From education to employment

Building renewable skills

I don’t think I will ever tire of the reaction I get from people the first time they visit Newcastle College. People tend to expect to see classrooms, not a boeing 737, subea Wellhead Christmas Tree, state-of-the-art car spraying booth, silicone forensic dead body, mutant fruit flies or the blades of a wind turbine.

STEM related education and training within Newcastle College has developed beyond recognition, taking the wide range of academic and vocational courses on offer to the next level. As a college, we work closely with employers and sector specific groups to identify areas of growth and local and national skills gaps. At the moment, one industry which fits both those areas is the renewable energies sector.

Over the past decade, this small niche market has exploded, providing viable long term alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear power. Renewables has claimed pride of place on the Government agenda, attracting a great deal of funding for research, development, manufacture and process. But no sector can enjoy such growth and long term sustainability without the availability of high quality education, training and skills. It would be impossible to guarantee growth without ensuring that you have the right skilled people who can take the business forward for generations to come.

In the North East alone, world-class companies such as Shepherd Offshore, BELL Valves, Wellstream, Duco Ltd and Clipper Windpower are leading the way in establishing a hub for renewable energies through investment in the area. These companies understand that training and skills are key to success; to finding the future generations of scientists, researchers, engineers and manufacturers.

Through its strong partnership with Shepherd Offshore, Newcastle College is building on this principle and in September 2011 will open a Renewable Energies Academy in the North East. It will be the first dedicated training facility in the region to meet the training needs of the renewable market and will strengthen the developing renewable cluster on the Tyne, encourage inward investment into the region and enhance the chances of further major job creation in the area.

Built on the North Bank of the River Tyne, an area earmarked for growth, the 20,000sq ft centre will feature a range of specialist equipment including a computed numerically controlled (CNC) machine and autoclave pressurising apparatus. We will also shortly take delivery of a full sized wind turbine blade so that learners have access to real working environments and facilities.

There is a huge air of excitement around this development. For the first time employers will have a renewable energies facility in the North East which provides a set of nationally recognised qualifications, eventually spanning up to Masters Degree.

Our collaborative vision includes not only employers, but local schools and communities. We are already working with these groups to raise awareness of renewable energies and to engage and inspire local people. A facility of this kind must support the communities its serves and create opportunities for young people, adults, apprentices, employers and those in and out of employment.

This is a very exciting time, both for the renewables sector and for the college. Our work attracts interest from a variety of strategic stakeholders. Local MP and Shadow Secretary for Innovation and Science, Chi Onwurah has already visited the school to see how we are adapting to the STEM agenda. She was passionate about the need to give people opportunity and to support employers through training.

The Renewable Energies Academy is a major investment for both the college and our supporters, but outlines the need and commitment to grow renewables in the North East of England.

This project has taken much planning, but in the wake of Government funding cuts and the economic climate, education institutions and training providers cannot rest on their laurels. Demand-led education, training and skills is the way forward. For the first time in many years, colleges, such as Newcastle College are more frequently looking to the market for guidance and building vocational programmes based around the needs of industry.

And on a more responsible level should we, as education providers, be proactive in raising awareness of this major issue and supporting its continued growth? With oil production declining and global scale disasters such as the Gulf oil spill and nuclear plant crisis in Japan, the world is looking to renewable energies as an alternative energy resource to play a key role within a balanced suite of energy sources and types. Education must play a central role, working with employers, sector groups, schools and communities for the benefit of people and the economy.

Jim Hubbard is director of the School of Applied Science and Technology at Newcastle College

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