A skills shortage time bomb

With the global wind industry expanding at 30% each year and as more targets are set by governments for increased use of renewable energy, the human capital needed to deliver the growing demand for clean green power is often an overlooked issue. Employment in the wind sector could grow from approximately 114,000 jobs in 2001 to 1.47 million jobs in 2020 if wind energy meets 12% of the world's electricity needs, according to Windforce 12. Yet a scarcity of the right skills and expertise could jeopardise the ability of countries to meet their targets.

The growth of the entire wind sector is already being constrained by a shortage of people with the right expertise, particularly in project development. The industry needs to plan more rigorously to fill its skills gaps if it is to keep pace with market demand for wind power plant, say the experts

With the global wind industry expanding at 30% each year -- faster than any other form of energy -- and as more and more targets are set by governments for increased use of renewable energy, the human capital needed to deliver the growing demand for clean green power is often an overlooked issue. Employment in the wind sector could grow from approximately 114,000 jobs in 2001 to 1.47 million jobs in 2020 if wind energy meets 12% of the world's electricity needs, according to Windforce 12, a study by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) and Greenpeace. Yet a scarcity of the right skills and expertise could prove a major constraint to the continued expansion of the industry and jeopardise the ability of countries to meet their targets.

The plethora of job vacancies advertised on the web sites of companies and trade associations in the wind business -- and on new sites such as greenjobs.com -- are evidence that people with the right wind skills and, more crucially, the right experience, are universally sought after. Even with efficiency gains and economies of scale expected to reduce the number of jobs needed per megawatt of wind, from 20 jobs in 2001 to 9.8 in 2020, cut-throat competition for expert staff will continue.

Lack of the right staff is already constraining wind plant developers from progressing as many projects as they would wish. The shortage is particularly acute in the UK. "Suddenly we see a brighter future and growth in this country, but there are very few experienced wind professionals available out there because of the speed at which the industry has been growing over the last decade," says National Wind Power's Alan Moore. A recent job advert by the company attracted 250 applications, he says. "But very, very few from people with experience in wind. So we are having to take people without experience and train them up."

Experience vacuum

From British green electricity sales company and developer Ecotricity, Dale Vince also laments the lack of experienced people. The Ecotricity group is recruiting two or three people a month and is building up a domestic sales team ready to launch its green power products to domestic customers in 2003. While the company reports no problems with recruiting sales staff or traders (due to the consolidation in the conventional electricity industry), people with wind project development skills "from site selection all the way through the planning process" are in short supply, says Vince. The industry needs wind resource expertise, people who can turn wind data into energy data. "It is an area which is technical and unique to wind, but it's not rocket science." Vince notes a growing number of applicants for jobs with qualifications such as MScs in renewable energy. "We must get a dozen CVs per week from people with shiny new certificates, looking for a role in the industry. But that is knowledge without experience. The shortage is in experience."

From worldwide wind power consultants PB Power, Paul Van Lieshout agrees that experience is key, but he also points out that the scale of projects is growing rapidly, and different skills are needed. Now that the wind industry is growing up, large independent power producers (IPPs) are entering the scene. "We believe that wind farms should be looked upon as power stations and we should not have to apologise for that fact," he says, pointing out that PB is geared towards providing services connected with large projects.

As projects increase in size, more people are needed to conduct peer reviews and due diligence work, says Van Lieshout. And while previously most turbines were connected to the 11 kV network, today more are feeding into the high voltage grid. These issues demand skills more usually associated with the conventional power industry. "We are looking for people who are involved in wind and for people that know about the power sector as well." But it is rare to get people with experience of both, he says.

The role of politics

Geography is another important factor in the availability of skills. Andrew Garrad of international consultants Garrad Hassan cites Spain as a market which demonstrates the clear link between the growth in numbers of experienced wind professionals and a sustainable market for wind. Out of five people recently recruited by the company, three were from Spain. Interestingly, Spain also produces a higher proportion of women engineering graduates. While Garrad Hassan's intake of women engineers in the UK is around the national average of 7%, in Spain it is around 50%.

By contrast, the worst culprit for not nurturing home grown wind expertise is the US, closely followed by the UK. Garrad attributes this to the stop/start nature of both markets, with the production tax credit taking much of the blame in the US where only a hard core of enthusiasts are left, he says. Because of the difficulty finding skilled people in the US, Garrad Hassan is recruiting specialists in Europe to head its San Diego office and to train local recruits.

From development company Renewable Energy Systems, David Stace also reports problems recruiting in America -- particularly developers. "The US is difficult. We have hired someone with development skills but it took us a good six months," he says. The company also had to recruit from abroad for specialists to the UK.

A world away is Denmark where, according to the Danish wind industry association, there is no problem acquiring the appropriate human resources. In November, the association conducted a survey of its members, who are component suppliers, consultants and developers as well as turbine manufacturers. The companies report no shortage of experienced staff, the association's Søren Krohn says. But he underlines that the Danish wind industry is more than 20 years old; over the years ordinary engineers have been hired and trained in-house for specific wind-related posts.

Despite no apparent shortage of engineers in the major manufacturing companies, Vestas' Mogens Filtenborg points out that the company has sited its R&D departments where the engineers want to live, in cities and not at the company's headquarters in sparsely populated west Denmark. In its latest job advertisements in Danish newspapers, Vestas even offered successful applicants the chance to choose where to work.

