Does the UK have enough electricians to meet surging demand for green technologies?

Author: Michael Holder

Demand for green tech may mean the UK needs 15,000 additional skilled electricians over the next five years, the industry says - but are enough people being trained up?

We're frequently told that the way we consume energy today will be drastically different in the near future. And it is easy to understand why, as the transition is already beginning to take place - smart meters are being installed; more electricity is being generated and stored at home; electric cars are increasingly being charged up both in the garage and on the go, as well as being used to balance the grid; and AI and digital technologies are helping us to manage all of these technologies more efficiently.

But could an easily overlooked challenge derail this ambitious vision? If we are to continue our rapid journey to a low carbon, decentralised, digitally-connected and data-driven energy system, the UK will need a far greater pool of electrical skills and expertise from which to draw, it seems. And people across the industry are increasingly concerned that the necessary talent pool is not being topped up nearly quickly enough.

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At present, UK electrotechnical companies are estimated to employ around 227,000 people, although electrical skills cross the divide into nearly all other sectors of the economy, bringing the total closer to 341,800.

But in order to meet the growing demand for developing and installing new smart and clean energy technologies, around 12,500 to 15,000 additional skilled electricians will be needed over the next five years in the UK, the Electrotechnical and Skills Partnership (TESP) estimated in a new industry study last week.

Commissioned by TESP - a not-for-profit partnership of several electrical sector trade bodies and unions - and co-funded with industry charity National Electrical Training, the research provides an in-depth analysis of the UK's electro-technical skills requirements over the next decade. It draws on a survey carried out by consultants Pye Tait of almost 450 companies in the sector with a total of around 19,000 employees, and was co-funded by TESP and industry charity National Electrotechnical Training.  

It found that new technologies - such as smart systems, electric vehicles and charging, LED lighting, building controls, green energy and renewables - as well as potential changes to regulation are among the biggest drivers of change expected across the electro-technical sector.

"Future technologies are expected to have a significant impact on the electrotechnical sector and this impact is only expected to increase in all cases," it states.

More evidence then, on the face of it, of the huge green jobs boost available from shifting to new, low carbon technologies. And indeed, there are many positives to draw from the study.

For one, low carbon energy sources, such as wind farms, solar, biofuels, nuclear, energy storage and small-scale PV, are expected to have a major influence on the electrotechnical sector's future people and skills needs

"This is not only seen as something to benefit the sector but as something that is and will likely be increasingly driven politically to reduce the effects of climate change by becoming more energy efficient and 'green'," the report states. "To quote one respondent, 'we are going into the electric era and sustainability is the key word from now to 2030'."

Then there is the shift towards smart technology - such as app-based equipment, smart controls, bluetooth, and wireless communications for smart meters and building energy management - which is also seen as a major driver of rising demand for new skills, as people are sought to develop and install these efficient, low carbon systems over the next decade.

Yet the report also raises serious questions about the UK's preparedness for the changes afoot. Electric vehicles and charging were frequently cited in the survey as key drivers of change across the sector, with an expected growth in demand for skills to install rapidly evolving EV chargers. But many of those interviewed "expressed some concern as to whether standards and training could keep up with government targets" in the coming years, as well as a "lack of confidence in the infrastructure being in place" for a phase out of fossil fuel cars within the next two decades, according to the study.

One respondent reportedly said that phasing out fossil fuel cars was "a massive undertaking and one that doesn't appear to be achievable at present".

Which brings us to the study's central and most important finding: there is a looming shortage of skills - most notably among electricians with expertise in smart meters, renewables, EVs, batteries and digital services - to meet the increasingly immediate demands of the low carbon economy.

According to TESP study, even if an extra 5,000 new electrical apprentices qualify by 2023, representing a 33 per cent increase on current levels of new apprentices entering the industry, that still leaves a skills gap of around 7,500 to 10,000 new electricians in the UK, who will therefore need to be sourced from elsewhere. Moreover, these figures only cover meeting the demands of sector expansion over the next five years, and do not account for potential staff turnover from electricians quitting their jobs or retiring.

Add on to the pile of worries potentially negative economic headwinds, scant funds for training and skills, and the possibility of limitations on available workforce as a result of Brexit, and there are understandable concerns across the sector about where these crucial jobs and skills will come from.

However, for all the wider concerns it is the inadequacy of current training efforts that is identified as the main problem.

"For the most part employers are in two minds about the quality of education and training for the sector," the study states. "On the one hand they are satisfied that current standards reflect current needs (subject to standards being kept up to date). However, they find themselves somewhat dissatisfied with current education and training provision - in contrast with previous research - on the basis of their perception that providers lack up-to-date tuition staff."

As such, TESP is now developing an industry action plan to tackle the issues raised by the study, which it describes as the first of its kind in a decade, and is working to create new careers resources to better promote qualifications and training among young people, and forge closer ties between industry, schools, and further education.

For its part, the government announced plans in the recent Spring Statement to bring forward a £700m package of funding to help small and medium companies invest in apprenticeships, clearly recognising UK's need for more skills to support its industrial strategy and clean growth plans.

In a statement, the Department for Education said its apprenticeship programme was designed to be employer-led "so that business can choose the type and level of training that they require to meet their skills needs". It added that its reforms would help ensure "longer, higher-quality" apprenticeships "with more off-the-job training". 

Ruth Devine, chair of TESP and managing director of contracting firm SJD Electrical, said all organisations in the sector had a crucial part to play in coordinating a response to the challenges highlighted by the study. "Future success will, however, also hinge on the active participation and support of other stakeholders, including government departments and agencies, clients, training providers, other sector bodies and of course individual businesses - especially the small and micro businesses who make up our industry's core," she added.

The low carbon energy transition is often hailed as a boon for jobs - albeit with the caveat of jobs disappearing from fossil fuel industries at the same time - yet those green jobs will only exist if the workforce is properly equipped to seize the opportunities on offer. Without those skills, the much heralded cleaner, cheaper, and more efficient economy of the future may struggle to make it off the drawing board.