Offshore wind power is on the rise throughout the UK. With 5.7GW currently installed or under construction, the figure looks set to swell to 10.0GW by 2020, forming an integral part of the country’s carbon reduction strategy. Already the global market leader in the field, the UK is ranked as the best place in the world to invest in an offshore wind farm.

This growth, while heartening, is not without its challenges. More offshore wind will mean more jobs to fill, which will in turn mean a pressing need for skilled workers – so it is imperative that the industry avoids a serious skills shortage. It needs, therefore, to take a careful look at recruitment, retention and training of workers.

This problem, while particularly acute in the UK, applies across Europe more broadly. According to a report by renewable energy consultancy GL Garrad Hassan, the European wind energy sector faced a shortage of 7,000 qualified personnel in 2013, and that figure is expected to more than double by 2030. Over three quarters of the companies surveyed said that they “found it difficult or very difficult to find suitably trained staff”.

For RenewableUK, the UK’s leading not-for-profit renewable energy trade association, plugging this gap is a top priority. The organisation believes renewable energy, particularly wind, is set to play a leading role in powering UK homes and businesses, and seeks to maximise the opportunities in store.

“The industry in the UK, and globally, continues to grow very positively, with onshore growing quickly over the last 15 years, and the offshore sector starting to pick up in scale,” says Chris Streatfeild, director of health and safety at RenewableUK. “With that is the growth in headcount – direct and indirect – and the nature of the skills required to fill those roles is evolving.”

Coordinate training

Until recently, the association had a subsidiary, the Renewables Training Network (RTN), which supported the industry in coordinating training activities, such as a project partnership to train workers from different backgrounds to better assimilate into the wind industry.

While RTN was dissolved last year in response to shifting market needs, its underlying goals remain in place.

“All of the work activity it was doing has been incorporated with RenewableUK, fully and effectively, and in one sense nothing has changed – it’s business as usual,” says Streatfeild. “We’re the lead coordinating partner for training competency issues in the UK.”

For instance, the organisation provides approval and accreditation for various training providers, helping ensure that courses are up to scratch. It has a networking group tasked with exploring these issues, a skills and education committee, and a network of training providers. This allows the team to address training needs from a variety of perspectives.

“One priority is to assist with STEM support: making sure that the science and technology training at school at GCSE level and upwards is adequate, and to make sure renewables are properly represented,” says Streatfeild. “As well as inputting into the traditional educational sector, we input into health and safety areas to make sure people have the proper skills to undertake the basic practical tasks on the ground, and we contribute to technical training. We’re not a technical body, but we will assist with others in setting engineering environmental technologies (EET) apprentice schemes and other related training.”

RenewableUK also sets training standards, which are developed through extensive consultation with industry, and tied to those established by the Global Wind Organisation.

“This process includes looking at what other equivalent standards already exist to ensure that they’re consistent in the UK or internationally,” says Streatfeild. “We talk to our members, the supply chain and regulators, consulting on what is needed and how best to put it into practice.”

Set the benchmark

Although employers are under no legal obligation to impose these standards, they are obliged to assess their work for risk and make sure their employees are fully trained. RenewableUK’s benchmarks – which cover the likes of marine safety, fire awareness, first aid and manual handling – have been widely endorsed as a means to enhancing workers’ skills and knowledge base.

Take the working-at-height standard, which is especially critical as the offshore sector gathers speed. Within the offshore oil and gas sector, falls from a height are the single largest cause of death and serious injury, and offshore wind poses similar hazards for its engineers. Routine maintenance and operations – which may include testing, blade inspection and composite repairs – are conducted tens of metres above the sea by workers perched on scaffolding or suspended from rope.

Industry has made huge strides in improving safety at height, largely in response to tightened regulation. As Streatfield points out, most of the tasks people perceive as hazardous are actually very well managed: more people will injure themselves going up and down a stepladder at home than they will falling off a wind turbine, precisely because they exercise so much caution.

Working-at-height standards

However, training in this field needs to be taken extremely seriously, ensuring that the more dangerous jobs are reserved for highly proficient personnel. The working-at-height standard helps training providers instil proficiency.

“The working-at-height standard has two primary functions,” says Streatfeild. “The first one is to make sure anyone who goes on that course has the basic skills to use the equipment correctly, to access the turbine in a suitable manner  by climbing, by transferring to and from structures, and to use the applicable safety equipment.

“Part two is the rescue component: to have the basic skills that in the event that someone slips, trips, falls, is suspended or is in an otherwise difficult position, they can facilitate a rescue – either their own rescue or the rescue of a colleague.”

Although the likelihood of injury remains low, the standard provides a useful back up: it ensures that people will know what to do should the worst scenario occur at any stage in the turbine life cycle.

It’s important to recognise that training is not a once-off occurrence. Attending a training course does not guarantee that an individual will be a competent worker, particularly if placed in a scenario to which they are not accustomed.

Should they move to a new site, a worker is expected to undergo further induction training. Most large wind turbines are configured similarly, but there may be subtle differences, meaning workers need to familiarise themselves with any different protocols or equipment.

Additionally, their precise role is unlikely to remain static throughout their career. Streatfeild believes workers should be supported in their skills development, not just during designated training programmes, but also while they’re on the job.

“We place a strong emphasis on ongoing training,” he says. “When you attend a two-day course, that’s important, but you only become competent in that job when you’ve gained experience, and you only gain experience by doing the job effectively. So, the most efficient industries will have good training standards, but they don’t rely on those standards alone.”

In a nutshell, this means helping motivate the workforce to want to learn or do more and refreshing their skills throughout their career. Streatfeild says learning is a lifelong exercise. “Just turning up to a course every now and again is not enough.” 

As the industry continues to grow and develop, it is likely that training needs will change too. While new jobs will certainly be created, this won’t necessarily be a matter of scaling up what already exists. Rather, the composition of the workforce will change to reflect the increasingly sophisticated nature of wind turbine technology. For example, we may see fewer people dealing with breakdowns and more people engaged with diagnostics and investigations.

“It’s going to be less about spanners and oil cans, and more about laptops and computer programs,” explains Streatfeild. “That’s already happening now: we’re seeing much more of a focus on preventative maintenance, which has to do with data and diagnostic type activity, than on reactive maintenance programmes.”

The upshot is that fewer people will be required in hazardous roles, particularly offshore. This is good news for a nascent industry that, to date, has posed considerable risks for its workers.

“As the technology becomes more sophisticated and reliable, there’ll be less need for people to climb the turbines, as they won’t need to be in the turbine to do the work,” says Streatfeild. “There’ll always be a role for people who are physically there, but that’s a key change, and the training they receive will need to track that development.”