Supporting Garrad's view of the availability of skills in mature wind markets, Norbert Allnoch of the International Economic Forum Renewable Energies (IWR), which regularly surveys the employment situation, says there is no shortage in Germany. Vacant posts in renewables advertised on the IWR web site usually elicit 50 to 80 responses and are quickly filled. "This could be related to the stable renewables market in Germany, making it an attractive sector to work in," Allnoch says. He notes, though, that there are areas of the wind industry where very few people have specialist know-how and are not easily replaceable. "It's the same in the oil and gas industries," Allnoch says.

Adapting know-how

In Germany, turbine manufacturer Nordex acknowledges that finding engineers with specialist wind energy experience is more difficult. But, says the company's Felix Losada, candidates from aeroplane construction, power station turbine construction, waste recycling and other similar sectors have know-how which can be adapted to the wind industry.

Irish company Airtricity believes that first class management and extensive training of new staff is the answer to providing the skills the company needs. Airtricity is one of Ireland's fastest expanding developers and its leading green power supplier. The company's Eddie O'Connor says: "If there is one shortage, it is in good commercial transmission and distribution engineers."

Different market structures around the world also create a demand for their own skills sets, argues Van Lieshout. China, for example, is moving towards an Engineering, Procurement, Construction (EPC) model and away from just buying foreign-made wind turbines with aid money, he explains. The country now has need of wind specialists who at the same time understand the business rationale of EPC.

An advantage for international companies like PB Power and Garrad Hassan is their ability to recruit staff from areas of supply and move them to where the business demands. Workforces nowadays have to be prepared to be mobile. PB Power has three hub offices for wind in the US, UK, and Australia and over 250 other offices around the world. "We can even out the peaks and troughs, but we could still do with more engineers, especially in wind."

According to Iain Manson from employment agency TMP Worldwide, there is yet to be the increase in recruitment that is essential for the industry to meet its growth targets. There is very little human capital planning within the sector, he says, and warns of a bidding war for skills that are in short supply, with small companies struggling to access the individuals they need. Manson also notes that consolidation of the UK's utility sector is leading to people within larger energy players moving into renewables from conventional parts of the business that are downsizing.

While the renewables sector is still at an "adolescent stage," there is much it can learn from the phenomenal growth of the oil and gas sector in the 1970s and 1980s, and subsequent downsizing in the 1990s, he says. Perceptions of boom and bust, hire and fire in the business have taken some skilled people out of the oil and gas sector and a new generation of potential recruits is wary of entering. Manson advises that the renewables industry should be planning more rigorously to fill its skills gaps. He believes it would benefit from a training organisation along the lines of the UK's OPITO for the oil and gas sector, which identifies future skills needs and ensures that the right training is in place to deliver them.

Further lessons have been learnt from more recent history, adds Manson. He points to the collapse of many dot.com companies and downsizing in telecoms and banking. Two to three years ago, those sectors were pulling in graduates with offers of very good starting salaries. "Today people are taking a completely different view; they are researching the market and are wanting to build a sustainable career," he says. That makes it important for the renewables industry to understand how it is perceived if it is to attract quality recruits. Its positive image in terms of "greenness" works for some candidates, but not for all, he says. Some can be put off by the "anoraks and wellies" image, he says, referring to rubber "Wellington" boots.

Quality candidates

This view, however, is disputed by employers in the wind community. There is no shortage of high quality applicants fresh from universities or masters courses in renewable energy wanting to make their careers in wind, they report. Wind is a "glamorous" industry that is already attractive to graduates, claims Garrad. "It is an exciting business to be in. We get a large number of very talented engineering applicants; some of the people we have to turn down are extremely good." He notices, however, that among engineering graduates, numbers of electrical engineers are significantly lower -- exacerbated, he believes, by the downturn of the electricity industry which has made power engineering appear to be a more risky career path.

Increasing numbers of students are emerging from masters courses specialising in renewable energy. These can be found at a handful of universities and EUREC Agency has launched a new Europe-wide course giving students a grounding in different forms of renewables in at least two different national European markets. But while these courses play a useful role, their broad-based nature is also a drawback. A mere 20% of students' time may be spent on wind -- not enough for companies looking for specific wind-associated skills.

Wind academies

Denmark is already trying to plug the gap with two new courses. The Danish Technical University in Copenhagen and the AUC University in Aalborg, north Jutland, have both introduced wind power engineering Masters degree courses. Copenhagen's international course is conducted in English and mostly frequented by foreigners, sponsored by companies in the international wind business, who will leave Denmark once the course is over.

Plans are also on the cards for a European wind energy academy located at different national research centres in Europe. Jos Beurskens, from ECN in the Netherlands, explains that four European research centres are collaborating to establish a "virtual institution" that will be a centre of excellence for wind. As well as ECN, the project involves the Danish wind institute at Risø, ISET in Germany and CRES in Greece. The partners are to apply for EU funding and hope to begin post graduate courses for the wind sector as early as autumn 2003.

In contrast to the recent Danish survey, Beurskens says the initiative is in response to complaints of lack of skilled staff from the industry, including from heads of development departments in the major manufacturing companies. "Our strong impression is that the need for these courses is increasing." The project also aims to co-ordinate "pre-competitive" R&D. He stresses the initiative is in its early stages and would welcome involvement from other organisations in Europe.

Additional reporting by Sara Knight, Germany; Torgny Møller, Denmark