Strategy & management, Opinion

Graeme Wright says utility companies must do more to encourage young people to enter energy, utilities and built environment sectors if we are to address a worsening skills gap.

The energy, utilities and built environment industries are facing a skills crisis. According to recent research from Fujitsu, almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of UK schoolchildren think the country’s top jobs are in the scientific sector, yet many do not believe the same about the energy, utilities and built environment industries. Adding to this problem is the fact that there are many people working in these sectors who are near retirement, and there is a risk they will take their skills and knowledge with them when they retire.

Why is this happening, and what exactly can be done to appeal to the next generation?


Lack of education

The main problem is a lack of awareness. Fujitsu’s research reveals that students are generally given very little information on careers in the energy, utilities and built environment industries. Despite this, almost half of students say they are given guidance on becoming a teacher, doctor or nurse. It is clear that young people doing their GCSEs or A-levels are not being encouraged into careers in utilities, energy or built environment.

So, is the school fully to blame? It could be said that big companies with these industries also are not doing enough. Highlighting the benefits of job roles and the innovation that is involved is a simple step that could get a young person thinking differently. Firms in these industries should do whatever they can to engage with schools early and start getting these kinds of messages across: showing young people they could do things like helping to solve the renewable energy problem or tackling climate change, while demonstrating the kind of modern workplace technology they could be using in the process.


The gender divide

Another risk is the significant gender gap between young people and their views of the energy, utilities and built environment sectors. Fujitsu’s research reveals that only 14 per cent of the girls surveyed were aware of job opportunities in these industries versus almost a quarter (23 per cent) of boys. In addition, only 15 per cent of girls think these industries are creative while 25 per cent of boys do, while 16 per cent of girls feel they can relate to these industries versus 23 per cent of boys who see them as exciting.

This is concerning in terms of diversity, but the maths alone is cause for alarm. Women make up roughly half the population, and if a whole generation of them feels alienated from these industries it does not bode well for the skills gap in future. Now is the time to throw away old clichés such as the idea that only men work in the built environment, and instead start marketing the highly technical and exciting jobs that women could be part of.

Closing this skills gap could be as simple as showcasing the benefits of working in the energy, utilities and built environment industries to the right people at the right time. According to research from PwC, young people believe state-of-the-art technology is important in a job role, which is very positive for these industries because many firms already have connected workplaces.

If those employers worked harder to promote the exciting opportunities available, they could attract new talent to help them better meet evolving customer demands. The time to do this is during that critical time when young people thinking about what career they want.

But how do organisations start doing that? Fujitsu’s research reveals that almost four-fifths (78 per cent) of students are more likely to go into a career that someone in their “social bubble” is in, yet 62 per cent do not know a single person who works in the energy, utilities or built environment sectors. It is therefore critical for these companies to become part of young people’s conversation around jobs, whether that is through social media or advertising or simply getting out there more and speaking to the younger generation.


The right technology in the right place

With the right technology in place, the industry can help pass that crucial knowledge from the older generation to the new people entering the field, whether it is through collaborative platforms or enabling those nearing retirement to work remotely and still keep a foot (and mind) in the door.

In principle the challenges are simple. What skills are we short of? How do we get the next generation excited about joining these industries to fill those gaps? How do we retain the capabilities we’ve already got? However, at the moment there are not enough people trying to answer these questions, or even ask them. The industry must start looking into these soon or risks doing irreparable damage to industries that employ tens of thousands of people.

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