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Exploring the Gap Between Skills and the Renewable Energy Industry
The renewable energy sector is one of the fastest-growing industries globally. According to the 2017 Global Talent Index, there is an estimated 8.1 million people employed within the renewables space. In South Africa, the South African Wind Energy Association (SAWEA) had estimated that an additional 109,444 direct, FTE person-years of employment would be created through the REIPPPP Bid Rounds 1- 4. The industry is still expanding and has the capacity to employ many more people but is hindered by the fact that not all required skills are always readily available. Based on our recruitment experience, there are some occupations which have proven to be very difficult to source for, often going for months before finding the appropriate candidate. Conversations with multiple employers in the IPP industry confirm that there is indeed a skills shortage in certain verticals.
There is a general scarcity of experienced technical support skills in South Africa’s PV space, such as Electrical Engineers, Operations and Maintenance Managers, and Mechanical Technicians – the scarcity of skills is amplified as the IPP’s and C&I service providers compete for transferrable skills. While most entry-level engineers graduate from universities equipped with a Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) or a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in either electrical or mechanical engineering, most of them would have little to no exposure to renewables and therefore cannot add any form of substantive value from day one. It then falls on the employer to get them into some type of learnerships or mentoring programmes to facilitate skills transfer needed to equip them with relevant industry skills like Solar PV, Wind, Energy Storage, etc, depending on the industry, and technology. According to the ILO report titled “Anticipating skill needs for green jobs”, published in 2015, there are two main types of skills shortage, which may exist separately or in combination:
- A quantitative skills shortage, under which the number of workers available with broadly suitable skills is insufficient.
- A qualitative gap under which the number of people available may be sufficient, but their skills are deficient relative to what is needed.
Based on the above, clearly the latter is true for the renewable energy sector in South Africa. The use of AltGen outsourced services can provide a solution to this deficiency. We provide basic upskilling services and where the sought-after scarce skill cannot easily be found AltGen Recruitment focuses on sourcing the applicable skills from the local districts. Currently, in the Northern Cape, AltGen Employment Services has developed a Renewable Energy Industry Specific Skills Programme, for IPP’s and O&M’s, with the aim of upskilling members in the local community to prepare them for formal employment. Due to the high unemployment rates in the Northern Cape, the goal of AltGen’s Solar Works Programme is to develop training programmes that allow community members to contribute meaningfully to the IPP’s operations and in turn, find long-term employment in the local community or start their own businesses.
The scarcity gets deeper when we go into specialist niche roles like SCADA Automation Engineers, Wind Analysts, Power Studies Engineers, Energy Storage Engineers, Project Developers, and the list goes on. After further probing with employers as to why these skills are scarce, 90% of them responded by saying there is “simply not many of them around.” This scarcity puts employers in a predicament to outsource these skills to expatriates from European countries until this option is no longer cost-effective. Searching for this kind of talent locally takes more than the generic methods of recruitment, including techniques such as word of mouth. The Global Energy Talent Index (GETI) survey reveals that there is cause for concern regarding skills training and knowledge transfer within renewables. In South Africa, Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) is playing a vital role in coordinating and funding skills development initiatives. According to the Energy and Water Sector Education and Training Authority (EWSETA) 2018-2019 report, they have successfully supported 115 firms with mandatory skills development grants.
There have been many instances where employers incur the costs of developing entry-level talent for periods of 12 – 18 months only to lose them to their competition before they reap the returns on such investments. When talent is thin, the immediate reaction by some employers is to throw money at the situation and out-bid their competition. This has an adverse effect of inflating the price of talent and can potentially degenerate into some kind of a price war. What therefore begins as a skills shortage, quickly translates into a retention challenge. Attracting skilled talent is generally a challenge and retaining scarce skills is even harder. Based on the conversations we have had; 70% of employers have developed different strategies to hold on to their treasured skills. This involves taking a genuine interest in their career development, planning advancements, and creating favourable conditions to keep them enthused. Over and above, employers also shared with us that they offer profit-sharing incentives and extended leave as additional incentives to remain loyal to the company.
The renewable energy sector, just like many other sectors in South Africa, is still very much a male-dominated space. In South Africa, it is estimated that the sector employs an estimated 32% women and 68% males. According to the GETI 2021 Report, it is found that globally the renewable energy sector comprises 78% males and 22% females. Within AltGen Recruitment, females constitute 25% of our total placements into the industry, which is a success story as female talent can be difficult to acquire. It is also notable to mention that currently, 44% of AltGen Employment Services upskilling programme consists of women. In our experience, it can prove challenging to source female engineers or technicians. Historically, it was accustomed that women were placed in strong administrative roles, however, times are changing with an increasing amount of woman seen in managerial roles.
There is no silver bullet or instant solution to solving the scarcity of skills and lack of gender diversity in the industry. Listed below are some of the steps and initiatives, which if implemented, might potentially help to alleviate the situation: –
- Gender diversity and transformation in the sector needs to be more deliberate, planned, and more structured to avoid leaving it to chance. Employers should consider deliberately setting targets to attract more female talent of colour into technical roles in the industry, even if it means bringing them in as semi-skilled technicians.
- Take a genuine interest in the growth and development of your talent to keep them enthused. Implement proper employee retention strategies which extend beyond good salaries which will provide them with a sense of belonging.
- A closer partnership between the industry and tertiary institutions is required. A deliberate acknowledgement and strengthening of this symbiotic relationship by increasing interactions and collaboration between the two will influence the quality and diversity of graduates which tertiary institutions produce. The 2017 Global Energy Talent Index shows that 45% of employers in the renewable energy sector believe that they can overcome the skills gap through partnering with tertiary institutions.
- Create deliberate opportunities and platforms for skills transfer by pairing skilled specialists with junior engineers and technicians. This will inspire younger talent to venture into niche spaces of specialization which they never knew existed.