Help to keep Britain running smoothly by directing your skills towards our vitally important utilities industries, encompassing gas, power, water and waste
Britain’s utilities industries include the gas, power (electricity, nuclear, green and renewables), waste management and water sectors. Increasingly, utilities companies are merging or being acquired so that one umbrella organisation supplies more than one utility, or the utility is combined with other operations; some are now owned by overseas corporations.
The gas industry is divided into two main subsectors. Gas transmission and distribution covers all activities to do with the journey that gas makes from the point of origin, through the national transmission system (NTS) pipeline and into local gas distribution networks (GDN). Gas utilisation includes the installation and maintenance of gas-powered appliances in homes, commercial and industrial premises by gas fitters/installers, called Gas Safe registered engineers.
Gas is delivered from the gas producers on to the mainland at reception points, which are sometimes known as beach terminals. The gas is transported at a very high pressure from the terminals to local distribution centres. The National Grid Control Centre manages the flow of gas from beach to end consumer. It uses telemetered data from all the operational sites to monitor the system. The National Control Centre operates and balances the high-pressure NTS, while the Area Control Centre is responsible for the next level down in the gas supply network: it ensures that sufficient supply is available at the right place and the right time to meet consumer demand. High-pressure gas is supplied to around 40 power stations and some large industrial companies.
The downstream sub-sector contains many self-employed people and very small companies, providing installation and maintenance services to industrial, commercial and domestic customers. Engineers also respond to reported gas escapes, fumes gassing, metering faults and reports of no gas. Many gas service engineers progress quickly in the industry and go on to become supervisors and managers, and many individuals remain in the industry for their whole career, although they may move around between different employers.
All companies and their employees must be listed on the Gas Safe Register to operate legally. Everyone on the Register is required to demonstrate their ongoing competence in matters of gas safety every five years.
Power generation, transmission, distribution, metering and supply involve approximately 950 electricity business units functioning across the UK. The vast majority of these businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), but most of the employees in the industry are employed by the 50 largest organisations. The key areas within the electricity industry include generation, transmission, distribution and supply. Electricity is generated in gas, oil, coal-fired, nuclear or hydro-electric power stations or wind farms, and an increasing range of renewable energy sources (see below). There are more than 2,000 generating stations in the UK. Generated electricity flows on to the NTS at a high voltage via a network of overhead lines, supported by steel pylons and underground high-voltage cables. The distribution network is made up of overhead lines and underground cables, which bring electricity from the transmission network, via substations, to homes, factories and businesses. The supply area of the industry involves the companies that are responsible for metering the supply of electricity and selling it to the consumer.
Not too far into the future – and in the UK alone – we’ll be able to generate only a fraction of the power that we need, so it is essential that we find new ways to create affordable, low-carbon power. That’s where so-called ‘renewables’ come in. The concept of renewable energy covers a wide range of very different types of fuel: solar, wind, tidal, hydro and geothermal. In the UK, wind, hydro and biomass dominate. Wind turbines and wind farms, both on- and offshore, are the most recognisable form of renewable energy in the UK, and a major contributor to our energy needs, while hydro-electricity remains the most important renewable technology in terms of output. ‘Biofuels’ is a broad term that includes the combustion of biomass and wastes, gas from landfill sites and digestion processes. The co-firing of biomass with fossil fuels in conventional stations is a major source of renewable energy.
With such a diverse range of renewables technologies, it’s not surprising that many different skills are required. Which you’ll need will depend on whether you want to work in development, manufacturing and construction, operations, or in specialist work. Technical and engineering skills are obviously in demand by manufacturers and installation/maintenance contractors. And, as the specific technologies develop, they will give rise to demand for other specialist skills – offshore wind, wave and tidal projects will need those able to master marine offshore technology challenges, for example, while the growth of biofuels will create demand for those with professional agricultural, environmental and planning qualifications. And, as the industry evolves, general management skills will be increasingly valued.
To find out more, take a look at our renewables feature here.
TRANSLATE YOUR SKILLS
Some specific Service skills or trades that are likely to prove useful in the various utilities industries include:
- fuel specialists
- those trained in fuel technology
- water engineers
- electrical engineers.
Taking into account the ageing workforce, infrastructure, expansion plans and the introduction of new technologies, it is now more important than ever for employers to focus on upskilling their workforce to keep Britain running. According to the UK authority on professional development and employment in the energy and utilities industries, Energy & Utility Skills, over the next five to ten years, the sector needs to recruit more than 14,000 people to replace those who are retiring or leaving organisations for new opportunities. Demand is high for skilled engineers and technicians, scientists, operatives and customer care staff, with flexibility and adaptability across all occupations.
