect on the jobs of others.
His first day on the job meant that he was fully prepared not only in theory, but also physically and mentally. Employees trained to this level not only save companies in terms of training but also in terms of time – they come fully prepared and ready to start work straight away.
Cyrus Mills said: “I really value the job that I do and the training that I received from OMA helped to prepare me not only educationally but also mentally for working offshore. The perception I had of what I thought working offshore would be against what it actually was very different. The training helped to alter my perception of this and it meant I was fully aware of what to expect from day one.”
Offshore WIND staff, August 7, 2012; Image: OMA