How do we balance net zero ambitions with skills shortages? ECITB’s Andy Brown shares his insights

Having started his career 40 years ago as a weapons technician in the Royal Air Force (RAF), Andy Brown, Interim CEO of the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB), is an experienced, national skills powerhouse with decades of training expertise.

After 24 years in the RAF, during which time he established engineering training guides and established and managed training centres, Andy joined the ECITB in 2006 after a chance meeting at a careers fair. Occupying multiple roles, including Operations Director for ten years, Andy replaced Chris Claydon in February and is currently the Interim CEO, continuing to shape the future of the engineering construction industry.

Supporting industry

The ECITB is an employer-led, skills, standards, and qualifications organisation developing the UK’s engineering construction workforce. As an arms-length body of the UK Government, it reports to the Department for Education, with the aim to attract, develop, and qualify both existing workers and new entrants to the industry in technical and professional disciplines.

“I never thought I’d be lucky enough to have a second career!” Andy begins. “I thought my initial role at the ECITB would be a stepping stone into the UK’s engineering industry, but here I am in my 17th year. Any individual leaving an extensive career in the RAF, like me in 2006, must mitigate risk and suddenly adapt to civilian life. So, it’s not surprising that they tend to take the first opportunity that arises, thinking that it will act as a six-to-18-month transition into civilian life and then they will move on. And that’s what I did, but I never moved on!

“I appreciated the strategic collaboration and collective approach to skills development straight away, and I was confident that my role in the product development team was a great fit for me,” he continues. “Since then, I’ve worked in multiple positions, mainly in operations, before recently moving to my new role as Interim CEO. Despite developments in the industry, the board’s passion for looking after the training needs of the wider industry, as well as the organisation itself, has not once faltered.

“I feel very privileged and honoured to be given my current role, with the opportunity to steer the organisation through our business plan and new three-year-strategy. As this is an interim role, my main priority is to maintain and eventually hand over an organisation that is fit-for-purpose and still hungry to support the industry.”

Levying support

Providing historical context, Andy details: “The ECITB as we know it has been in existence since 1991 and prior to this, we were known as the Engineering Industry Training Board (EITB). Whilst many training boards were dissolved in the late-1970s, there was clear demand for a collective approach to training in such a highly contractual and project-driven industry. So, the EITB became the ECITB, holding responsibility for training individuals in various sectors: upstream and downstream oil and gas, nuclear, chemicals, water treatment, pharmaceuticals, food production, and power generation, both conventional and renewable.

“ECITB is the less-known jewel in the UK economy crown,” he states. “We are a registered charity and an arms-length body within government, sponsored by the Department for Education, and exist through a series of legislative instruments, which provide us with delegated authority and obligation to raise a levy from employers engaged in defined activities within specified locations within the industry.”

Most of these employers are contracting companies that design, engineer, build, maintain, or decommission most of the UK’s processing facilities (for example, nuclear plants, oil refineries, and water treatment sites). Andy explains what that means on a practical level: “We raise a levy totalling £26-million-to-£28-million from around 300 employers, which is then reinvested in the industry through apprenticeship support, graduate schemes, new entrant programmes, technical skills, supervisory and management training; all initiatives that boost any company’s efficiency and productivity.

“However, it is crucial to note that the industrial training levy is consensual,” he adds. “Every three years, we have to demonstrate to the UK government that a majority of the industry (more than 50 per cent) supports the levy.” This process last occurred in 2022, with the ECITB receiving overwhelming support for its levy proposal and new three-year-strategy. In a resoundingly positive response, 85 per cent of levy-paying employers, which represents 97 per cent of the total fund, voted in favour of the board’s proposal to maintain the levy at the current rates.

Andy suggests: “Such an elevated level of consensus implies that the industry supports our strategy to address skills shortages and invest in essential workplace training, particularly as we strive to deliver the country’s net-zero and energy security ambitions in the near future.

“This is what fascinates me,” he goes on. “We are faced with a highly contract-based industry with tight margins and little room for skills investment, so you could say it doesn’t champion development – but then 85 per cent of employers support our training levy. It’s an interesting one; a lack of employer investment in training, what we might term, a market failure, means the ECITB is required to levy businesses, essentially making the investment on their behalf, but the statistics of support for the levy prove that the industry does care about skills development and investing in their workforce.

“We need to iterate this message to newcomers and younger generations, with the vision of inspiring them to join the industry and showing them that it genuinely cares about and facilitates personal development,” Andy proposes. “This is especially important considering the two major challenges currently facing the industry – project uncertainty and skills shortages.

