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Recruitment must step up to manage O&M shortfall

EUROPE: The skills shortage facing the European wind industry is widely acknowledged. But a recent report by renewables consultancy GL Garrad Hassan has put that shortfall at 18,000 people by 2030. Most strikingly, 10,000 of those will be lacking in the operations and maintenance (O&M) sector.

Ageing fleet… As turbines age, service needs grow (Pic:Repower/Jan Oelker)
Ageing fleet… As turbines age, service needs grow (Pic:Repower/Jan Oelker)

The report identifies issues in finance, project management, and manufacturing, but the skills gap in these sectors is not as acute. With manufacturing, for example, the trend for bigger turbines means that fewer are needed to produce more capacity. "If you need ten people to produce a 1MW turbine, you do not need 20 people to produce a 2MW turbine - you maybe need 14," explains Jacopo Moccia, a policy officer at the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). "You are not multiplying manufacturing personnel by the number of megawatts."

However, this rationale cannot be applied to the maintenance sector. As the number of wind farms increases, not only are there many more turbines to maintain, but a proliferation of different models with specific requirements means it is no longer sufficient for an engineer to have a general knowledge of how to repair a turbine. The skills needs are now far more diverse.

Also, as turbines age they require more, or a different kind of attention. Moccia says that a few years ago, the main focus was installing the turbines, after which there would be a five to ten-year period where not that much had to be done. "Now many turbines are reaching a post ten-year period. You have to maintain them more regularly," he says.

The number of players in the post-warranty service market is also growing. "Twenty years ago developers would contract the turbine manufacturer to maintain them for the life of the wind farm," says EWEA research officer Angeliki Koulouri. "Now, as portfolios become bigger, they often sub-contract a third party, which may be cheaper or offer more services than the manufacturer."

Another problem facing the O&M market is that maintenance is not always given high-enough priority by the industry, which is shortsighted says Moccia: "The only profit from the wind farm is selling electricity. If you lose some megawatt hours because your station is poorly maintained, that is a huge blow to your income.

"The fundamental point is that you need a preventative maintenance regime to ensure that you don't get caught with your trousers down. So you need to foresee that manpower clearly," he says.

Lack of graduates

The biggest problem highlighted in the skills report is the shortage of graduates with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) qualifications. Of employers interviewed, 78% said it is very difficult to find suitably trained staff.

With a decline in popularity of STEM subjects among European students, Koulouri welcomes anything that will pull students into STEM subjects at a school or university level. But but the wind industry by itself cannot do that.

The skills problem was highlighted last year when Siemens struggled to fill 37 apprentice posts despite having received more than 1,000 applications. The roles were at the wind-turbine manufacturer's wind-power training school at its integrated energy service training facility in Newcastle, northeast England. When the applications were assessed, Siemens team leaders had doubts about the general educational standard of many applicants, in particular in mathematics.

Call for government action

Trade association RenewableUK is trying to persuade the UK government to act to increase the number of students in STEM subjects. It argues that this would also benefit the engineering industry as a whole.

Sophie Bennett, skills and employment policy officer at RenewableUK, would like to see a reduced fee structure for key courses such as engineering in order to attract people to study those subjects. She also believes that funding for courses could be better planned: "At the moment it tends to be on an almost ad-hoc basis and would be much more useful if it were consistent."

The renewables industry as a whole would benefit from a lot more certainty, but skills are particularly vulnerable without it, says Bennett. "To plan a workforce you need to know what is going to be happening in the long term - what kind of funding you'll have access to, and what skills needs there will be," she says. "In order to do that you need to have a lot more certainty on what the market is going to be like. Ideally, a 2030 forecast on renewable energy would enable the industry to plan its workforce."

She highlights an ongoing need to change perceptions of both engineers and engineering. "We need to move away from it being something that is largely a male role and move towards it being more inclusive for both women and ethnic minorities," she says.

Experience needed

There is no shortage of talented people who want to work in the industry, says Andrew Garrad, CEO of Garrad Hassan, but they are all short of experience. "There are not enough links between the academic and industrial world, so we have suggested various mechanisms to improve that."

Secondment from academia to industry and vice-versa would allow academic staff to be better informed about what the industry is really doing and what the industry really wants, he says.

For several years, pan-European programmes have existed for exchange of students, but the skills report reveals a significant disparity between how practical or theoretical courses are, and exactly what is being taught at a university level in different European countries. One recommendation from the report is to harmonise the vocational training at a European level.

Harmonisation is easier said than done, acknowledges Bennett, which is why it has been talked about for many years. "There are so many different standards that as a whole we strive towards doing that but it's a difficult process."

Both Bennett and Garrad agree on the importance of apprenticeships. Garrad says that large companies must hire more at the ground level rather than expecting to find skilled people. And Bennett believes that there should always be more funding being put into apprenticeships: "They are a great way of providing practical learning opportunities. The industry needs people who are highly skilled, but who also have practical experience at work, and learn at work.

"There is gradual recognition of the importance of apprenticeships which is leading to more support. This is helping to change the perception of apprenticeships as a worthwhile training tool."

Ultimately, the wind industry needs to enthuse the public about its employment possibilities. "The extraordinary developments of the machinery and the sheer size of our business should excite children and young adults to get involved in engineering rather than finance," Garrad says. "It is clearly a more interesting field than oil or gas and we need to convince people to make that leap."

TACKLING THE SKILLS SHORTAGE HOW TO BRING PEOPLE INTO WIND

Education

In the UK, trade body RenewableUK has found regional initiatives particularly effective in raising awareness of the future economic and employment benefits of wind developments. For example, its Champions for Wind programme aims to support teachers in north-east England in providing careers guidance for the wind, wave and tidal industry to pupils aged 13-14 years. The programme was developed by a consortium of companies bidding for the third round of UK offshore projects and the Humberside Education and Training Association.

University

The Erasmus Mundus European wind-energy Masters course aims to educate 120-150 MSc graduates a year in wind energy technology, covering the top 1-2% global demand for wind-energy professionals with post-graduate education.

The European Renewable Energy Centres (EUREC) agency is working with several European universities in renewable-energy education and training. These universities have responded to the demand for industry-appropriate training through the development of the European Master in renewable energy.

Universities involved include Mines-ParisTech and Universite de Perpignan (France), Loughborough University and Northumbria University (UK), Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg and Kassel University (Germany), Zaragoza University (Spain), Hanze UAS (the Netherlands), IST Lisbon (Portugal) and the National Technical University of Athens (Greece). Students move between universities during the first two semesters according to their specialisation, then undertake a six-month project during the third semester in a business or a research centre.

Sweden's Uppsala University offers several wind-specific courses taught in English, from basics to project development, planning and economics and wind turbine technology to a masters programme in wind power project management.

Apprenticeships

The UK's renewable-energy apprenticeship is now in its third year and has trained around 130 people. The renewable-energy apprenticeships programme and the wind-turbine operations-and-maintenance advanced-level apprenticeship are overseen by the National Skills Academy for Power. Standards are set by the renewable-energy companies that offer apprenticeships.

Skills transition

RenewableUK launched the renewables training network (RTN) in November 2011, which works to ensure that experienced skilled workers from other industries can make the transition to renewables effectively. The RTN was set up through joint funding from industry partners and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, and is in the process of developing various training schemes for the wind and marine energy industries.

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