Tim Balcon, Chief Executive of Energy & Utility Skills

In the build up to October’s Talent Management & Leadership Development Summit, Tim Balcon, Chief Executive of Energy & Utility Skills, the Sector Skills Council for gas, power, waste management and water industries offers his expert advise and analysis on how to tackle the skills gap.

The skills gap has been at the heart of the recent election debates and is a key focus point for the new coalition Government. It is true that the UK is suffering from abnormally high unemployment figures and changes need to take place in order to ensure we do not see a repeat of the 1930’s.

A recent CBI/EDI Education and Skills Survey “Ready to Grow: Business Priorities for Education and Skills” has highlighted the UK’s now critical need for an increasingly skilled workforce. People are very quick to blame politicians, however the survey shows that over two thirds (70%) of employers questioned want action to improve the employability skills of school leavers. As a nation, we are letting our young people down. We all tell our children to work hard at school and eat their greens and they can be whatever they want to be. Currently I don’t think this is the case. Although it is difficult to find the jobs of your dreams, we are proactively working with employers to raise the profile of the energy and utilities sector away from the one that is unattractive and dirty to one that has great career options.

It seems all sorts of politicians and leading education figures such as David Cameron and Vince Cable have been heard calling for an overhaul and reform of the education system in the UK. In my opinion, this approach is rather extreme and I propose a more effective and less invasive approach. The DfE and employers need to be much more integrated into the education system. Students may be deemed the end user but surely employers are the real end user.. It would seem like common sense the end users, in this case the employers, have final say and input in the future of the workforce. As with any relationship, communication is the key.

The recent warning that was put out by EEF, The Manufacturers’ organisation, aligns with the results coming out of our recent Workforce Planning Model. In simple terms, the UK is not geared up to cope with the demands we as consumers have on the energy and power industry. One of the major issues is that the UK does not have the number of qualified technicians and staff needed to keep up with demand. The drive for sustainability will affect all aspects of the UK’s infrastructure and essential utilities such as water and waste management. The implications for the skills needs of our sector, in addition to the replenishing of established workforces, are significant.

The Climate Change Act contains provisions that will set legally binding targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. This is great news but how are we meant to stick to this target. The sector employs more over 35’s than the UK average. This is even more marked in the case of management, engineering and technical occupations. We recently undertook a survey looking at public attitudes to the power industry and the careers it offers. The results were quite outstanding with four out of five respondents rating their awareness of the power industry at less the four out of ten. It is an extremely worrying prospect that we will not meet the targets set out.

All hope is not lost. I do believe there is still light at the end of the tunnel. As more money and more emphasis is placed on the importance of sustainability and alternative energy, and new innovative ways to reduce emissions, the hope is that the sector will become more appealing and ‘important’. My want for the future would be to place careers in engineering on a par with lawyers and doctors. I would like the preconceptions of the energy and power industry to be expelled and for people to realise the potential for growth it holds. In order for this to happen, all employers, whether sole traders or multinational corporations, must form alliance and communicate as to what they want and need from the growing numbers of talented and enthusiastic individuals who will inevitably make up the future workforce.”