Beating the age and skills gap: how the electrical industry is future-proofing Scotland

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Opinion

Alan Wilson, managing director of industry body, SELECT, looks at how the electrical industry in Scotland is managing changing demographics and the continued issues surrounding the skills gap. 

Electricity and electrotechnology underpin every aspect of modern Scottish society and the recently highlighted prospect of an erosion of highly technical skills as a result of population decline is of great relevance to this vital, safety-critical sector.

The issue is of immediate concern, as the Centre for Work-based Learning revealed the extent of the challenge of a falling birth rate in Scotland – which, in the final quarter of last year, was the lowest since records began and, ominously, fell behind the death rate.

We have already seen how the disappearance of skills has adversely affected sectors such as heavy engineering, where the workforce is older, and few young people are being trained to replace naturally wasting experience. Scotland is even facing shortages of GPs as young doctors decline to enter the specialism.

In the electrotechnical sector, however – a sector which makes possible every facet of day-to-day life, from the internet to cars, hospitals, homes and businesses – maintaining and improving the skills of the people who keep the lights on is incredibly important.

And, as renewables, home technology, smart meters and electric vehicles add to the dependency we have on electro-living, the campaign by the sector to introduce a series of measures to raise the profile of the profession and to achieve the status of Protected Title for electricians is being accepted as increasingly justified.

There has been major cooperation within the sector, with campaigning trade body SELECT, the Scottish Electrical Charitable Training Trust (SECTT), the Scottish Joint Industry Board (SJIB) and Unite the Union at the forefront of efforts to future-proof the profession.

Accepting the challenges of an aging workforce, it has battled to maintain the numbers of apprentices entering the industry, which halved in the 2008-13 recession from 850 a year to 430. Numbers are now back up to an average of 700 a year.

The good news is that the latest market intelligence research from The Electrotechnical Skills Partnership (TESP) showed that tackling the aging workforce is a key area of success in Scotland, with the lowest number of concerns about careers across the UK.

Indeed, Scotland-based employers have, on average, seven to eight employees under the age of 25, more than double that of other areas in Britain. And employee training is above the UK average, with 93% of employers putting staff through non-mandatory training annually.

However, while the Work-based Learning report clearly demonstrates that upskilling the next generation is more crucial than ever, we have to ensure they are the right skills.

The next generation of electricians will enjoy access to a world of exciting technology, including the Internet of Things, which will affect the way we live, so it is vital that we have a working population that understands it.

Adult training schemes can give people the right basic skills, on which they can build to learn different areas of work, particularly new technology. Suitably trained electricians are well placed to facilitate rapid technical and digital change. It is very important to raise awareness among trainees of the potential of new technologies. 

In total, the sector has 3,000 apprentices in training – a massive investment in the future. If we can instill the core competencies and transferable skills in the upcoming generations, they can deal professionally and capably with any enhancements required as the advance of electro-technology inexorably continues.

The fact is that, without apprentices coming through the ranks and being comprehensively trained, there simply would be no electrical industry in the future, with all the implications that would have as Scotland becomes an electric-based economy.

We need professionally-minded people who are dedicated to the highest possible standards in the electrotechnical sector and who will, in turn, help to bring on the skill base of the future.