From education to employment

Skills shortages in nuclear sector point the way to dealing with wider challenge for UK industry

Chris Claydon MBE, Chief Executive, ECITB

Closing the nuclear #skills gap

As it takes shape on the Somerset coast, you can’t fail to be impressed by the spectacle of Hinkley Point C, the new nuclear power station that is currently being built by EDF. On a recent visit I was struck by the scale of the site and the size of the workforce needed. More than 25,000 workers will be involved in different phases of the construction and once operational around 1,000 people will be required on site.

For nearly 20 years, no new nuclear power stations have been built in the UK. As a consequence, a challenging skills gap has opened in the UK’s nuclear sector as its ageing workforce begins to retire and knowledge is lost.

Currently, engineering expertise is at a premium: the industry needs to recruit up to 40,000 new workers by 2030 to operate Hinkley Point C, Sizewell C and Bradwell B, and up to 60,000 to return to previous levels of nuclear power output.

With the rate of recruitment considerably below this, the shortage of skilled workers risks being the most severe when the industry can least afford it, and the impact will be felt across many sectors.

Reducing Skills Mismatch by transferring trained workers from sectors with a skills surplus

Concerted efforts are underway to recruit new entrants to the nuclear industry, through schemes such as the ECITB-backed nuclear bursary, and recruitment of skilled workers from other engineering sectors. The Government’s Nuclear Sector deal, published in June 2018, recognises the need to transfer trained workers from sectors that have a skills surplus into nuclear to complement other pipelines, such as apprentices and graduates.

With the UK shifting away from coal and other carbon intensive forms of power generation, there is a clear opportunity to choreograph movements between these sectors – at least to bridge the skills gap while we prepare the next generation of talent to enter the sector.

Cottam Power Station, a coal-fired power station on the eastern edge of Nottinghamshire ceased generation last year after some 50 years of operation. In the run-up, the ECITB worked with the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group, and site owners EDF Energy, to look at how skilled workers could transition into nuclear roles.

From the safety and security culture on site to the similarity of the turbines and control room, many of the technical skills and behaviours required are similar. So, when the plant closed in September, EDF enrolled a dozen Cottam operatives on the ECITB’s Accelerated Experienced Learning Programme.

These workers are experienced individuals who are technically competent in their operational roles within a coal power plant and the intensive training programme served to transform their existing skills to the nuclear context.

Skills gaps in crucial highly skilled, technical roles replicated across many UK industries

The skills gaps faced in the nuclear sector – particularly in crucial highly skilled, technical roles – is replicated across many UK industries.

EngineeringUK forecasts an annual deficit of up to 59,000 people in meeting the annual demand for 124,000 core engineering roles requiring skills at Level 3 and above.

The ECITB’s own workforce intelligence suggests as much as 14% of the engineering construction workforce is set to retire by 2026. At the same time, the next decade will see £600bn of infrastructure projects built across the UK, requiring skilled employees across projects from Hinkley Point to HS2 and energy projects to support the transition to net zero carbon.

There is huge demand for high-quality training across UK industry and an acute need to replace an ageing workforce by attracting talented workers with skills for the future.

The Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) is the skills, standards and qualifications body for the development of the engineering construction workforce – the sector responsible for designing, installing, repairing and decommissioning process plant infrastructure in Great Britain.

An arms-length body of the UK Government, the ECITB is funded by a levy collected from the industry, the proceeds of which are used to support employers train and upskill their workforce to industry standards. With current demand for training outstripping available funding, the ECITB identified the need to increase training grants to support the needs of employers and growth in the industry.

The engineering construction companies invest in training and recognise the need to increase that investment; in October 2019, they voted overwhelmingly to pay more levy to support the ECITB’s proposals to increase investment in skills training and help steer industry through what is undoubtedly a critical time.

Key initiatives to address skills gaps and shortages

The ECITB’s new strategy sets out a vision to lead industry learning through to 2022 through a number of key initiatives to address skills gaps and shortages.

These include reskilling programmes, like the partnership with EDF at Cottam, and prioritising grant support for training in in-demand occupations, such as welding and project controls.

We are also acutely aware of the need to make engineering careers more appealing to new entrants, from apprentices to graduates and work with careers organisations to do just that.

There are wider reasons for the skill shortages we see across engineering sectors, such as the cultural shift towards university education and away from vocational training. For many graduates, engineering jobs are misunderstood as being manual, dirty roles. We must challenge that preconception.

Like many other organisations working in this space, the ECITB is aware of the need to rebrand engineering as an appealing career choice, specifically to underrepresented groups including women and people from BAME backgrounds. Changing stereotypes and attracting young people to rewarding roles with great prospects is a vital piece of the puzzle.

The prominence of 2018’s Year of Engineering campaign shows that Government, like other key engineering organisations, are pulling in the same direction to boost the profile of engineering careers.

Closing emerging skills gaps

In the short-term, employers must do more to close emerging skills gaps. To assist them, the ECITB has introduced a new Graduate Development Grant.

This funding supports employers training and development activities for new graduates during their first two years of work in areas such as project controls and commercial awareness.

This funding will help to boost the number of graduates with specific soft skills required by employers following several years of sluggish graduate recruitment in large parts of the industry.

It’s not just graduate recruitment that will solve the shortage of capable and competent people in the industry. Engineers and technicians are required at all levels, with particular emphasis on apprentices as a pipeline of new talent.

We supported over 500 young people starting an apprenticeship in 2019, while almost 150 school leavers took the ECITB’s Introduction to Engineering Construction (ITEC) course, a pre-apprenticeship scheme for young people not in education, employment or training.

The course continues to go from strength to strength with excellent progression rates for ITEC graduates, who are coveted by major industry employers, including Cavendish and Sellafield, and household names from outside engineering construction who recognise the excellent foundation the ITEC provides, such as Airbus and Rolls-Royce.

Attracting and training the next generation of talent

Despite all of these positive developments, we clearly must do more as an industry to attract and train the next generation of talent.

The tide is turning, and this year sees the introduction of the first T levels in England, which will raise the profile and status of practical and vocational training. The ECITB is working closely with the Government and IfATE to ensure T levels adequately prepare young people for work in thousands of new engineering jobs being created in industry. It may take time, but the foundations are being laid for a new generation of highly skilled engineers to enter the workplace.

This focus from Government and willingness of engineering construction companies to contribute more to skills training sends out a strong message; a new consensus is emerging with revitalised vocational learning and renewed investment in training at its heart.

Plugging the skills gap will take time, but it is encouraging to see government and industry taking action to address urgent skills shortages and equip UK industry with the skilled workforce we need to compete globally.

Chris Claydon MBE, Chief Executive, ECITB

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