A green recovery is at the heart of the Government’s post-coronavirus economic strategy. Alan Goundry, Head of Energy at Newcastle College, was invited to attend a virtual roundtable event hosted by Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, to discuss the challenges surrounding the shift to net zero.
As Head of Energy at Newcastle College I suppose it’s in my job description to be full of beans and raring to go! But when it comes to addressing the barriers we face on the road to transforming the UK into a carbon neutral nation by 2050, I’m unashamedly passionate and enthusiastic. I always will be.
Perhaps that’s why I ended up addressing a Government roundtable on ‘Skills for a Green Recovery and Net Zero’ earlier this month. Hosted by Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth and his colleagues Nadhim Zahawi MP and Gillian Keegan MP, the virtual meeting brought together various voices from the world of energy and set about deciding on a framework for a challenging transition.
But why was I one of those voices?
Back in February, a Government advisor called Oliver Cardinali, visited Newcastle College’s Energy Academy and I was quite outspoken when it came to my views on the urgent need for skills to support the growth of low carbon industries. I later learnt that he appreciated my forthright approach and the fact that I was typically blunt. It got me a seat at the table with the ministers and enabled me to put forward a case for addressing a worrying skills gap.
The need to fill that skills gap is urgent – it’s a short-term problem as well as a long-term challenge. For example, more than 50,000 heat pump installers will be required by 2030 – up from 1,800 in 2020. We will need to recruit 117,000 workers in energy related roles by 2030 – 52,000 to replace the retiring workforce and 65,000 to fill new jobs. So how do we ensure the skills are there to fill those roles?
Retraining workers currently employed in the high carbon sector is a major focus. At the roundtable we discussed upskilling and how to ensure the smooth transition from one sector to another.
The big debate right now is around the oil and gas industry where experts predict as many as 30,000 jobs will be lost within the next 18 months. We discussed the barriers to those skilled employees retraining and putting themselves in a position where they become assets to the low carbon sector.
It’s clear that we need to deliver short courses capable of meeting the needs of experienced employees - upskilling them quickly and efficiently. At the moment those courses simply aren’t there and the budget to create the course frameworks isn’t there. If, for example, you’re a skilled maintenance technician in the oil or gas industry then you need access to a short course that can flip those skills and make them relevant to the low carbon sector. The general skills are transferable but the specific skills need to be taught afresh.
Fortunately, people currently employed in the high carbon sector are open to retraining and are enthusiastic about playing their part in the green recovery and helping us to achieve net zero.
Newcastle College is perfectly placed to retrain these skilled workers and reintegrate them into education. As I pointed out to the roundtable, all that we require is advice from the government around what funding might be available and how soon we can transition the existing workforce.
Another of the barriers facing the green recovery is the amount of capital required to train the low carbon energy workforce. If that hurdle can be overcome then we have the experience and expertise at Newcastle College to make a positive and swift contribution.
If you look at the offshore wind sector as an example, trainees need full access to wind turbines – that’s a multi-million-pound piece of kit. Around the table we discussed how it might be possible to invest in that type of infrastructure, the potential cost of relevant courses and how higher and further education can work in tandem to deliver the best possible solution.
When it comes to training new starters for key roles in low carbon industries I’m proud to say that Newcastle College is already ahead of the game. Partnerships with Port of Blyth and ORE Catapult, coupled with the facilities we already provide at our Energy Academy, mean that we’re in an ideal position to lead the charge when it comes to training the future workforce required to spearhead a green recovery and achieve net zero.
Our students have access to a multi-million-pound subsea trenching machine and a state-of-the-art wind turbine training platform. For school leavers looking to enter the industry it’s the perfect training and teaching environment. We have experienced tutors but in the long-term, who will deliver that training?
The pressing need to invest in the experience and expertise of industry leaders was also discussed during our virtual roundtable. Further education colleges simply don’t have the funding available to compete with the salaries available to those working full-time in the low carbon sector. It’s a major barrier to progress.
If we want to provide the next generation of engineers with the necessary skills then they need to learn from people with relevant and recent industry experience. It’s vital. The systems at the heart of renewable energy are evolving so fast that we need people with the very latest knowledge to work with our students.
However, those experts earning between up to £100,000 a year offshore are unlikely to make the switch to a teaching career on a much lower salary. The government needs to look at ways in which we can bridge the financial gap and ensure that the next generation is learning from the very best.
On reflection, taking part in the roundtable was a really positive experience. It’s hugely important for the North East and for Newcastle College to have a seat at that table. It puts us in the spotlight and allows me to relate my industry experiences to a wider audience. I remain positive about the future…and rest assured my energy is undiminished!