As energy networks become smarter and more complex, and the sector cries out for skilled engineers, our CEO John Mathers discusses why design skills are fundamental to ensuring the sector can continue to compete in an increasingly global market. 

Skilled design engineers play a vital part in the infrastructure of energy supply. Our Design Economy research shows designers at the heart of these industries. For instance 17% of the coal/lignite mining workforce are in design roles, while 16% of the services that support the mining industry are designers. 

Design engineers design and develop the power grids that supply a huge proportion of the country's energy. These grids will become increasingly complex in the future, with the opportunity to integrate the various types of energy supply, and these skills will be invaluable. Design engineers also have a major role to play in day-to-day delivery – their technical expertise in prioritising, planning and decision-making affects the entire supply chain.

Fundamentally, the designer’s raison d’etre is to improve things. Design engineers in the electricity – and other energy - sectors are designing networks and hardware that could be in service for decades, their task is to pre-empt tomorrow’s problems and find solutions for today. 

Design engineers are designing networks and hardware that could be in service for decades, their task is to pre-empt tomorrow’s problems and find solutions for today.

The current electrical workforce is, naturally, ageing and there currently aren’t enough new recruits to fill their shoes. Part of the reason for the decline is the government’s focus on the ‘core academic’ subjects – Maths, English and Science – which have all seen an increase in the last few years. 

The focus of undergraduate education seems to have – for some time – been on the service and financial sectors.  The loss of more specialist and creative skills could threaten to derail the government’s plans for growth by increasing productivity – two goals that Design Council believes can be met with design training and coaching.

Another issue is an increasingly mobile workforce, which often works on short-term contracts. The consequence of this has meant that some employers are reluctant to invest sufficiently in formal training and up-skilling of some members of the workforce. This, coupled with the attractiveness of taking such skills abroad, means that the UK is in danger of losing some of its most skilled design engineers. These shortages have led to a highly competitive and global recruitment market, with UK employers competing not only on a sub-sector and national level, but on an international scale.

It’s essential to cascade the skills and knowledge from the workforce on the verge of retirement via internal mentoring. 

Improving careers advice and skills training within the education system needs to be a major focus of debate if we are to attract the next generation into the sector.

Training and collaboration could facilitate working across sub-sectors. This means collaboration within and between companies, and increasingly between energy subsectors. This potential is a reality – there will necessarily be more interaction between different types of energy network. Electricity, gas and transport all operate very separately today, but are headed for integration.

Improving careers advice and skills training within the education system needs to be a major focus of debate if we are to attract the next generation into the sector. There is a particularly need to enhance sector visibility for young, would-be design engineers.

In 2016/17 we will be undertaking research to look at the design skills currently being used in industry, as well as collecting industry views on the skills required for the future of design-led innovation. I’m sure that it will uncover some fascinating results and – we hope – some motivating, practicable solutions to what could be a serious problem for the UK.

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News & opinion

“All engineers should be taught elements of design” Professor Dame Julia King’s vision for better engineering education includes design skills as a vital component to strengthen the UK manufacturing sector. Professor Julia King’s vision for better engineering education includes design skills as vital to strengthening the UK manufacturing sector.

Feature — 06/08/2015