Closing the skills gap in the wind sector

Joost Pellis, Strategic Manager Renewables Atlas Professionals

The boom in renewable energy, and particularly offshore wind, means the sector will need more employees in the years ahead. So why is there a personnel shortage in the industry — and what can be done about it?

First, the good news. Thanks to the Energy Agreement for Sustainable Growth — a 2013 plan negotiated by the Dutch government and various organisations, trade unions and environmental groups — The Netherlands is accelerating towards a sustainable energy future.

The targets set out in the Agreement are ambitious. For example, all parties aim to ensure that the proportion of energy they generate from renewable sources will increase from 4 per cent to 14 per cent by 2020, rising to 16 per cent by 2023. They will also strive to make a saving in their final energy consumption of 1.5 per cent annually, while creating at least 15,000 jobs by 2023.

Big win for wind power

In this switch to renewables, wind power will be a big winner says Joost Pellis, Strategic Manager Renewables at Atlas Professionals, a company which provides personnel to the onshore and offshore industries. “The International Energy Agency expects that wind will be the most important source of energy in Europe after 2030,” he says. “In fact, as much as 30 per cent could come from wind power. That’s huge.”

Naturally, as the sector grows globally, so do employment opportunities. “In the Netherlands, we expect an extra 25,000 employees will be necessary in wind by 2030,” says Pellis. “In Europe, it’s thought wind energy will create around 596,000 jobs. Research conducted by a group of industry experts.”

Which all sounds hugely promising. Now, the bad news. Because renewables is an industry which relies on highly trained experts and specialists, it’s actually facing a personnel shortage. There just aren’t enough skilled people in the pool to choose from. Take the Installation sector which desperately needs Technicians but is facing a big shortfall. The worry is that this type of skills drought could send the move towards renewable energy into reverse, scuppering the aims of the Energy Agreement for Sustainable Growth, also potentially knocking the Paris climate change agreement off course.

Threat to climate targets

That’s as alarming as it sounds, says Pellis. “An aim of the Paris Agreement is to keep the global average temperature well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels,” he notes. “Now people are beginning to shout loudly that the biggest threat to climate agreement targets is the lack of professionals working in the industry.” And by ‘professionals’, he doesn’t simply mean Construction Engineers and Operations Managers. Also in demand are Cceanographers, Geophysicists, Marine Ecologists, Seabed Inspectors, specialised UXO (Unexploded Ordnance Survey) diving personnel and Guard Vessel crews. The list goes on because behind one wind turbine is an entire supply chain of professionals.

In the Netherlands, we expect an extra 25,000 employees will be necessary in wind by 2030

Part of the problem is that the offshore wind sector is powered by myriad sub-contractors who guard their people closely. “One company will just build foundations for wind farms, while another only builds turbines,” says Pellis. “So a good freelance Technician or Mechanic working for one of these companies is unlikely to go somewhere else, because they know they will be needed for a project next month — and then another the month after that.” Over time, that group of professionals will become smaller and smaller, because at some point its members will retire, or they’ll get a contract offer from a company and so leave the pool of available talent.

The CAREER initiative

One answer was thought to be re-training oil and gas workers so they can take up new roles in Renewables. But, as Pellis points out, the industry can’t rely on that idea as a long-term, cast-iron solution. “If companies start to invest in oil again, those workers will go back into oil platforms,” he says. “What’s needed is for governments and companies like ourselves to unite and devise a way to find the right renewables professionals at the right time.”

Which is why the Dutch government has created an initiative called CAREER, to promote co-ordination between the education and business communities. It also offers a platform for better training and a way for companies to exchange their knowledge and experience, while stimulating demand-driven research.

Focusing on the challenge ahead

Global knowledge sharing is the way forward, thinks Pellis. Companies that have learned lessons from working in the wind industry in Europe should share their experiences with those about to set up business in, say, Australia or Taiwan. “We also need to create better awareness of career opportunities in the wind energy in our schools,” he says. “And professionals who have worked in renewables for many years should lend their expertise to educational programmes. In the Netherlands, new wind education programmes will deliver the first fully trained Wind Technicians in three or four years’ time. That’s great. But because new wind farms are expected to be operational in 2020, there will be a skills gap. So it’s quite clear we have a big challenge ahead.”