Plugging the skills gap

Thames Water, which until late 2006 was owned by German firm RWE, hit the headlines in 2005 when it brought in German engineers to plug an engineering jobs gap.

In a reversal of the TV classic Auf Wiedersehen Pet, where Geordie builders went over to Germany to seek work, the water company took on the German specialist engineers to help on major infrastructure projects such as Heathrow's Terminal Five, and on work modernising water main and sewer networks.

In the same year, Thames Water joined forces with chief executives from some of the UK's leading utility companies to call for government assistance to combat a serious skills shortage in the industry. This included water industry technicians and specialists as well as engineers.

They urged the government to address the lack of funding for apprenticeships for people aged 24 and over in the sector.

David Hellier, strategy and development manager (water) at Energy & Utility Skills (EU Skills), says the most pressing skills shortages in the water sector are high-level engineers and scientists. The water sector will be facing massive competition from other industries for these sorts of people in the next ten to 15 years. And what is
the solution?

"For me, the issue is all about collaboration," says Hellier. "For example, if Anglian Water takes on three or four water engineers, then no university is going to bust a gut to provide those people. But, if as an industry we take on 50 a year, that changes things. It's about creating critical mass to enable things to happen."

How bad is it?
In the EU Skills sector, 27.6% of organisations surveyed in 2004 indicated a skills gap of some sort. This figure fell to 25.1% in the following year but this suggests that over a quarter of companies are struggling to recruit staff with suitable skills.

Behind the scenes, a lot has been going on to try to improve this scenario and to look ahead at skills needs for the sector in the future.

EU Skills, working with Water UK and the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI), has been developing a framework for the development of "competent operators" on WTWs, based on National Occupational Standards. This approach will result in a process of competency and knowledge development that is more suited to the needs of individual employers, says EU Skills.

It says that eventually the industry will have a framework of industry-agreed standards, individual "licence to operate" requirements, combined with a national skills register of sector-specific training providers.

The DWI points out that, as well as the competency framework for operational staff, there is also one being developed by Water UK (DWI and professional bodies are also involved) for scientific and analytical staff which is also subject to the same difficulties regarding training and staff retention.

And the contractors?
Last year, EU Skills carried out an extensive consultation and research programme as part of its Sector Skills Agreement activities to identify the skills needs of contractors across utility sectors, including water.

Now a new report says there is general consensus among contractors that there is a need for an increase in workforce numbers and skills.

A key finding from the research is the need to improve front-line supervision, management and leadership skills, and the number of people employed in these roles, to ensure the industry has adequate manpower resources to meet its future requirements. One of the key messages that EU Skills received from employers was that industry-specific training was critical. Employers said they needed a "suite of qualifications and frameworks against which they can assess the competence of their workforce".

Following intensive workshops, EU was charged with developing action plans including an industry working group to develop solutions to resolve the skills issues.

The workshop agreed in principal to a nationally recognised occupational standards and qualification programme to embrace the utility sector, with a common core plus sector specific additional modules.

EU Skills has already established a basis of these core modules and is actively working towards specific modules for the electricity, gas and water industries. This framework is to be employer-led and is to put particular emphasis on management, technical and leadership competencies.

It will also recognise existing qualifications and the need for both off-the-job and on-the-job training, active learning and assessment. The programme will seek to develop existing employees and to recruit those with related skills from outside the utilities sector.

The workshop also identified the need to "raise the profile" of the industry, and to establish recruitment routes and career pathways in order to make it more attractive to potential and existing employees and to promote the available opportunities in contracting.

Other specific issues identified included the fact that current training often lacks people and communications skills. Another issue highlighted is the constant introduction of new and updated technologies that often require individuals to become competent very quickly in their usage.

That coincides with the view of the Polypipe Civils director of marketing and development, Jason Shingleton, who says that there is "a lot of change" with fast-moving legislation, and it is difficult to recruit technically competent people who can keep up with that pace.

The DWI, which has been working with EU Skills, is pleased with the steps being taken.

Sharon Evans, newly appointed deputy chief inspector (operations) at the DWI, says: "As far as DWI is aware, these initiatives are ongoing and are very encouraging as they demonstrate that the industry as a whole has recognised the very real challenge of developing and maintaining a competent workforce."

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