The energy sector’s ageing workforce poses a significant problem – and it is education and training that will be key to the futureproofing the sector, according to chief executive Stuart Rimmer. East Coast College offers the most expansive engineering education provision in the eastern region. And it is this offering that has confirmed its national reputation for high-quality, specialised training for the energy sector – whether that concerns bright young sparks looking for an apprenticeship or old hands seeking to retrain.
“We offer everything from entry level roles and foundational courses to technical training and bachelors’ degrees,” Mr Rimmer says. “Once students qualify, we also have commercial programmes that allow them to continue reskilling and retraining throughout their career.”
The East Coast College Group has three campuses – Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Lowestoft Sixth Form College – enrolling approximately 2,500 16- to 18-year-olds every year, in addition to 2,000 adults and 900 apprentices. The sixth form cohort is made up of 700 students, while 400 students study at undergraduate level with East Coast College’s partner institution, the University of Suffolk.
“Through our courses, students develop essential knowledge, skills and behaviours,” Mr Rimmer explains. “Those three distinct elements are what employers are looking for. The core energy knowledge base and technical skills are important, but increasingly employers want soft skills such as teamwork and communication skills. Our balanced approach focuses on the development of soft skills as well as harder technical skills necessary to work in engineering.”
Increasingly students are choosing courses and careers tied to growth in the economy, with engineering and energy courses surging in popularity. The college works with 800 employers annually across 12 sectors and has an annual turnover of approximately £13 million.
Mr Rimmer emphasises that the relationship between the college and local employers is essential for the sector. “We have a huge selection of employers – from small and medium sized enterprises to companies like ScottishPower Renewables and EDF Energy – that we work with to design the content of our programmes. By co-designing the curriculum with their help, we know that the training our students receive is fit for industry needs. This also means our students have access to site visits, which are essential instructional experiences adding a lot of educational value.”
In 2018, East Coast College opened its Offshore Wind Skills Centre in Great Yarmouth focusing on training for the renewable sector. Curricula were conceived in partnership with Worley (previously the 3sun Group) and ScottishPower Renewables for those transitioning from unemployment or retraining to become wind turbine technicians. While in November 2019, the college opened its £11.7 million Energy Skills Centre based at the Lowestoft campus. The state-of-the-art facility offers advanced courses in rescue training, working at heights, high-voltage training and pneumatics hydraulics, among many others.
“People previously had to travel out of region or even overseas to access the same calibre of courses on offer at the Energy Skills Centre and Offshore Wind Skills Centre,” Mr Rimmer says. “It really is a unique proposition – there is nowhere else in the UK that offers what we do.”
As it has for every institution and business, Covid-19 has proved problematic for educational institutions. But Mr Rimmer highlights that it has not all been counterproductive. “Coronavirus has been highly disruptive, but it has also created opportunities. We have been forced to accelerate and amplify virtual learning in a way that we probably wouldn’t have without coronavirus and we have digitised our curriculum which makes it far more accessible.”
The college provided 1,000 free adult retaining places to help people get back into work as part of the local coronavirus recovery. But it is the green recovery that the college is turning its attention towards now. “The green recovery cannot happen without green curricula to support that, so sustainability and green jobs are going to be at the heart of our strategy moving forward.”
Courses focusing clean energy such as hybrid engines and electric vehicles form part of this strategy, while automation, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are all starting to find their way into the curriculum. There is also significant investment in civil engineering and nuclear behaviours training, which Stuart hopes will help local workers access jobs, including among the 10,000 proposed vacancies at Sizewell C.
“I am passionate about developing high-skilled, high-paid local jobs for local people,” he says. “For too long people in East Anglia have not always had access to top jobs. The skills and training offered by East Coast College open up career pathways for everyone, helping to create a local workforce who can enjoy long, successful careers in the energy sector.
“The Energy Coast on the East of England offers incredible opportunities both socially and economically,” says Mr Rimmer. “Whether it’s the gas fields, decommissioning work, the green recovery, renewable, onshore, offshore – the energy sector is absolutely going to keep growing. The future is bright and very exciting.”
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