Announced by UK business secretary Vince Cable last December, the new college is aiming to provide a hub for skills, training and education initiatives, primarily in offshore wind.
It will be located somewhere on the Humber Estuary in north-east England, once the heart of the country's fishing industry and now gaining a new lease of life as the UK's main centre for offshore wind operations and maintenance (O&M). Navigable for even the largest deep-sea vessels and served by ports that include Hull and Grimsby, the Humber has already attracted several of offshore wind's biggest players.
Siemens, Dong Energy, Centrica, E.on and RES have all established facilities at Grimsby to service nearby operating and developing projects that include Humber Gateway (219MW), Westermost Rough (210MW), Lincs (270MW), and Lynn & Inner Dowsing (194MW). Also under development in the region are RWE's Triton Knoll (up to 900MW), Centrica's Race Bank (620MW) and Statoil/Statkraft's Dudgeon (420MW), while Siemens has selected Hull, just 20 kilometres by sea from Grimsby, for its new offshore rotor-blade manufacturing site. Looking further ahead, the Humber is likely to provide the operational home for the huge Round Three projects - Hornsea, Dogger Bank and East Anglia — that between them could potentially add 20GW to the UK's offshore wind capacity.
Filling the gap
The National College programme is a new one, created to provide UK industries that have identified skills gaps with the trained and qualified personnel they currently lack. The aim is to open up a vocational route to higher qualifications as an alternative to a purely academic pathway.
Cable made it quite clear why the programme was needed at the launch announcement last December. "The UK can no longer afford to lag behind countries like France and Germany, which have invested heavily in technical skills at the highest level for generations," he said.
In mid-2014, the government announced its first three national colleges, for high-speed rail, nuclear, and onshore oil and gas. Another four, for advanced manufacturing, digital skills, the creative and cultural industries, and wind power, have since followed. The second tranche of four colleges will cater for up to 10,000 students by 2020, says the UK government's department of business and skills.
The government will provide up to £80 million (EUR104 million) for the programme by 2017, which will be matched by industry employers. It is also providing £5 million for scholarships to support the strongest candidates and is working towards the introduction of maintenance loans for students from around the UK.
The scope and duration of the courses that will be offered by the Humber college have yet to be finalised. Robert Norris, head of communications at trade association RenewableUK, which is working with the programme's instigator, the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership, says: "It's still very early days, but we're anticipating an initial intake of several dozen students, possibly around a hundred.
"We're expecting a mix of applicants, from youngsters just finishing school to mature students, perhaps transferring from other energy sectors. The courses will vary. Some might be specific training programmes, directed and sponsored by employers, that last a few weeks or months. Others will be two or three years in length and will end up in professional qualifications for wind turbine technicians and engineers, or even wind project management."
Significantly, the Humber college's main focus is on offshore wind, reflecting the lack of enthusiasm for onshore wind by the Conservative party, the major partner in the current UK coalition government. However, it is anticipated that the courses will provide transferable skills that could be then applied to onshore wind and the marine energy sector.
Demand for skilled and qualified wind power technicians and engineers is rising, and outstripping supply. According to a RenewableUK survey of its members in 2014, 37% recently reported a number of "hard-to-fill" vacancies. The problem is by no means confined to the UK either. A report, Workers Wanted: the EU wind energy sector skills gap, published in August 2013 by GL Garrad Hassan (now DNV-GL) pointed to a shortage of 7,000 qualified personnel required by the European wind energy sector, which, it argues, could rise to 15,000 by 2030 if the number of graduates taking wind industry-relevant courses does not increase.
The research for Workers Wanted was largely conducted in 2012 when forecasts for wind power growth across the continent were rather more optimistic than they are today, so the shortage may not be quite as bad as the report indicates. But no one doubts that it does exists and that it is getting worse.
The skills shortage is expected to be most felt in the operations and maintenance (O&M) sector, as Europe's wind turbine fleet continues to grow. By 2030 the industry will need 10,000 more O&M staff than are currently available, the report predicts. Vince Cable may have been envious of the technical skills training in Germany and France, but the report suggests a continent-wide shortage of graduates opting for science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, from which the wind industry can draw. Other causes for concern include the perception that the education and training that students receive at universities is lagging behind technical developments in the industry, and that the current focus on academia is leaving the wind sector short of what it most badly needs - practical and problem-solving skills.
EMERGING MARKETS – LACK OF TRAINED STAFF SLOWING BRAZILIAN GROWTH, WRITES ANNA PALLATINO
The pace of wind-power growth in Brazil over recent years has been impressive. Around 5GW is already installed and commissioned and that could treble over the next few years, according to Abeeolica, the country's wind energy association. But the shortage of technically skilled personnel is causing bottlenecks in the supply chain, affecting the pace and costs of project implementation.
According to Adriano Bravo, CEO of Petra Group, a human-resources consultancy operating in the wind-energy sector, the training of staff is fundamental to the development of renewable energies in Brazil.
"In addition to increasing the volume of work that can be undertaken by local people, the qualifications become an additional asset for companies," he says. "It increases their competitiveness and encourages new investment opportunities and business."
Bravo acknowledges the current shortfall in sufficiently-skilled personnel, which ranges from turbine technicians to long-load truck drivers, but expects the demands of market forces to do the main work in making up the deficit. Manufacturers and developers will simply have to up their game in this respect to keep projects on budget and deadline.
"The companies that can present experience and a high level of operational excellence, know how to work on wind developments, and act in accordance with best practices, will have the advantage," he says.