Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report


94. Concern about the supply of skilled people is at two levels: that which is energy or even technology-specific, and that relates to scientists and engineers more generally. The more general issue about the supply of scientists and engineers was considered by Sir Gareth Roberts in his review published in April 2002.[142] Sir Gareth found that there was a problem, with fewer people choosing to study science and engineering, and one which was particularly serious in the physical sciences. He identified a series of measures, including increased payment to postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers.

95. In the course of this inquiry we have sought to establish to what extent skills shortages are affecting energy RD&D and the industry more generally. According to the Government, the energy sector is skewed towards older people. Apart from the more general issue about the supply of scientists and engineers, it identified three reasons for this:

  • the traditional routes of entry—apprenticeships or graduate traineeships with big employers such as the CEGB, Gas Board, ICI etc—have disappeared;
  • the sector is perceived to be in decline and is unpopular with young people;
  • past recruitment moratoria have produced gaps in the age structure.

The Government concludes that "current levels of recruitment are a fraction of what is required to replace the workforce".[143]

96. The problem has been most clearly identified by the Tyndall Centre, which undertakes transdisciplinary research into climate change. The Centre's Director, Professor Mike Hulme has found, over the last two years, "difficulty in recruiting suitably skilled and qualified researchers to work, particularly on our energy related projects. This is not a problem that we find in the environmental and social side of our research".[144]

97. Among the measures being taken by the Government are the retraining of redundant steel workers as gas installers and the introduction of more modern apprenticeships. It also points to the significant investment by the EPSRC in doctoral and masters training in low/non-carbon energy.[145] We are puzzled by this latter point as the evidence submitted by the EPSRC suggested a decline, not an increase in PhD studentships in non-carbon energy. In 2001-02 there were 21 new studentships, only half the figure in the preceding two years.[146] In response to our query, Dr Peter Hedges told us "The numbers do vary a little bit and the indiction in the figures is that numbers are going down. My guess is that if you had figures for the following year they may be going up".[147] When the EPSRC supplied the project studentship figures for 2002-03, we found that the figures had not gone up at all.[148]

98. This is all the more curious since Dr David Lynn from NERC described the skills issue as "something which concerns all of us as research councils".[149] Professor O'Reilly told us "Skills is a very big issue. It is a big issue for EPSRC and it is a lot of what we do. It is certainly the case that we need to put a big focus on skills".[150] Of course postgraduate training is only one part of the solution but we are disappointed to see so little commitment to it in the past, the effects of which we are now seeing in the workplace. We are slightly reassured to see the skills issue mentioned in the Research Councils' submission on the proposed UK Energy Research Centre as part of its role in building research capacity.[151] The Centre and Network could facilitate much of the "discipline hopping" identified as being so important by Professor Hulme.[152] The proposed UK Energy Research Centre and Network should play a crucial role in bringing forward the next generation of skilled people for the energy sector. We recommend that it adopt this as a key part of its mission.

99. The ERRG report recommended that UK public energy RD&D investment was brought in line with its nearest EU competitors.[153] It would be deplorable if this aspiration were thwarted, not by Government parsimony, but by the lack of people available to do the job. In the 2002 Spending Review, the Government announced an increase in the PhD stipend with above average rises in areas where recruitment is difficult.[154] While lack of skilled people can hamper investment, it is equally true that lack of investment limits the opportunities for training. The BRE makes this point forcefully in relation to energy efficiency technologies: "The under-funding by Government and its agencies of this vital area of research has resulted in a chronic shortage of appropriately qualified researchers and technology transfer specialists".[155] We recommend that the Government recognises low and non-carbon energy as a shortage area, recognising its importance in combating climate change.

100. The problems faced by companies in recruiting skilled people have been keenly felt by many of our witnesses:

  • Dr Andrew Garrad: "We have recently been advertising for people and we have received pretty well zero applicants with any experience". As a result his company has been forced to continue to do its own training in-house or recruit from overseas.[156]

  • Mr John Acton of Compact Power: "We are particularly short of experienced and even at postgraduate level chemical engineers and process engineers in particular".[157]
  • Dr Derrick Farthing from Powergen: "if we want to recruit somebody with energy industry know-how, often we find that there are any number of graduates, but there are not the right graduates that actually have the knowledge that we need".[158]

101. There are signs that shortages in some skills will prove an obstacle in achieving the Government's renewable energy targets. Professor Robin Maclaren from Scottish Power identifies it as something we need to address: "we have a fairly low number of power engineering graduates come out and in research and development as well—and with the challenge that faces us for renewables over the next 20/30 years I do think we need to increase the output of technically capable people".[159] Professor Goran Strbac of UMIST highlighted skills as a problem in connecting embedded generation to the grid, an important element in increasing the input from renewable energy sources: "it is now very clear that ... industry will find it difficult just to continue business as usual, never mind the challenges which we have got in front of us".[160]

