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10 SEP 2019
Governments all over the world are talking up the importance of creating jobs that will allow the world to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. Public bodies, however, are better at setting targets than they are at creating jobs. And so it has proved with renewable energy: as politicians demand that renewables should provide an ever-bigger slice of the energy generation cake, so the demand for skilled professionals in the sector increases – with supply struggling to keep up.
Jobs in the European wind energy sector are set to more than double to 569,000 between 2016 and 2030, according to a middle-of-the-road forecast by trade body WindEurope. The number of wind turbine technicians in the US is due to more than double in the seven years to 2024, according to government forecasts.
Many renewable energy developers worldwide are feeling the pinch. “It’s quite a challenge for the industry to almost treble in size in the next 10 years - where is it going to find those people from?” asks Chris Hill FRICS, operational performance director at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, an incubator for UK offshore energy technologies. He refers to a forecast that the British offshore wind sector will need 27,000 direct workers in 2030 compared with around 10,000 now. Although offshore wind in Britain is particularly fast growing, “this principle would apply globally”, he says.
Even in the US solar sector, which posted a relatively modest jobs growth of 7% in 2018, more than a quarter of employers are finding it “very difficult” to find qualified candidates to fill posts, according to a survey by industry body The Solar Foundation.
A significant contributor to the skills shortage has been the unexpectedly rapid fall in the price of wind and solar power, says Hill. “The growth in that sector because of cost reduction has probably come quicker than expected. Now we’re on a very sharp growth trajectory because other technologies such as nuclear don’t appear to be so readily realisable.”
Another likely cause is the lack of young people gaining relevant qualifications - for example in engineering. In mature markets such as the UK, “there’s a perennial issue of not producing a higher proportion of engineers, and about whether engineers are valued in society”, says Hill, adding: “Where the industry struggles is influencing the schools and further education curriculum.”
In particular, he says, the large amounts of data flowing from renewable power plants has led to a huge unmet demand for data scientists who can analyse that information.
Developing markets – where many people have no access to electricity, and where governments proclaim ambitious renewable energy targets – lack the training opportunities to turn out skilled professionals. This skills shortage is felt most acutely in the early stages of a project, explains independent renewables investor Fintan Whelan: “Early development expertise is very local – you need to speak the language and understand the regulations and local political context. From the midpoint onwards, the skillset is international.”
For the pressure group Power For All, off-grid renewable energy - usually in the form of smaller-scale photovoltaics - represents the most cost-effective means of achieving universal electrification in Africa and India. Here too, the skills gap is considerable. The group estimates that the growth in off-grid solar systems in India will require 180,000 jobs by 2023, compared with 95,000 currently. About two-thirds of jobs in the sector are skilled, it estimates, with a particularly acute demand for professionals in product development, after-sales service and senior management.
There's a perennial issue of not producing a higher proportion of engineers, and about whether engineers are valued in society
Chris Hill FRICS
Operational Performance Director at the Offshore Renewable Energy Circuit
There is one obstacle to plugging the skills gap that applies across the world: not enough women are going into renewable energy. In the UK, Hill notes, only 16% of the workforce in offshore wind is female. In Kenya, Nigeria and India, they comprise less than 30% of the workforce in off-grid renewables. “Gender balance is best achieved through the training phase,” suggests Eva Lee, research manager at Power For All.
Hill is optimistic that the skills gap presents opportunities for surveyors to get into renewables – not just in managing contracts and construction, but design and development, too. “An area where offshore wind needs to learn is BIM,” he says, adding that some developers are yet to be won over to BIM’s importance.
For now, surveyors are probably under-represented in the industry. Noting that many renewables projects are developed by utility companies, Hill says: “Utilities aren’t natural places for a surveyor to look for work, but given the growth challenge, I think there will be more opportunities coming up. Surveying professionals have a lot to offer, given their skills in construction and asset management."
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