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Have we got the skills?

The Government’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 depends on a range of technologies, including carbon capture and hydrogen, to decarbonise our industrial and energy sectors. But does the UK workforce really have the skills needed to undertake such a massive transformation to the way we power the country?

New research from Element Energy on behalf of the ECITB – Toward Net Zero – says in the short term, the UK should have enough workers with the right skills to bring about the shift to net zero. And with the potential to bring over £40 billion in revenues for the engineering construction industry by 2050, decarbonisation has huge economic as well as environmental incentives. However, the report highlights this revenue growth is only possible if we are able to successfully negotiate a number of critical challenges, including skills shortages further down the road, which must be met to make the switch to low carbon technologies.

Without doubt, the engineering construction industry will play a pivotal role in decarbonising UK industry and reaching our climate change targets. As the industry responsible for critical infrastructure, the shift to net zero will impact on all sectors, including the oil and gas industry, power generation through conventional, nuclear, and renewable technologies, water treatment and waste management, and the processing industries such as chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and food and drink.

Chiefly, the UK’s net-zero objectives depend on the successful decarbonisation of six industrial clusters; these are carbon intensive hotspots located at Merseyside, Teesside, Humberside, Grangemouth, South Wales and Southampton. Under the Government’s plans, at least one industrial cluster must decarbonise fully by 2040, with the remaining five becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

Analysis of the different decarbonisation technologies and the input from industry suggests that the UK’s workforce is starting from solid foundations and already has most of the fundamental skills needed to deploy these technologies. The report by Element Energy found that while the workforce does possess many of the skills needed to deploy these technologies, there are notable gaps in areas such as CO2 pipeline monitoring, production of synthetic fuels and repurposing of salt caverns for hydrogen shortage. There are also skills gaps in areas required for effective organisational behaviour, planning and design, such as project management, systems thinking and collaborative working. Additionally, the number of workers required and the timeframe for their deployment remains unclear, which could lead to skills shortages.

With hundreds of millions of pounds already committed by the Government to deploy technologies like carbon capture and storage, and low-carbon hydrogen production, the skills and services of engineering construction industry workforce are already in demand. Delivery of the technologies and infrastructure required to decarbonise industrial sites and processes relies on a vibrant and skilled contracting industry. This is good news for readers of Electrical Review; the shift to net zero will require electrical engineers ’skills to retrofit industrial plants with the low-carbon power sources that are a vital part of the UK’s plan to reach net zero over the next three decades.

Technological changes expected in the short term include the early deployment of hydrogen production, carbon capture and storage, and emission mitigation measures in the oil and gas sector. The research suggests these technologies will cause limited disruption. Hydrogen production through reformation and electrolysis has already been used by UK industry albeit on small stage projects. And carbon capture technologies share some design and operational features with the oil and gas industry.

So, while operatives will require industry-specific training on how to build and operate newer technologies, the underlying foundational skills are already present. While the transfer of skills from some sectors could leave skills gaps to address in the short-term, the major changes will relate to different ways of working and project delivery, which require a shift to more collaborative approach to ensure synergies between different industries.

More disruptive technologies are expected to follow in the medium and long term. Hydrogen storage in salt caverns, synthesis of fuels from captured carbon dioxide, and direct air carbon capture and storage are all technologies mooted for deployment that have not been used at scale before, and we do not yet know the full extent of the skills required. For example, hydrogen storage technologies may require additional skills that are currently not widely available within the engineering construction industry and may require skills similar to those employed by the exploration and mining industries. As the roll-out of key decarbonisation technologies accelerate in the medium and long term, policies to address any skill shortages and adoption of innovative technologies will also be required to ensure industry develops well-rounded expertise within the UK and to ensure the workforce will be readily available in vital areas.

The ECITB – skills body for the engineering construction industry – is already working to identify and address these skills challenges through a review of our training and qualifications to ensure they reflect this direction of travel. This preparation should help deliver a workforce equipped to tackle this most pressing of challenges.

In addition, we are working to identify areas of the engineering workforce with transferable skills that would translate into other roles necessary for the net zero transition. For example, pipe fitters and designers, leak test technicians, and offshore barge operators who currently work in the oil and gas sector could be retrained for the needs of building and operating carbon capture and storage infrastructure.

While this strategy will help mitigate against the short-term impacts, a repositioning of the engineering construction industry to make the sector more attractive will be needed in the long term. The industry should focus recruitment efforts on the younger generations that are looking for high-impact careers, including fighting climate change.

There is no doubt this change is both revolutionary in terms of scope and the required rate of change to reach the net zero targets. However, the net-zero transition should lead to the development of unique expertise in the UK. As the first developed economy to declare a net-zero target, the UK will have the potential to develop skills that could be exported to decarbonise other markets and countries that follow the UK.

Engineering construction is a dynamic industry, and, as demonstrated by the widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies in recent years, an industry with a successful track record of adapting. If industry and government work together to ensure we monitor and tackle skills gaps and shortages with the required training, we will see a thriving industry that is able to transform big challenges into great opportunities.

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