The impact of the smart meter rollout programme will be felt far beyond the households and businesses who will get the meters, says Nicki Hussain – it will help fill the utility sector’s skills gap.

Over the next two years, close to 6,000 smart meter installers will be recruited. Each will be trained by an approved provider that will have first undergone a rigorous accreditation process to gain that approval. Only then, with further development from their employer, will each newly-qualified installer be able to join the almost 8,000 who have already installed seven million meters as part of the government’s rollout.

Providing industry-approved training for enough installers so that every British household and small business can be offered a smart meter by 2020 will do more than meet the current requirements of the rollout. As well as moving Great Britain closer to having a truly smart economy, it will also put thousands on the first rung of a career ladder that includes other roles the energy and utilities sector will have to fill if it is to meet the challenges of the next decade.

The standards to which smart meter training is delivered have been drawn up by the industry. In 2011, the National Skills Academy for Power (NSAP) consulted its employer members and stakeholder partners to design, agree and start building a national Smart Metering Accreditation Scheme, with a view to making it a necessary requirement. This action was part of NSAP’s remit as a membership organisation to deliver initiatives, products and services identified by its members as key to the long-term sustainability of the sector.

The scheme that emerged was subsequently accepted by regulator Ofgem as part of its Smart Meter Installation Code of Practice. The code requires that, “before being permitted to install smart metering systems, installers have received training at a level appropriate to the installation including, in the case of installations for domestic customers, training and accreditation from a NSAP-accredited provider, or equivalent training and accreditation”. Exceptions apply to installations that are for training purposes, which are supervised by an appropriately qualified installer.

Before qualifying, every trainee installer will have completed several installations under the supervision of experienced colleagues. It is important to note that once training is complete, installers’ learning does not end. Meter operators are required to support the upskilling that comes from experience, giving installers extra mentoring and development in real work environments. This is a requirement to be registered with Gas Safe or Meter Operation Code of Practice Agreement, which every installer and meter operator is required to be.

Getting accreditation is also complex for installers. Training on a NSAP programme must be completed by an approved training provider to demonstrate that the installer has the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to install meters competently.

These criteria will earn installers a place on the Energy & Utility Skills Register (EUSR), an independent skills platform that sets out recognised standards for the utility sector. EUSR was designed to support industry employers and add value to the sector. The registration process involves verification of all existing accreditations.

“Put simply, there is no reason why any installation should be completed by a smart meter installer that has not undergone training from an approved training provider,” says Nick Ellins, chief executive of the Energy & Utility Skills Group, the expert voice on UK workforce issues in the sector, and of which NSAP is a part.

The accreditation scheme has been reviewed regularly – in December 2016 it was recognised in Each Home Counts, the report of the independent review of consumer advice and protection related to home energy efficiency and renewable energy, chaired by Peter Bonfield.

To further ensure the scheme remains optimised to meet industry requirements, 19 sector employers regularly meet as part of the Smart Metering Network. Many will be involved in the Smart Metering Referencing Scheme, which was also recommended in the Bonfield report, and to which EUSR registration permits access. Set to go live this summer, it will assure employers by recording instances of serious employee safety issues – ones that may have previously gone unnoticed and may potentially be repeated.

Audrey Gallacher, director of energy supply at Energy UK, says: “The energy industry takes the health and safety of its customers extremely seriously. All network companies and energy suppliers have made enhanced commitments to training and monitoring to ensure the highest safety standards are always maintained during the rollout of smart meters.”

The smart metering agenda has continued to develop with the findings from the Workforce Renewal and Skills Strategy in mind. Published last February, the Skills Strategy was the first strategic plan for the continued delivery of essential power, gas, clean water, waste removal, environmental protection and recycling services every day in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. It found that there will be 221,000 vacancies across the energy and utilities sector during the next decade. These vacancies will be created by 100,000 existing employees who will retire, 90,000 who will move to jobs outside the sector, and 31,000 newly-created roles.

Ellins concludes: “The sector is working with the regulator to ensure the procedures are rigorous and that safety remains the number one priority. Our sector has a vital role to play as the largest single contributor to the National Infrastructure Pipeline that underpins the UK economy. This requires a skilled, competent and sustainable workforce.”

Smart meters are widely accepted as a vital block in building a new energy system. Research by ComRes for Smart Energy GB found that 86 per cent of business leaders said they are important to Britain’s economic future. With millions of meters in place and many millions more to be installed, they are supporting the evolution of the UK’s emerging digital energy system while offering mass opportunities to support the skills agenda.

Smart meters, in a number of ways, are giving Britain measures for the future.

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