“Project uncertainty has led to a reluctance amongst employers when it comes to onboarding, due to reduced project certainty after the turmoil and volatility of the last few years. Instead of employing early, businesses are holding off until they win a contract, which is too late in most cases, to onboard and then upskill the workforce. This results in already-skilled professionals being employed, rather than new entrants or transferees from other sectors, which reinforces national skills shortages.”

Skills shortage solutions

A reported 25,000 additional workers are required to achieve the UK’s net-zero ambitions. Andy elaborates: “With forecasted investment in green strategies, the industry is predicted to massively increase offshore wind assets, carbon capture and storage facilities, and decarbonise major industrial clusters and ramp up hydrogen production plants. There’s also a huge decommissioning demand in the oil and gas and nuclear power sectors, as well as new nuclear power stations under construction.

“Whilst these are all great initiatives to meet the UK’s net zero ambitions, we cannot forget that we still need to repair and maintain our existing facilities to ensure a smooth transition from fossil fuels to renewables. The oil and gas market supports the fabric of our society; you can’t just pull people from existing work without considering and planning around other infrastructure plans.”

So, the answer is more skilled individuals, but how can the industry practically combat the shortages? “Well, the ECITB works in partnership with local agencies, training providers, and central governments to develop and initiate new entrant pipelines, with the vision of bringing people into the industry outside of traditional apprenticeship entries,” Andy explains. “We train people in semiskilled qualities, so hand skills and power tools. We ensure they are prepared to work in confined spaces or at height, put them through a safety certification, and get them generally work ready.”

Additionally, “diversity and inclusion in organisations, as well as in the wider industry, is one way of attracting individuals to address shortages,” he suggests. Under Andy’s guidance, the ECITB is operating a three-year-plan, ‘Leading Industry Learning,’ which focuses on broadening the industry by attracting individuals who have traditionally been excluded from engineering construction jobs.

“The industry has recruited workers from the same areas and backgrounds of society for too long. This limits the numbers of people coming into industry and the opportunity for creative thinking in project delivery. We need to increase the diversity of the industry, be flexible in how we employ people and start recruiting from hitherto harder-to-reach areas of society,”

Andy states. “For instance, we are currently training ex-offenders in various skills as part of a pilot scheme in Teesside. We have also partnered with schools and other educational facilities to educate younger generations on engineering construction, and debunk traditional perceptions of the industry as male only, dirty and not environmentally friendly.

“What we need to do next is focus on encouraging and supporting organisations to prepare for projects well in advance. In other words, we must work with businesses to start skills intervention and training ahead of winning contracts. EDF Energy is a fitting example of a company that understands this concept; we have worked closely with them to develop new entrant schemes for Hinkley Point, and plan to do the same for Sizewell C.”

On the other hand, companies must approach early training with caution, due to the risk of project delays or complications. For instance, Andy recalls: “We trained numerous people in high integrity welding techniques in 2014 in preparation for work on Hinkley Point. Then, the project slipped, and we lost our newly trained workers. It’s inevitable that this will happen in some cases and the ECITB is here to take that risk on industry’s behalf, but effective collaboration between asset owners, the workforce, and the supply chain is crucial in managing early engagement and mitigating complications.”

A collaborative approach

With this in mind, the ECITB has established ‘Connected Competence,’ a competence assurance programme that champions transferability of skills against a base technical standard. “The scheme was borne from a realisation that competition between contractors over competence is a false economy,” Andy explains. “It results in over-specifying training and certifications in an attempt to stay ahead of your competitor, but in fact, it wastes precious resources and is less cost-effective.

“We also have a training and guidance document outlining tools and techniques that aid collaboration and signposts businesses to collective contract models,” he adds. “However, this will be a slow burning process, as it will take decades to embed collaboration as industry best practice. So, we need to gradually, yet continuously, create a framework to promote and enable collaboration amongst businesses.”

Andy proposes: “It might sound negative, but we need to prepare businesses for major delays and interruptions over the next few years. Projects can inevitably be set back at any stage, and I think we will see more of this in 2023 and beyond. We need to equip businesses with effective contingency planning when it comes to skills investment to deal with disruption.

“Whilst this might seem like a huge responsibility, I live by the advice of breaking things down into incremental gains. Instead of being overwhelmed with the task at hand, break the project into smaller steps and on completion, be confidently assured that you will meet your overall goal or project demands, no matter how difficult it may seem at the beginning.”