Facing the skills gap in offshore wind

Thriving UK offshore sector struggles to fill vacancies.

Being home to the largest offshore wind industry in the world, the UK also has the largest workforce. Around 31,000 full-time employees work in the sector, according to trade body RenewableUK. Of these, 41% are engaged in construction and installation, 20% in support services, 17% in operations and maintenance, 15% in planning and development, and 7% in design and manufacturing.

The wind and marine energy sector has a highly skilled and qualified workforce. A recent study by RenewableUK and Energy & Utility Skills estimates that around 59% of the workforce is employed in managerial or professional occupations - compared with a UK average of 40% for the economy as a whole. This makes the offshore energy sector more dependent on skilled people and thus more vulnerable to labour supply problems.

Over the past year, a quarter of employers in the UK offshore wind sector reported hard-to-fill vacancies, compared with a national average of 3%. Applicants lacked the required experience in nearly half the cases reported, followed by insufficient skills (29%) or qualifications (14%).

Inevitably for such a young industry, the number of people with significant experience in offshore wind construction is small. Delivery of offshore wind projects has a fair degree of similarity to offshore oil and gas, but there are significant differences too.

Tom Hopkinson of energy recruitment firm Taylor Hopkinson recalls how, in the 1970s, the offshore oil and gas industry looked to former military staff to fill the skills gap in the North Sea. Now he sees a similar skills transfer from oil and gas to offshore wind and wave energy.

Job creation

A 2009 study by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) concluded that 15 long-term jobs are created in the EU for every megawatt installed. And another 0.4 jobs are created in operations and maintenance for every megawatt of cumulative capacity.

Of the people directly employed in the European wind industry, EWEA says almost 80% are in Spain, Germany and Denmark. Another 42,000 indirect jobs are estimated to result from the wind industry's activities. This figure will more than double by 2020, based on a total installed base of 180GW. By then, EWEA says that half of these jobs will be offshore-related.