Tackling the skills gap in the utilities sector

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Skills gap

The UK’s utilities sector is facing a crisis. An ageing workforce combined with a lack of enrolment by younger employees has put the industry at risk of a major skills shortage. Peter Russian, chief executive of Investors in People Scotland, looks at how the problem can be addressed, and explains why he believes the Investors in Young People (IIYP) initiative is helping.

The construction, engineering and utility sectors are experiencing a shortage in science, technology, English and maths (STEM) skills, resulting in major skills gaps across several energy and utilities companies in the UK. STEM qualifications are vital in ensuring that the UK delivers on investment in sectors like renewable energy and waste management. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills says the energy sector adds £25 billion to the economy each year, but warns about the need for mitigating the risk presented by skill shortages and a competitive global market.
The latest figures on employment from the Scottish Government state that 53,000 young people are not in employment, education or training of any kind in Scotland, emphasising that now is the time more than ever for companies in these sectors to invest in recruiting and developing young people. Engineers and technicians are retiring from the industry, yet companies do not have enough graduates or apprentices to fill those roles. According to UK water company United Utilities, it is estimated that around half of the current workforce will have left or retired over the next decade. The company estimated that the UK energy and utility sector needs around 200,000 new engineers over the coming decade to address this problem.

The answer: Recruitment?
Part of the answer is likely to lie in how the industry recruits and develops young people. Investing in apprenticeships and graduate training is a credible solution to addressing the industry’s challenges. Apprenticeships blend on-the-job training and transferable skills, which are well-suited to the multi-disciplinary nature of the industry. To meet these challenges, businesses will need to collaborate with schools, colleges and universities to develop dedicated apprenticeship schemes where young people can gain hands-on experience.
Fortunately, the utilities industry won’t need to look far for help because a significant number of employers in Scotland are leading the way in demonstrating the good practice and benefits of recruiting, developing and retaining young people.

About Investors in Young People (IIYP)
Investors in Young People (IIYP) is an accreditation framework that was launched by Investors in People Scotland (IIPS) in the summer of 2014, with support from the Scottish Government, to encourage, support and recognise employers who are active in working with young people. Given the number of unemployed youths in Scotland, there are clear social benefits to this agenda, but equally there is recognition that the country’s leading industries, including energy, life sciences, technology and engineering, need a flourishing pipeline of qualified STEM candidates.
IIYP has quickly gained momentum in Scotland, and there are now nearly 200 organisations in Scotland using the framework. These range from large corporates including Diageo and Selex through to SMEs, housing associations and organisations in the third sector. Utility companies that have achieved IIYP accreditation include Barr Environmental, Qualitrol and Global Energy (SCS).
Investors in People Scotland believes that young people are the solution to the rise in skills shortages in Scotland’s workforce. It encourages businesses to employ young people in order to increase life skills for all employees including those young persons involved. The younger generations instinctively possess IT and social media skills that may not be readily available elsewhere. Furthermore, by investing time in training young people, businesses are creating and sustaining a talent pool for the future.


IIYP provides a ready-made framework for organisations to develop and evaluate their approach for recruiting and developing young people whatever the driver for the business.

Scottish Water is one of many businesses across Scotland that has been recognised by IIYP for its commitment to young people in the utilities sector. Scottish Water is a publically-owned company that provides 1.3 billion litres of drinking water and removes around 842 million litres of wastewater daily. Formed in 2002, the company currently employs around 3,500 people in Scotland and gained the IIYP award in April 2015.

Equipping management to lead and support young people
Scottish Water saw IIYP as a tool to help signal that the company is an employer of choice for young people. The company has always strived to build the skills and diversity needed to sustain high performance and deliver a sustainable service for its customers. IIYP has helped Scottish Water meet those business objectives by casting an external lens over the various strands of its emerging talent strategy. One of the ways in which IIYP helped Scottish Water was by recommending ways in which it could develop its management team in order to better lead and develop young people during their transition into the workplace. Scottish Water has always been looking to continually improve its approach to developing its youth pipelines and as such, IIYP has helped provide a framework whereby it can more effectively prepare its staff to support young people during a significant period of change.

Mentoring and other activities
Another way in which IIYP helped Scottish Water achieve its business objectives was to help provide activities like mentoring support, confidence building and team development, or supporting its education and training programmes. Many of the younger staff also have access to becoming a member of the Institute of Water which opens up a UK wide network of experienced water industry experts to help with its professional development. IIYP has helped create a framework whereby younger members of staff have the space to develop their potential such as through the NextGen group, which is currently managed by younger members of staff from all across the business. NextGen and the activities that the group run have received a great deal of advocacy and support from leaders at all levels in the business, including from the company’s top executive team and CEO.
Commenting on its IIYP accreditation, Paul Campbell, Organisational Learning Lead for Scottish Water said: “We are absolutely delighted to have achieved formal recognition as an Investor in Young People. This award serves to demonstrate the passion, enthusiasm and commitment of our Scottish Water leaders, our people and our young employees, towards the development of a diverse, skilled and engaged workforce and the sustainable performance of the water industry in Scotland.”
The benefits of recruiting and developing young people are countless. These include the creation of a talent pool for the future, new and increased skills in areas such as IT and social media, fresh eyes and mind-sets into business operations along with enthusiasm and unique talents. The Investors in Young People framework not only recognises and supports organisations in the employment of young people, but marks them out as an employer of choice. I envisage that many more organisations will wish to follow in the footsteps of Scottish Water and demonstrate their commitment to young people by working with the Investors in Young People framework.
With take up of IIYP set to continue, employers in Scotland continue to demonstrate their commitment and interest in working with young people. IIP Scotland anticipates the number of participating organisations will double in 2015, as employers become increasingly aware of the value that investing in young people brings, and employees look for evidence of an organisation’s commitment to their needs.
The energy and utility sector offers a chance to young people to build a career in a key industry in the economy. And with an infrastructure pipeline for the energy sector of more than £274 billion in the period leading up to 2021 reports Energy and Utility Skills Group, candidates will have a wide variety of career options to choose from.

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