Offshore wind power is set to play a key role in the Government’s ambitions to cut carbon emissions by at least 80% by 2050. The number of direct jobs in offshore wind more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, from around 3,000 to 6,800. Together with wave and tidal power projects, wind is expected to create another 70,000 jobs over the next decade.
Consequently the sector is hungry for skills, and a collection of North East training providers are cultivating the region as the go-to place to acquire them.
“The North East has the inherent skills base and infrastructure which makes it ideally suited to the needs of offshore wind.
“Our job is to make sure we can put our skilled workers in front of a windfarm operator who can be confident of their technical and safety competency,” says Stuart Cameron, managing director of North Shields-based Maersk Training – the 40-strong training arm of Denmark’s AP Moller-Maersk Group.
The division launched in 1978 on the back of a major “blowout” on Maersk’s Explorer drilling operations in the North Sea.
Human error was to blame for the accident – the crew had all the right safety certificates, but lacked the competencies, Mr Cameron explains.
Together with the likes of AIS, Falck Safety Services and South Tyneside College, Maersk Training is part of a flourishing microcosm of offshore training providers in the region.
“In the North East, we’re sandwiched between two major offshore wind projects: the Moray Firth and Dogger Bank. It’s fantastic that we can provide skills from the North East to feed these developments,” explains Dave Bowyer, director training and education at North Shields-based AIS.
It is estimated that by the time of the upcoming general election, over 4GW of offshore wind will be in operation.
By 2030 that could increase to 40GW. Hundreds will need to be equipped with specialist safety and skills-based competencies if these targets are to be met.
Forecasting demand and skills requirements is one of the key challenges for the North East’s training providers.
Industry body RenewableUK’s General Election Manifesto is the focal point around which most of their courses and qualifications are geared.
The document sets out the ambitions and requirements of some 560 companies operating in the UK’s wind, wave and tidal industry.
Dave Bowyer explains: “We work very closely with Narec, the National Renewable Energy Centre in Blyth, to develop our strategy and where skills are needed.
“We also work with the LEPs and government, using the RenewableUK General Election Manifesto, to make sure our courses are in line with the future of the industry.
“There is a need for many, many more skilled employees to enter the industry in the next few years. The need ranges from technicians through to support staff in roles like catering and hotel management.
“They will all need safety training, and many will need the technical skills.
“Our clients include established industry operators, but also companies looking to get involved by providing other services.”
Maersk’s Stuart Cameron says his firm works with the technology companies to make sure their technical training keeps pace with the latest turbines being deployed.
“On the safety side, there is a constant renewal of skills and on the technical side we have to consider the evolution of the turbines and make sure we equip our trainees well into the future.”
Those heading into technical roles will need a solid background in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) – and the industry faces a challenge in the lack of STEM graduates in the UK.
AIS is on the cusp of launching a careers and advice service, which will help guide people who may be thinking about taking up a career in the offshore renewables sector. Meanwhile, Maersk has a team dedicated to bridging the gap between learners, learning institutions and employers.
“The pathways into the offshore renewable sector are still relatively immature in the UK,” Stuart Cameron explains.
“There is a long way to go before the industry is ready to be self-sufficient.”
For trainees, entry to the courses may be via their employer, or on a privately paid-for basis. Courses across the industry do not come cheap, although Maersk has developed a series of bursaries available to access its 12-week, level 2 diploma course.
Funding for the diploma may be available to people who are unemployed, providing they have been a UK resident for the past three years and are aged 19 years or over. Subsidised places are available for those who don’t qualify.
Trainees can expect to learn about the challenges of working in confined spaces, and complete modules on electrical awareness, working at height, manual handling, sea survival, first aid and fire awareness. Until last year it was fairly unusual to see private individuals, says Stuart Cameron.
“It’s in the industry’s interest, and our own interest, to be sustainable and responsible with the number of people we put through the training.”
Dave Bowyer plays down the potential impact of the recent oil glut on the renewables industry. There has been speculation that cheap oil could suddenly knock the commercial viability of renewables projects, but he says: “We’ve seen a prolonged period of low oil price, but it’s recently risen again.
“This goes to show just how fluid the energy market is, and investment in renewables will continue regardless.
“Couple with that the need to renew technical and safety skillsand you can see there will plentyof demand for our services.”
Jonny Chung is one of Maersk Training’s success stories. Mr Chung sold his car and invested his savings to fund himself through the diploma. It was a gamble that paid off as he is now a wind turbine technician at Boston Energy, a management agency that supplies technicians to industry leaders such as Siemens.
He said “Prior to completing the Maersk Diploma I was working at rope access painter Blaster. The need to acquire a more stable career choice became essential in order to support myself financially. I chose the Renewable Energy industry as this suited my will to remain physically active at work. I understood it was a fast-growing industry with potential to progress as my career developed.”
The industry must also look at workforce diversity, which Maersk’s Stuart Cameron says is fundamental to achieving the breadth of skills needed over the next decade. Trainee instructor Victoria Redhead joined Maersk Training in 2014 having previously worked as a firefighter for Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service and a call handler dealing with emergency and non-emergency calls.
As part of her role, Victoria delivers GWO (Global Wind Organisation) First Aid training, including the use of AEDs, and assists in instructing GWO Fire Awareness, Manual Handling & Working at Height. She is currently working towards achieving accreditation in a range of areas such as fire awareness, confined space training, manual handling and working at height.
Victoria said: “The opportunities at Maersk Training really appealed to me. As a trainee instructor you are learning and enhancing your skill set all the time. The hours are flexible, catered to an instructor’s individual needs. This is ideal for me as I work as a freelancer combining my role as trainee instructor alongside my position as a retained firefighter.”
George Rafferty, chief executive of energy NOF Energy, the organisation representing companies in the energy supply chain, says the North East has carved a strong niche for itself in the offshore training sector.
Referencing AIS’s newly-completed Renewable Energy Centre in North Shields, he said: “The expertise of companies in training people for the harsh North Sea environments for the oil and gas industry is directly transferable to the offshore renewables sector and ensures technicians working in those conditions are competentand safe.”
Helen Armstrong, a programme manager at the Blyth-based Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, says many of the skills needed for offshore wind are already here inthe North East. She added: “Offshore wind is beginning to be seen as a flagship industry for this area, and rightly so. People have realisedthere is a wealth of skills among the oil and gas workforce which just need transferring. There’s a strong cluster of training providers here now, and they’re helping people to make that transition.”