Opinion: UK needs to address looming skills gap in battery technologies

battery industryThe UK’s world-class EV ambitions need to be backed by a major education boost, encouraging more skills to create a bigger homegrown battery industry, says Steve Doyle, EVera Recruitment CEO. 

The UK creating a Net-Zero economy by 2050 is an ambitious goal whichever way you look at it. The Prime Minister’s well-publicised Green Agenda will radically change many sectors, from domestic heating to the electrification of all transport.

Can this be really achieved though? It’s a tall order. And it’s clear that this country will not meet its carbon-free goals and future electrification targets unless we clearly focus on creating the right skills in the battery industry.

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The good news is that we have made a great start and, in the UK, we have some highly talented people and businesses already contributing. Look, for instance, at the pioneering work being done by UKBIC (UK Battery Industrialisation Centre) and the Faraday Institute. But aside from these beacons, it’s already obvious that we are facing a major skills gap in order to capitalise and prevent key industries moving abroad. As a leading recruiter I’m already seeing how hard it is to attract overseas talent into UK companies, and clearly Brexit hasn’t helped. But battery industry skills are sought globally, there’s simply little incentive for foreign talent to come and use their skills in the UK.

The answer is that we have to develop homegrown talent, and there are three key ways to do this.

Firstly, it’s imperative that we steer youngsters into the right STEM subjects, enticing them with a promising career in an exciting and growing industry. They will literally be powering the future.  If you engage children early enough and in the right way, they will follow a path that they may not have even considered. I go into schools, talking to over 500 pupils every year, about how exciting this industry can be and their enthusiasm is palpable. We now need to harness this enthusiasm across the country, encouraging kids to take the right subjects and channel them into this strategically important industry.

Secondly, we need to do more at graduate level. UK academics invented the lithium-ion battery and we have many more Nobel prize winning chemists that most. Yet, we have precious few battery engineering degree courses. I am honoured to sit on an advisory board set up by WMG and University of Warwick, to help set up and implement an apprenticeship degree in battery engineering. A board that also comprises of Bentley, Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover, Britishvolt and Envision. This is a terrific start, but all of these companies will benefit in the future from having many courses like this around the country, creating a pipeline of qualified battery experts.

If we don’t have a battery industry, we don’t have an automotive industry

Lastly, we should consider reskilling programmes. We need to have the ambition to utilise our many talented engineers but provide top-up programmes to allow them to acquire new skills. Skills that will help them participate, helping to shape our electrified future.

The UK government, academia and the engineering industry needs to be taking hard decisions now to allow the UK to compete. Just look at the speed of change required in the automotive industry. From 2030 the government is mandating the phasing out of petrol and diesel internal combustion engines. That means we are only one generation of models away from 100% battery powered vehicles. In turn that means a rapid maturation of the UK battery industry.

Companies like Britishvolt are forging ahead but we need many more like them and that will require many more specialists to help engineer our collective futures. If we don’t have a battery industry, we don’t have an automotive industry. Or an energy storage industry. It’s highly likely that our aviation sector will wither away too.

We’re embarking on the next industrial revolution and we need to seriously consider sorting the skills to feed it. Companies will increasingly need to rely on credible recruitment partners; specialist industries need specialist partners to help them grow. Which is exactly why EVera Recruitment was formed.

What we don’t have is the luxury of time. Otherwise, it will be not just spell disaster for the UK battery industry, it will be calamitous for the UK economy and our desire to take global leadership in carbon reduction.

Steve Doyle is CEO of EVera Recruitment, Europe’s only dedicated battery, electric vehicle and gigafactory recruiter