People power - tackling skills shortages

Materials World magazine
3 Apr 2011
Swansea engineering students at computer

Chronic skills shortages in science and engineering are compromising a wide range of industries around the world. Guy Richards explores how two sectors – nuclear and natural resources – offer a microcosm of current efforts to tackle this head on.

In the UK, the Government has decided that new nuclear power should have a role to play in the future energy mix, helping the country cut its CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.

According to the Cogent Sector Skills Council – the industry skills body for nuclear – this will require about 10,000 workers a year over the next 15 years, and, over the next 10 years, the sector will need to recruit and train up to 9,000 graduates and 4,500 skilled tradespeople to meet the ongoing needs of decommissioning end-of-life plants, generating power and managing nuclear waste.

On the other side of the world, the Australian state of Queensland has been grappling for years with shortages in the resources sector, a situation exacerbated by factors such as thousands of lay-offs in the recent economic downturn, surging demand from China for coal, and demand from other industries for skilled workers.

Some headline figures for the state help illustrate the problem. For example, industry body Construction Skills Queensland estimates that an extra 9,000 building workers will be needed over the next four years for coal-seam gas projects alone, while mining companies BHP Billiton, Hancock Coal and Xstrata will between them need about 4,600 more workers in various trades over the same timeframe, just for new projects.

There are parallels between the two industries. Both have suffered at times from a long-term decline in new blood coming in to replace an ageing workforce, owing in part to a broader decline in students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses. So both are taking a strategic and multi-generational approach to bridging the skills gap that encompasses the entire educational pyramid.

UK nuclear

From a skills perspective, the first port of call in the UK is the National Skills Academy for Nuclear. Established in 2008 by nuclear employers as a subsidiary of Cogent, it covers the whole industry, from new build to operational plant and decommissioning. Its role has been to help develop a standardised and coordinated approach to education, training and skills through regional networks of ‘clusters’ that respond to specific skills gaps identified by local employers.

As the Academy’s Chief Executive Jean Llewellyn explains, ‘We have worked with Cogent SSC and employers to create the Nuclear Industry Training Framework (NITF) – a framework of employer-agreed industry training standards and qualifications that are transferable across the different nuclear sites. The NITF forms an important part of the Nuclear Skills Passport (NSP), which will evidence training completed to the industry standards’.

Llewellyn anticipates that qualifications that are already used by the nuclear industry will remain. What employers are looking for, she says, are scientists and engineers with good qualifications – apprentice to graduate and above. The ‘nuclearisation’ of these people can be completed either before a contract starts or during an induction period.

The Award for Nuclear Industry Awareness is one such ‘nuclearisation’ course, created to provide a foundation level of understanding of the industry and its specific requirements. It is of particular importance for apprentices, Llewellyn says.

Other courses and programmes include – Science and Engineering Ambassadors to promote STEM subjects and the nuclear industry in schools, National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in Nuclear Decommissioning and Radiation Protection, foundation degrees in subjects such as Engineering (Nuclear), and the Certificate of Nuclear Professionalism to support the continued professional development of existing and new graduate entrants.

According to Llewellyn, more than 8,000 learning opportunities have been delivered since the Academy was set up. The nuclear industry has welcomed these initiatives. For example, Beccy Pleasant,

Learning and Development Manager at nuclear decommissioning contractor Magnox Ltd, in Wylfa, UK, says, ‘Magnox is a keen supporter of the products and services on offer via the Skills Academy. We have already had two cohorts of our graduate intake complete the Award for Nuclear Industry Awareness’.

Energising endeavour

Employers are doing their bit in-house as well. EDF Energy, for example, runs its own STEM Ambassador, and apprentice and graduate schemes. It has 74 volunteer ambassadors but it plans to double that by 2015. The company is also working to provide at least 100 schoolchildren a year with the chance to spend time at the company.

Its Advanced Nuclear Apprentice scheme began in 2008 and is a four-year programme, with an intake of about 60 people a year that leads to an Ordinary National Certificate / Higher National Certificate and a NVQ Level 3. The first two years are spent mostly at Sizewell B power station in Suffolk, the last two at its training centre near Portsmouth.

As with the apprentice scheme, the Nuclear Science and Engineering industrial placement scheme for graduates is aimed at existing requirements. This year, the company plans to recruit 80 graduates and is looking particularly for those with a degree in mechanical, control or electrical engineering, or physics. Placements are based either onsite at one of EDF Energy’s nuclear power stations or at its operational support centre in Gloucestershire, which also hosts its Nuclear Power Academy training facility for workers across its nuclear fleet.

On the subject of future requirements to meet the new-build programme, the company says, ‘it is too early to say at this point – we are investigating whether we will offer placements in this area’. It does, however, acknowledge that it will be recruiting ‘thousands of people’ over the next 10 years.

Safety first

Naturally, safety is paramount in the nuclear industry, and, to this end, the National Skills Academy for Nuclear is in the final stages of developing the Triple Entry Bar Standard. It comprises of three courses – Basic Common Induction Standard, Basic Nuclear Industry Context and Basic Nuclear Industry Behaviours. This will be implemented across sites as a minimum entry requirement.

‘Employers have also expressed the need to ensure that construction workers have a good understanding of the safety and behavioural culture of the nuclear industry,’ says Llewellyn. ‘So work is being completed on a Triple Entry Bar for Construction.’