Waste is anything that is no longer wanted or required. Everyone in the UK is a waste producer. In addition, waste is produced by industrial, commercial and agricultural organisations. Waste management involves collection, re-use, recycling, recovery, treatment and final management. Most companies in this sector operate regionally due to the high cost of transporting waste. We produce and use 20 times more plastic today than we did 50 years ago.
Waste is collected in a number of ways, including:
- scheduled domestic and commercial collections
- use of recycling bins and containers
- hiring of skips and vans
- taking it to household waste and civic amenities sites.
Waste is usually transported by road, although some is transported by rail and via the canal network. Recyclables may be stored prior to processing. Waste management priorities are:
- reduction (reducing the amount of waste)
- retention (keeping the waste at source, e.g. home composting)
- recycling and composting
- recovery (incineration, waste-to-energy plants)
- landfill with energy recovery
- landfill (last resort).
The water industry includes the catchment, storage, processing, transmission, distribution, metering and supply of water, as well as sewerage collection and the transmission, treatment and disposal of wastewater. The industry has an ongoing programme of construction, operation and maintenance of the water and wastewater infrastructure. The daily supply of drinking water is constantly maintained to ensure the water we drink is clean and safe.
It is not only the clean water that is important, it is the dirty water too – the industry makes sure that there is a sustainable process for the disposal of wastewater. Wastewater (sewage) leaves homes and businesses, and is carried by pipes (the sewerage system) to sewage treatment works, where harmful substances are removed from the dirty water. Purified water is pumped from the water treatment works, through the water mains, to houses and industries. The water companies take water from rivers, boreholes and springs, and collect it in man-made reservoirs. They then treat it and distribute it to homes and businesses via an underground network of pipes.
Some of the water companies only supply water, which means that they are responsible for supply, treatment and distribution. Others also supply wastewater services, so are responsible for sewerage services, and are involved with international operations, environmental consultancy and the design of new systems and plant. In addition to the main water companies, the industry uses contractors to carry out many activities, including maintenance and renewal of the whole of the water supply system.
Many jobs in the water industry are highly skilled, and well-qualified people are in great demand in an array of engineering, science and technology-based industries. Employment opportunities exist to ensure there is continuous supply of clean drinking water to our homes and businesses, and a sustainable network for the disposal of wastewater. The water industry needs a vast range of people – from service pipe layers to scientists.
Skill up while serving
There is little direct relationship between the utilities and the Armed Forces. Nevertheless, many of the skills gained while in uniform are perfectly suited to the roles for which employers in the energy and utilities industries are recruiting. Generalist skills such as supervisory management, project management and administration are wanted, as are all manner of specialists.
An increasing number of employers are recognising the benefits that military employees can bring to their organisation. There are a large number of transferable skills learned and demonstrated by high-calibre ex-military employees in their former roles that make them excellent candidates for positions in this sector. Particular skills that employers in the sector are keen to take advantage of are people skills, technical expertise, and high levels of self-motivation and discipline.
There are resettlement training courses available in some disciplines that are useful in the utilities sector. If possible, talk with people who are already working in the area to establish a reasonable starting point based on their skills and experience, and then look for the right courses and training.
A variety of nationally recognised multi-utility qualifications allow you to be qualified in a number of areas in the industry and minimise duplication of qualifications. These qualifications allow for easier migration of skilled individuals from business to business, particularly for contracting companies.
Energy & Utility Skills has developed a set of National and Scottish Vocational Qualifications (S/NVQs), full details of which can be found on its website.
Anyone working on gas appliances or fittings as a business must be competent and registered with the Gas Safe Register. If you have experience in the gas industry or related fields, you may be able to follow the Nationally Accredited Certification Scheme (ACS) route to registration. This will allow you to gain certificates of competence that are accepted by the Gas Safe Register. Those with no industry experience may need to follow a more formal qualification: for example, the S/NVQ in Gas Installation and Maintenance at level 2 or 3.
There are a number of useful websites to help you consider different courses and careers in this sector. These include:
- Energy Institute (you can search for energy-related courses on this page)
- RenewableUK (find out about careers and search for courses here)
- National Skills Academy – Nuclear
- Findcourses – an excellent source of information about all types of courses relevant to the utilities sector.
Use your ELC
Under the ELC scheme, a wide range of learning can be taken, provided it is offered by an approved provider listed on the ELC website and is at level 3 or above. For full details of how to make the most of your ELC, refer to our in-depth features elsewhere on this website.
Much employment is contracted out by the major organisations to a number of smaller companies, which in turn subcontract the work to local firms. Work is, therefore, available locally and not advertised nationally.
You can also search specialist recruitment sites such as:
Many large firms offer work experience and summer placement opportunities; these are advertised on their websites. For smaller companies, you may well need to apply speculatively.