Growth in the renewable energy sector in Norfolk and Suffolk is reaching new heights with more offshore wind developments in the pipeline. Fortunately, this area is well-served with the cutting-edge Energy Skills Centre in Lowestoft. With a growing national and international reputation, the training centre is a lead provider of skilled professionals for major regional projects, such as Sizewell C, and businesses in the fastest-growing sector.
Thriving on the campus of East Coast College, the Centre now hosts 1,500 students and hundreds of professionals who learn new skills or keep up to date with the latest developments in the industry. The East Coast Energy Training Academy, which runs the courses, has seen a significant increase in take up since September 2022. Its success did not happen overnight or by coincidence; it has been in the making for more than a decade.
In 2008, businesses, local authorities and East Coast College recognised there was a need for a renewable energy hub that could help with skills. Industry dynamics were changing as the oil and gas industry were in decline, and renewables were on the rise. Oil and gas professionals needed to transfer skills to clean energy, including offshore wind and nuclear. But there were not enough skilled people to support this growth. This is when the ball started rolling to help secure a skills centre.
Developed with a £10m investment from New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership through its Growth Deal with Government, the Centre was officially opened in November 2019. It combines the latest technology and state-of-the-art facilities to support the development of higher-level technical skills and expertise in the energy, maritime and engineering sectors. In the main, the courses are sector-led, offering many commercial options.
Recently, the Centre became a member of the National College for Nuclear which is required when you give courses to work on the Sizewell C development. “The Energy Skills Centre at East Coast College is a fantastic resource to develop skills that both Sizewell C and other regional projects need to reach Net Zero targets,” says Marjorie Barnes, Sizewell C’s Media Relations Manager.
The building has been hailed as a centre of excellence with national and international specialisms. It has workshop areas, maritime simulators, somewhere where students can learn about working at heights, and general classrooms. Rachel Bunn, East Coast College Director of Commercial and Community Projects, says: “The courses evolve all the time as we constantly add to our offer and keep up with the industry. For example, we had an emergency response suite for oil and gas which now focuses on renewables, including offshore wind. We can keep it current.
“A large part of my role is going out to sectors, conferences and networking events to find out what is on the horizon. In the next two years, for example, there is a clear focus on hydro energy and carbon capture. We work with people on introductory level courses and specialisms for those who are employed in the sector and people who could be in the future workforce.”
Her team also brings in students from the local primary and secondary schools for activity days and showcases career opportunities with employers. Passionate about raising ambitions, Rachel stresses: “STEM activity is not just around aspiration of equipment but making it real to them with their potential future employer. It goes in leaps and bounds!”
Together with the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board and the Armed Forces, they are helping people transition across to the energy sector take introductory courses and acquire mandatory global wind qualifications. A major reward for participants is that the partners make sure that jobs are there before they even start the courses.
Another project involves Swedish energy company Vattenfall and the Aviation Academy, which works with organisations in the Netherlands. Rachel explains: “There is a lot of onshore and offshore wind activity in the Netherlands. A delegation came over for three weeks working on sea survival, working at heights, behavioural safety and working with businesses.”
Her colleagues, alongside a team from Vattenfall, Equinor and the Aviation Academy went to sites with the delegates who completed their Global Wind Organisation accredited training carried out by Hexis. “We have resources that are not available in the Netherlands, so we came up with a collaboration programme with a view that our students can learn about blade repair in the Netherlands in the summer.”
In March, a Vietnamese Embassy Delegation visited the Centre to find out how the Academy trains people, works in collaboration and operates locally and internationally. Going from strength to strength, Rachel who has been with the college for 20 years, recalls the start of this journey in 2019: “We had a phenomenal opening and already had employers who bought into the Centre. There is a lot of awareness for skills and what we need to future proof the workforce such as upskilling or making sure there is a pipeline.”
The Centre and its dedicated team are having an important impact on providing technically-skilled professionals locally, and now also in Scotland and Wales – perhaps soon even in Vietnam and Ghana. Powering on and using every opportunity to develop, Rachel finishes with exciting news: “We’re in the process of finalising a course that will be the first in the UK. We will offer ‘OPITO’ [global skills body] short courses level 3, which give an introduction to wind, hydrogen and carbon capture. We’re constantly thinking outside the box.”