Could a skilled worker shortage hinder the path to net zero? Not if we act now, says David Nash
WITH the recent publication of the UK Government’s Net Zero Strategy and announcement of the first two carbon capture and storage (CCUS) sites, the energy transition feels firmly under way. But despite the rhetoric on green jobs, we face a mixed picture on skills that cannot be ignored.
Another week, another net zero announcement. In the last few months alone, they have come thick and fast. And while the timing has evidently been choreographed to coincide with COP26, this isn’t just a publicity exercise. Within the hundreds of pages are substantive commitments and policy actions which shed crucial light on how the transition to net zero will take shape.
Among the recent announcements was funding for the first two carbon capture clusters to become operational by 2025.
The East Coast Cluster and HyNet in Liverpool Bay will have the capacity to store up to 37m t of CO2 emissions every year, and will be central to decarbonising industry in their respective regions.
Industrial facilities must cut the amount of carbon they emit by two-thirds over the next 15 years if the UK is to stay on track to hit net zero by 2050. For the process industries – including chemical manufacturing – this means deploying energy efficiency, fuel switching technologies, and CCUS at scale.
Industrial facilities must cut the amount of carbon they emit by two-thirds over the next 15 years if the UK is to stay on track to hit net zero by 2050
As daunting as this transformation sounds, it presents engineering services companies with significant commercial opportunities over the coming decades. Analysis by Element Energy suggests over £40bn of revenues will be up for grabs in areas such as fuel switching and hydrogen production.
And that’s not all. The UK engineering services sector already has the expertise to deliver many of these groundbreaking projects. Engineers who design and maintain chemical plants and oil refineries will find many of their core skills transfer directly to low-carbon projects. The HyNet cluster will produce low-carbon hydrogen at Essar’s Stanlow Manufacturing Complex in Ellesmere Port. The conversion of fossil fuel gases from the refinery into hydrogen will use familiar processes such as amine absorption and regeneration. So while the technology might be relatively new, many of the technical skills required won’t be.
The challenge is not so much one of skills type, but rather the volume of skilled workers available. The Net Zero Strategy suggests the energy transition will support 190,000 jobs by 2025, leaping to 440,000 jobs by 2030 as demand peaks with construction of further hydrogen and CCUS facilities, new nuclear power and a massive expansion in offshore wind. Yet, large parts of the supply chain have contracted over the last two years due to Covid-19. Analysis by the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) suggests the workforce has declined by 15% in 2021 compared to 2019, and is not expected to recover fully until 2023.
The risk of a skilled worker shortage hindering the path to net zero is compounded by the decline in the number of further education students and apprentices following engineering pathways (down 36% and 42% respectively since 2018 in England). Add to that the age of the workforce (38% are over 50), with many likely to retire in the coming years. Failure to address this imbalance will mean the UK will be more reliant on importing skilled workers to bridge the gap.
The other main workforce challenge is one of adaptability. Energy transition will require engineers to work in new industrial contexts where practical experience is limited. They will need to understand how new technologies integrate with existing industrial facilities and work towards new technical standards for the compression, storage and transport of hydrogen and CO2. New recruits will need a pioneering mindset, where flexibility and problem-solving will be key attributes. Digital skills will be more important than ever before, in areas such as CO2 monitoring and advanced leak detection.
We must act now to ensure we have sufficient numbers of skilled engineers to power the energy and industrial transition. Without this, the net zero target will remain just that: a target, not a reality
All this requires action now to train up and upskill a new cadre of engineers for net zero. The UK’s latest budget saw the Chancellor confirm a welcome and long-overdue boost in funding for skills, including additional funds for skills bootcamps. We now need to see policy pledges translated into delivery.
The ECITB is committed to playing its part. Our new Energy Transfer Technician Scholarship, a two-year fully-funded training programme which will prepare young technicians for low-carbon careers, commenced last month. We have also launched an Energy Transition Technology Leadership programme – a modular Master’s-level programme aimed at senior engineers. Our new strategy will set out further our plans to support delivery of vital skills for the transition.
Developing a skilled workforce for net zero requires concerted action by industry and Government. While there is much to be positive about, we must act now to ensure we have sufficient numbers of skilled engineers to power the energy and industrial transition. Without this, the net zero target will remain just that: a target, not a reality.
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