Networks must display purpose and impact to attract net zero talent

Why are energy networks struggling to communicate the sector’s potential to offer thriving careers in the pursuit of net zero? A group of industry leaders gave their views to Utility Week on culture gaps, the competition posed by big tech and why plugging the skills gap is not just about young people.

“Why can’t we get young people enthused about jobs that are literally helping to save the planet?”

This was the blunt question posed to a group of senior energy network figures at an exclusive roundtable hosted by Utility Week in association with Baringa.

The gathering was ostensibly to discuss the role of energy networks in net zero more widely. However, the need to communicate the sector’s potential to offer thriving careers loomed large across the discussion. Attendees all agreed that the skills gap remained one of the biggest potential barriers to a successful energy transition. There was also consensus that creating a swathe of green jobs is a crucial part of the business case for networks investing in decarbonisation – a case which the energy sector is currently struggling to promote to consumers.

One of the barriers mentioned by several participants is the tendency for networks to recruit from each other. One attendee warned: “Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not a sustainable solution.”

One reason cited for this insular approach is the struggle to communicate the sense of excitement about networks’ role in decarbonisation. The gas sector executive who posed the question at the top of this article said this stems from a self-inflicted reputation problem.

“At the moment it seems like they (young people) would rather go and design an app or work for a start-up that has a lot of well-meaning values but is never going to have the kind of direct impact an energy network will.

“Where is that disconnect coming from? It’s a cultural gap. The perception of us is that we’re slow-moving, quite governance-heavy, that innovation isn’t happening very quickly. And the reason that perception is there is because there’s a lot of truth in it.”

Other participants agreed there was an existential risk in allowing other sectors, such as the big tech companies, to dominate the sustainability landscape. Several pointed to the need for the sector to engage earlier to capture the imagination of young people.

A senior figure from one of the electricity networks said: “You see software developers sponsoring courses at technical colleges. What are we as an industry doing to try to create those routes in?

“The graduate schemes we have at the moment are almost self selecting, they’re quite niche and what we’re not doing is expanding the pool of people we’re bringing into the industry. We may need to reach further into the education system. Could we look at secondary schools and at children that may not currently be that engaged with educational framework?”

They added that utilities often take a narrow view of the types of skills they need, highlighting expertise in stakeholder engagement as one area that does not get enough focus in recruitment.

‘We can make you into an engineer’

A director at another electricity network said there was a need for companies to target potential rather than waiting for a fully formed set of immediately applicable skills.

They cited an example: “We have had real challenges getting electrical engineers. So, what we’ve now said is that if you’ve got wider STEM skills, if you’re a mathematician or a physicist, then we can help to make you into an engineer.”

However, they warned that targeting young people with STEM or digital skills was a relatively straightforward task compared to recruiting for more physical field roles.

“The angle we haven’t figured out yet is how you handle those really practical skills. Young people don’t want to get into a muddy hole and the robots aren’t clever enough to do things like cable jointing just yet.”

Another participant urged others not to see closing the skills gap as purely a case of appealing to young people.

They added: “What about those people changing career, or retired people who still feel they have more to give? There are lots of complementary skills we can bring from all sorts of areas of society that we can definitely work with.”

The topic is close to the heart of Baringa, which is a 10-year recognised winner as a ‘Great Place to Work’ and has focused on culture since its foundation 24 years ago, partner Harry Taylor said.

He added: “There is clearly a collective intent about being open to new skills and building those into the workforce of the future. It feels like we should be more purposeful in how we develop talent collectively. Because otherwise it’s a zero sum game. We’re all collectively building a talent pool that will help us get to net zero. No one organisation is going to achieve that alone so it’s in all our interests that those skills gaps are closed right across the industry.”