102. The larger energy companies are in a position to tackle the problems themselves. Shell, which admits it let things slip, has introduced a range of collaborations with universities. It also helps to have an established name with a reputation, according to Dr Martin Booth: " We are lucky in that we get some of the best ones, particularly the pre-university students where word gets around that we have a good scheme and that exposes them to the sort of things we are doing in my particular area of transportation fuels which helps to attract them".[161] Dr Bulkin agreed that Shell and BP were in a strong position but pointed out that there was very strong competition for chemical engineering graduates since it was a very demanding degree and few students had the aptitude.[162]

103. We are delighted that the picture in wave and tidal power is more positive. Dr Tony Trapp from the Engineering Business told us "Twelve per cent of our staff have PhDs and another 10 per cent have first-class honours degrees... We advertised recently and I think we got about 300 applicants out of which we were able to select half a dozen people that we employed. We work very closely with a number of universities, particularly Newcastle University, and we take students on placements. We then transfer them and they come and work for us. It works out well".[163] Young people are clearly attracted by the opportunity of working in the sustainable energy industry.

Nuclear skills

104. The state of the nuclear sector, the uncertainty over its future and the unpopularity of engineering and physical science among students has led to concerns about the availability of skilled people to the industry. The sector is likely to grow, even without new-build, primarily in the clean-up area. Responding to potential growth, without new build, and replacing people leaving the sector on retirement means that the sector may need to recruit 1,000 graduates and 530 apprentices per year.[164]

105. The DTI's nuclear skills report was published in December 2002.[165] It found that 56,000 were employed in defence, power generation, fuel cycle and clean up. It found that there was no immediate problem in the energy sector but there was cause for concern. Among its recommendations were that the industry should encourage industry support of education, training and research and that the Government should establish a Nuclear Skills Task Group to forge collaboration between employers across the sector. BNFL, in response to the dwindling nuclear skills base, set up University Research Alliances which have created 140 positions in four universities. BNFL's Dr Robin Clegg pointed out, however, that all these researchers were working on safety and current systems. Mr Kevin Routledge said NNC had been able to recruit all the graduates they needed but that "there are a lot less science graduates around now so everybody is scrambling for the same people. The other problem is they are not coming out with any nuclear skills whatsoever so we are having to do all the training in-house".[166] Dr Chris Anastasi said British Energy faced a similar problem: "Last year we recruited 36 new graduates and it costs us an enormous amount of money every year to train these staff".[167] It is hard to imagine the nuclear skills situation improving, since the Energy White Paper has all but ruled out new nuclear build. Even with no new nuclear build, nuclear engineers will be needed for many years to come to deal with decommissioning and storage but few graduates will be inspired to join an industry in its death throes.

106. The situation with fusion is encouraging and we hope that the transfer of the UK fusion budget to EPSRC will further encourage the influx of skilled people necessary to maintain the status of UK fusion research.[168]

107. The Energy White Paper recognised that many of the skills problems in energy are generic and reflect those being experienced by the economy more generally.[169] There are no simple answers to the skills problem faced by many parts of the energy sector but we are delighted that the Government is at last showing signs of agreeing with us that the school science curriculum is having a corrosive effect on our students' passion for science.[170] We argued in our report on Science Education from 14 to 19 that science education needed to be made more relevant. There are few better examples of a subject that could enthuse our schoolchildren than non-carbon energy, which has the power to tackle the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change.

142   HM Treasury, SET for success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills. The report of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review, April 2002 Back

143   Ev 103 Back

144   Q 129 Back

145   Ev 103-104 Back

146   Ev 74 Back

147   Q 45 Back

148   Ev 159 Back

149   Q 83 Back

150   Q 42 Back

151   Ev 137 Back

152   Q 131 Back

153   OST, Report of the Chief Scientific Adviser's Energy Research Review Group, February 2002, p 1 Back

154   OST, The Science Budget 2003-04 to 2005-06, p 12 Back

155   Ev 135 Back

156   Q 276 Back

157   Q 278 Back

158   Q 198 Back

159   Q 446 Back

160   Q 181 Back

161   Q 546 Back

162   Q 551 Back

163   Q 278 Back

164   DTI, Nuclear and Radiological Skills Study, Report of the Nuclear Skills Group, December 2002 Back

165   As above Back

166   Qq 386-388 Back

167   Q 332 Back

168   Ev 20 Back

169   DTI, Our energy future-creating a low carbon future, Cm 5761, February 2003, para 7.19 Back

170   Department for Education and Skills, 14-19: Opportunity and Excellence, section 3.1, January 2003 Back

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