an offshore wind farm

Set sail with a career in the offshore wind sector

If you aspire to tackle some of the most important engineering challenges faced today as well as work in a sector in which the UK leads the world, then offshore wind increasingly looks like an attractive career prospect.

Statistics released in January by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) confirm that the UK is well ahead of the pack with 1,341 megawatts (MW) installed, sufficient to power around 938,700 homes per year based on average UK offshore wind speeds. Second-placed Denmark manages just 854MW in comparison, followed by the Netherlands with 249MW (every megawatt of installed offshore wind energy generates enough electricity to power 700 homes).

That's not the only good news from the sector though: a study published this month by the leading voice for the industry, RenewableUK, reveals a 91 per cent rise in UK wind energy full-time employment between 2007-08 and 2009-10. This is in stark contrast to the overall UK employment level which has dropped in the same period by 3.4 per cent. Maria McCaffery, MBE, chief executive of RenewableUK, says the increase in jobs has to a large extent mirrored the increase in electricity contributions from renewable sources to the grid, and this is chiefly from wind.

"This study presents a compelling case for increasing our base of installed renewable energy devices. There is a clear link between sector activity and UK employment gains," she says.

More jobs to be created

RenewableUK believes that with the Government's announcement in the Spending Review to retain £60m fund for port infrastructure upgrades in support of the planned offshore wind projects in the UK, plus a number of inward decisions in the supply chain, such as Siemens' recent decision to locate a major turbine manufacturing plant in this country, it will mean even more jobs in the sector in the future.

Although we are likely to see opportunities for young engineers increase over the coming years, wind energy is a highly skilled sector where experience is sought after so seeking that first job can be tough. Neither are there that many specific renewable graduate schemes yet because it is a young industry and a lot of the companies operating in it are small and don't necessarily have the resources to run schemes. That said, Fruzsina Kemenes, skills and education policy officer at RenewableUK, says employers always respect good quality engineering degrees and postgraduate qualifications. "Electrical and mechanical engineering degrees are among the ones employers look for and a good grounding in STEM subjects is always going to be an asset," she says.

What qualifications employers are looking for

Kemenes also adds that employers are getting clearer about the kind of qualifications they are looking for and there is far more career guidance around than previously. The industry body has been involved in the creation of a number of publications including one that looks at where an individual might fit in within the supply chain, Choosing a Career in Wind, Wave and Tidal Energy, and another produced with the Crown Estate, Your Career in Offshore Wind Energy. Both provide profiles and case studies of a range of roles.

First apprenticeship for the renewables industry

More formalised and specific routes into the industry are appearing and perhaps the most significant of these is the Wind Turbine Technician Modern Apprenticeship, the first Modern Apprenticeship for the renewables industry, launched in November last year. RenewableUK commissioned research into skills gaps in the industry and it picked up on a shortage of standard qualifications for turbine technicians. "These are the guys who come out once the wind farm has been erected and look after the operation and maintenance of the actual turbines," explains Kemenes.

The three-year engineering qualification, which is awarded by City & Guilds and meets the standards of the National Skills Academy for Power, is split evenly between on-the-job training with employers and college-based learning, which takes place at Carnegie College in Dunfermline, Scotland.

The first three employers to take part are global engineering and technology company Siemens, which supplies turbines, grid connections and service and maintenance, REPower which manufactures and installs turbines, and the Weir Group which is a world leader in the design, supply and service of engineering equipment for the power, mining, oil, gas and industrial services sectors. UK wind farm developer DONG Energy has also announced that it will recruit eight apprentices under the scheme in 2011. Among DONG's projects is London Array, which will be the UK's largest offshore wind farm.

Kemenes says the apprenticeship meets a demand for a specific technical role but having successfully gained the qualification and acquired the necessary health and safety units, it is down to the individual's ability and ambition as to how far they go in the industry. "There are progression routes right up to being a head of operations," she says. 

More information on careers in the renewables industry.

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