Opinion: Training won’t bridge offshore wind skills gap alone - we must build competency too

The news is awash with positive stories about offshore wind: from Finland’s latest 2.1GW project, to Australia’s offshore wind implementation statement.

It’s a staggering rate of growth that will necessitate a huge workforce, and it’s widely known that the energy industry will find it increasingly difficult to find sufficiently skilled workers to fill those vacancies.

Worryingly, while the industry hasn’t quite got to grips with filling the headcount gap, there is yet another workforce gap that looms large, the competency gap.

Availability of talent squeezed from all sides

The market for high-calibre graduates is increasingly competitive. Where once there was little overlap, as the digitalisation on the energy industry continues, the technology sector has becoming increasingly attractive to candidates.

In addition, in the UK, only around 40,000 engineering and manufacturing technology apprentices graduated in 2021 – a 20% decrease since 2019.

The situation is worsened by the high proportion of skilled workers that reach pensionable age each year.

Altogether, the availability of skilled workers is becoming a major bottleneck to the energy transition.

Hands off the oil and gas workforce

There has been discussion about retraining the oil and gas workforce to meet some of the demand. However, the oil and gas industry will exist for decades yet and may even see periods of resurgence depending on political will and supply and demand economics.

One example is former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss announcing plans to offer nearly 900 locations for oil and gas exploration during her 45-day tenure.

Proactive measures may not be enough

Some countries continue to play the skilled workforce numbers game. The European Union is reforming migration policies, launching a talent partnership programme to boost international mobility to match labour market needs. South Korea, meanwhile, has signed several memorandums of understanding with international offshore wind partners to collaborate and gain their expertise. Under the Inflation Reduction Act the US will provide tax credits to firms offering manufacturing apprenticeships.

Many businesses are also taking a proactive approach, working with local schools and universities to attract new talent, pooling from skilled workers such as the veteran community and employing flexible working practices to attract women into the workplace. Yet, despite the best efforts of governments, states and companies to create a new workforce for the energy industry, a gap will remain. The gap of competence.

The competence gap

Competence comes from on-the-job experience and the skills and knowledge gained as result. It is not something that can be gained through training alone. Training helps people talk the talk, but they then need to walk the walk.

One of the core pillars of industry – safe operations – requires an exceptional level of competence to ensure the right measures to control and manage risks are put in place. In high-risk industries, getting it wrong can be catastrophic; something the oil and gas industry knows all too well. Offshore wind has been able to implement many of these lessons from the outset to uphold a high safety record.

Competence is also vital for ensuring quality workmanship as assets will have a life expectancy in excess of 25 years. The quality of the build, as well as the operation and maintenance of the equipment will significantly influence the return on investment and the asset’s capability.

In other words, the energy transition partly hangs on the competence of the workforce to execute designs as intended.

Extending the season

One route that should boost competence is the increasing prevalence of offshore wind projects south of the equator. A significant portion of the world’s offshore wind fleet is located above 0 degrees latitude, with a high volume of work to be executed in just a few months.

However, with countries including Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay looking at offshore wind, this could change, which would allow international business to work offshore year-round while also upskilling the local workforce.

A greater use of joint ventures and frameworks to allow smaller companies to execute work packages would also help to bridge the competency gap – allowing the industry to tap into small pockets of skilled workers.

Finally, service operation vessels built for the wind industry, as well as purpose-built walk to work vessels, provide access to platforms during bad weather, safely extending the season in Northern Europe.

This increases opportunities for competence building through cross-training from different regions.

We do not have all the answers, but it is apparent that solely increasing the headcount of the workforce will not allow the wind energy industry to achieve its goals; we must begin to prioritise competence before it becomes an unmanageable risk to offshore wind, and to the energy transition as a whole.

Wayne Mulhall is managing director at James Fisher Renewables

Thumbnail credit: Yao Feng/VCG via Getty Images