Queensland mining

The lead, strategic body is the Queensland Resources Council (QRC), whose initiatives include an education programme, scholarships and careers marketing. It also has close links with the Queensland-based Mining Industry Skills Centre (MISC) and the national Skills Drilling Mining and Construction (SkillsDMC) skills council, both of whom run their own initiatives.

However, as QRC’s Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Skills Policy, Greg Lane, explains, ‘QRC’s initiatives are focused on attracting young people through schools and universities to the opportunities in resource sector careers. Neither the QRC, MISC nor SkillsDMC deliver training – we each work in a complementary way to influence training or skills outcomes from training providers and other stakeholders.’

Given this focus, a key part of the QRC’s programme is Oresome Resources, an online database including units of work, downloads and experiments for school teachers and students. At scholarship level, the QRC runs a bursary programme with Queensland universities for first-year BEng or BSc students, while career marketing takes the form of a campaign aimed at the under-30s through social media such as Facebook and YouTube, as well as traditional print and online media.

Complementary to these initiatives, MISC runs the Resources Industry Training Fund, which gives financial support to organisations that deliver effective training to attract and retain employees in the industry. It also operates the Work Readiness Programme, which is designed to fast-track careers in the mining sector, and targets school-leavers, graduates and other non-experienced personnel who are keen to enter the industry.

Meanwhile, SkillsDMC is responsible for the National Resource Sector Employment Taskforce, set up in 2009 to help secure the 70,000-plus extra skilled workers it estimates will be needed nationally for major resources projects over the next five years.

It may be some years before skills shortages in the Queensland resources sector ease, and there are likely to be other, as yet unforeseen, challenges ahead, but by taking a strategic and multi-generational approach, there is at least a fighting chance that once the shortages are addressed they will stay addressed.

More recently, the Australian national Government has endorsed a National Resource Sector Employment Taskforce.

Lane adds, ‘Skills and skill shortages cannot be resolved by tinkering. At a minimum they require coordinated action at state and preferably national level between industry, government, education and training bodies’.

Further information  


Further reading

STRIP search in steel training

The Steels Training Research and Innovations Partnership (STRIP) programme at Swansea University’s College of Engineering is a prime example of industry and academia collaborating to address a chronic skills shortage.

Set up in 2009, STRIP’s purpose is to train graduates in disciplines including metallurgy, corrosion and coatings, through projects defined by partnering companies in the metals and manufacturing industries in Wales. The projects lead to a postgraduate qualification, either a Master of Research (MRes) or an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) – and sometimes a position with the company.

Funding from the public sector and industry pays for eight MRes and 10 EngD projects a year. MRes projects run for 10 months, EngD projects for four years.

The scheme gives companies ‘cheaper’ access to university equipment and staff, says STRIP’s Project Manager Dr David Penney, as well as a dedicated researcher working for the duration of the project. The student, meanwhile, benefits from close industrial contact. The initiative also enables the university to conduct relevant research. Highlights include a new technique that reduces the sintering time for inorganic layers in photovoltaic solar cells, and a chrome-free inhibitor that prevents filiform corrosion on a zincaluminium- magnesium coating.

The Steels Training Research and Innovations Partnership is now ‘oversubscribed’. For 2010 alone, Penney explains that about 80 students applied for the 18 places, and partnering companies are applying for projects on an ongoing basis. The result is that the college has expanded into other programmes – the Steel Academy, which offers part-time materials science degrees aimed at producing metallurgy specialists, and SPECIFIC, the Sustainable Production Engineering Centre for Innovative Functionalised Industrial Coatings. The Centre’s aim is to turn buildings into ‘power stations’ through the rapid commercialisation of functional coatings on steel and glass for energy capture, storage and release.


The image above right shows students being trained on the fourier transform infrared spectroscopy microscope on the Steels Training Research and Innovations Partnership (STRIP) programme at Swansea University’s College of Engineering


Wind of change

Twenty-six per cent of employers in the renewable energy sector struggled to fill job vacancies in 2009-10, according to a study released in February by the trade and professional body for the wind and marine renewables industries – RenewableUK. The report, Working for Green Britain, attributes this to a lack of experience and skills, with marine energy (37%) and offshore wind (26%) the worst affected.

To address this, the National Skills Academy for Power (part of the Energy and Utility Sector Skills Council) is collaborating with sector employers and educational authorities on a range of initiatives.

For example, the Academy has helped to coordinate training provision for the first Modern Apprenticeship for the renewables industry, which was launched in September 2010 at Carnegie College in Dunfermline, UK, with 15 students from Siemens, Repower and Weir Group. Roll-out of the three-year Wind Turbine Technician scheme in England and Wales will begin in September 2011.

The Academy has also been involved in advising on the set-up of a renewable energy centre at Grimsby Institute, the first of its kind in the UK for training offshore wind engineers, which is due to open in September 2011. Courses accredited by the Academy will deliver qualifications ranging from NVQ Level 1 to Higher National Certificate and, as well as targeting school-leavers and apprentices, the centre will allow companies to develop the skills of their employees.

‘For employers, the priority is a network of training providers, and we are that link,’ says the Academy’s Head of Renewables Bob Granger. ‘But we are also establishing regional collaborations between employers so that those with only a few apprentices each can form a cohort to supply the numbers of students that local providers need to be able to run the courses.’

The Academy has now launched an online hub, called Think Power Sector, which links to sector employers’ job vacancies and gives students and schoolchildren a flavour of what working in the sector is like.

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