Powerful opportunities

With the UK’s sustainable energy sector experiencing unprecedented growth and nuclear getting a government boost, the future for engineers is looking good, says Julia Pierce.

The government’s recent draft Climate Change Bill outlined plans to cut emissions by 60 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050, with around half of this being achieved by 2020.

The bill promised further investment in low-carbon fuels and technologies such as carbon capture and storage, wind, wave and solar power — all good news for employment in a sector already experiencing unprecedented growth.

’The market in the UK and worldwide is really exploding,’ said Jens-Peter Saul, managing director of Siemens Power Generation in the UK. ’There is outstanding growth, especially here, after many years of inactivity. The market is growing wildly. We have doubled our orders in the last year and will double them again this year.’

Scottish Power, which is also developing its involvement in renewable energy provision, has recently announced its intention to construct a £10m wave generation project off Orkney (see feature).

’The wave and tidal industries will be growing a lot over the next five years, just like the wind industry has over the past five to seven. People come to the sector as they are excited by its vibrancy,’ said Tony Fegan, Scottish Power’s renewables and major projects programme director, who himself moved to energy from the water industry two years ago.

But it is not just the sustainable energy sector that is doing well and driving demand for recruits. While a firm commitment to building new nuclear facilities may not yet be fully certain, the industry has received a new lease of life from renewed government interest.

’In general terms we are recruiting broadly across the organisation,’ said British Energy’s head of organisational development, Sarah Johnson. ’There will be a large growth spurt if any new-build goes ahead.’

While nuclear power and renewables are expanding, the UK’s almost insatiable demand for energy means that established generation methods are also having to increase their staff at the same time as vital work to shore up the transmission infrastructure is taking place.

’While decommissioning as well as new build is driving the nuclear industry, fuel use is on the up so the oil industry is also busy,’ said Andrew Clews of recruitment agency Bowcliffe Partners. ’Meanwhile the National Grid is 50 or 60 years old and a large renewal programme is kicking off.’

At the other extreme, the cutting edge of research into future energy systems recruitment is also driving forward. David Martin, engineering and cryogenics group leader at the UKAEA’s Culham research unit in Oxfordshire, said it is exploring the possibility of becoming a separate facility governed by one of the research councils. ’If so, we will be looking to recruit around 80 people, about 20 per cent of them engineers,’ he said.

However, with so much demand to staff this growth, the energy market could become a victim of its own success. While sectors such as rail and defence are bemoaning a shortage of skilled individuals, in the energy sector the growth of renewables may actually be constrained by a lack of people with the relevant qualifications and experience to fill the posts being created.

Complex systems

UKAEA Culham houses two fusion experiments: the Joint European Torus (JET) which is the flagship of the European Community’s Fusion Programme, and the Mega-Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST). ’Both are very complex systems that involve pulsed electrical power supply,’ said John Hay, head of Culham’s Power Supplies Unit. ’They therefore operate at very high and very low power levels, with plant and systems that operate outside conventional levels.’

As a result, he said that he requires engineers who can look at the fundamentals of engineering to design novel ways of coping with these demands. Yet finding people with the right level of understanding of the basic science that underlies such research is proving hard.

’It is very interesting work, but I need electrical engineers who can use engineering theory to work through issues. Unfortunately our recruitment is limited by the candidates — I may interview one in five applicants and probably only recruit one in five of those interviewed,’ he said.

Dan Rendell, an electrical engineer in UKAEA’s Power Supplies Unit, is one of those who made it through the selection process. He joined the company a year ago after spending 10 years in the motorsport and automotive sectors. ’I was looking at power electronics issues but wanted to work with larger power engineering systems,’ he explained. A presentation about fusion raised his interest and he applied. ’My skills were very transferable to the sector,’ he added.

But there are still not enough people with Rendell’s depth of experience coming through.

’Resources are a problem,’ said Siemens’ Saul. ’We are looking for a large number of engineers from electrical to mechanical and civil, and finding them makes it hard to cope with the volume of orders we have in the UK. Turbine engineers and mechanical engineers are particularly in demand, though finding enough electrical engineers will soon become a problem.

’It is very hard to get engineers as there is a general lack of them coupled with quite high demand,’ added Scottish Power’s Fegan. ’The water industry and highways are carrying out a lot of infrastructure work, so it isn’t easy to recruit people. However, renewables is a very new industry so we are looking for young people who can learn about it with us. The telecoms market is going through some major changes so we are recruiting from there.’

Staffing gap

Such an approach may offer a solution to the problem of finding employees to fill posts at the middle level. ’There is a staffing gap in the industry,’ explained Mouchel Parkman Energy’sengineering director Tony Voss. ’There are many people at the top who are due to retire soon or who want to become part-time in preparation for this.

’At the other end there is an increasing number of graduates coming in. But there is a shortage of people in their 30s and 40s. Retention is now as important as recruitment. Our real problems are finding people for pipeline and mechanical, civil and structural posts.’

To solve its recruitment issues, the company is looking into opening a London office to attract staff that may not be keen to work in the Midlands, where the company has traditionally been based. ’While the situation may be sustainable in the short term, recruitment and resource availability is becoming a real hurdle for growth,’ he added.

As demand for both energy and ways of creating this without detriment to the environment grow, so engineers either within or moving to the energy sector will enjoy the opportunity to choose from a wide choice of roles.

For those with the right skills and enthusiasm, the sector will offer unrivalled opportunities, regardless of whether their interests lie in nuclear, oil and gas or renewable energy. ’In the short, medium and long term, the future for careers in the sector is looking very bright,’ said Siemens’ Saul. ’There really are some fantastic opportunities.’