A degree of urgency

As the global wind sector grows, shortages in key operation and maintenance skills, from turbine repair to grid connection, are swiftly becoming apparent.

Degree students...future skills
Degree students...future skills

"In the short term, there is no quick solution," says David Spencer-Percival, CEO at global recruitment firm Spencer Ogden Energy.

"This is partly because the wind industry is sometimes reluctant to take skilled people from other industries."Research by the firm envisages operation and maintenance (O&M) skills shortages in the short and long term.

Onshore O&M workers could be drawn from any heavy industry using rotating equipment, such as the gas turbine, large automotive and the shipping industries, it says.

"Skills from redundant workers in other sectors could support renewable energy requirements," reports Energy & Utility Skills, the UK-based organisation that promotes expertise across the energy and water sectors, but it warns that it may not be just one-way traffic.

"With shortages in most engineering disciplines, both for highly qualified engineers and for experienced technicians, there is increasing reliance on science technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM skills" it says.

"This will exacerbate current shortages as competition increases from other parts of the economy."

Apprenticeships

Trade body RenewableUK concurs.

The wind sector's dependence on relatively highly skilled and qualified labour means it is vulnerable to labour supply problems, concluded its employment and skills study, published in February.

Some 26% of employers in the UK industry reported hard-to-fill vacancies in the previous year, compared to just 3% of employers across all sectors.

Most employers in the onshore wind sector had a shortage of suitable applicants, the study added.

Spencer-Percival says the industry must address the issue directly, as well as poach from other industries.

"Companies have yet to understand that you have to convert academic experience into practical experience.

You have to have apprenticeships, and I think larger companies in renewable energy have to hire more at the ground level rather than expecting to find skilled people."The rapid growth of offshore wind is compounding the problem, he adds.

"There are finite pools of candidates for vacancies and wind farm operators are now simply headhunting each others' people, which is causing wage inflation."

He says the biggest bottleneck is in grid connection; getting good transmission people is a major headache.The growing maturity of onshore turbines does not help.

"Wind assets are getting older in markets such as the US," says James Pipe, renewables manager at Spencer Ogden.

"Older turbines need experienced people who know them to maintain them." If firms cannot maintain older assets, the only option is to spend money upgrading them with newer kit, he says.

Turbines coming out of warranty, as is now happening in the US, accelerates the need for experienced engineers. Retention costs to keep people with know-how on a project throughout its operational life are a major factor.

Action is being taken though, in academia and in the industry, to boost the skills base. Several European universities are now offering degree courses specific to wind.

The University of Oldenburg in northern Germany, home of the Energy and Semiconductor Research Laboratory, has run a European Master degree in Renewable Energy since 2002.

It currently has 55 students. This year course options available include wind power and grid integration.

Major industry players are taking steps too. Siemens opened a new wind power training centre in Bremen, northern Germany, in 2009, offering a broad-based qualification for service technicians from around the globe. This adds to three other facilities in Europe and America.

"We see service as much more than a regular look into the nacelle" says Rene Umlauft, CEO of the renewable energy division of Siemens Energy.

It is the right way forward, says Spencer-Percival.

"What Siemens is doing is exactly what's required. Long term, the skills shortage will be overcome by more specific degrees and engineering apprenticeships."

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