The global battery sector has doubled in size over the past five years. Rising demand for cleaner transport and power in line with global net zero targets is accelerating this growth and the market is expected to triple in size by 2025, according to S&P Global. But as we look ahead to a world that is increasingly electrified, one issue looms large: the lack of highly skilled talent capable of delivering such a transition, writes Ben Hewlett, infrastructure partner, and Andrew Kingston, industrial technologies partner at consultancy firm Granger Reis.
With demand for talent outpacing supply, new research from the EU’s European Battery Alliance planning group highlights that the battery industry needs 800,000 additional workers by 2025.
The challenge is global and could particularly affect the top countries with the highest installed capacity forecast, namely China, the US, Taiwan as well as areas in Western Europe where gigafactories are increasingly being installed. If not solved, the shortage of skilled workers will slow the pace of innovation which in turn presents a risk to global progress towards net zero and a greener future.
The industry has performed admirably in recent years to drive cleaner technologies and energy, but there is work to be done when it comes to supporting the industry’s talent pipeline. As specialist executive search consultants within the sector, we’ve identified some of the necessary changes needed to help plug the clean energy skills gap.
Providing the correct education
The role of education in addressing climate change took centre stage at COP26 whereupon the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched its landmark Futures of Education report, which calls for a rethink of the present education model in line with real-world challenges.
The global initiative proposes a new social contract for education that aims to rebalance our relationships with the planet and technology, looking at the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values needed to thrive in the new sustainable economy, namely clean energy employment.
Chris Biederman, chief technology officer at Li-Cycle, says: “We need to strengthen partnerships and collaboration between industry, government, STEM education supporters, and academics to ensure that our future engineers are getting the fundamental skill sets required to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.
“The growing lithium-ion battery recycling industry is a great example. We need engineers of all types to face these unbounded and often unique problems. A critical aspect will be preparing future engineers to get involved and really get their hands dirty.”
When it comes to providing the correct education, US and Europe can learn from China where for years the government and universities have been working in collaboration to establish more educational programs focused on advanced technologies, including clean energy. Doing so has been pivotal in delivering a generation of new professionals and workers who are literate in the demands of clean energy, which has contributed significantly to the expansion of China’s clean energy industry.
When it comes to closing the skills gap, it’s not just the type of education that needs to evolve but it’s also the mindset of young people. They need to be made aware of the breadth of opportunities that comes with working in clean energy.
“The very brightest of individuals are finding that they can go and earn more money in the city of London”, says Adrian Shooter, chairman of rolling stock manufacturer Vivarail. “Is it a counsel of despair? No, because there are things we can do about this, namely, educating these individuals about how exciting working in the battery industry is because these are places that you can really make a difference.”
So, if employers are serious about closing the skills gap, they must recognise the importance of educating and empowering future generations to succeed in the jobs of the future. This means emphasising the interesting problems that engineers solve, as well as the opportunities they face in creating a better world.
One organisation doing just that is The Boring Company, an American infrastructure and tunnel construction service provider founded by Elon Musk. In 2020, the company launched the ‘Not a Boring’ competition, which invited teams of young engineers from across the world to “beat the snail” with new and innovative tunnelling solutions.
Nearly 400 applicants answered the call, twelve of which were shortlisted. These students were invited to Las Vegas to demonstrate their technology. Such an initiative is a great example of how organisations can entice younger generations into engineering and solving real world problems.
Retaining and attracting high-quality talent
In an incredibly competitive market for hiring, the retention of high-quality talent has never been so crucial. This is particularly true following the global pandemic which highlighted the importance of organisations doing everything they can to create a culture of inclusion where individuals from all walks of life can thrive.
But what some organisations fail to recognise is that the retention of great talent starts with a good employee onboarding programme. In fact, research from Brandon Hall Group found that organisations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82%. In an increasingly fast-paced industry, the focus has been on getting new hires fired up rather than settled in.
Upskilling/re-skilling to meet contemporary challenges
As the pace of digital development continues to increase, the skills used in the workplace are becoming outdated at an increasing pace. Whether dealing with recent university graduates or veteran employees, companies need to invest in professional development to foster a more resilient and stable talent pipeline, and ultimately avoid churn.
Recent years have witnessed a rise in similar initiatives from large corporates aimed at reskilling and upskilling engineers to help match skills with labour market needs and ultimately achieve net zero targets. For example, in June last year Microsoft released a pledge to upskill 25 million US workers to provide them with the necessary digital skills needed to either get back in the workplace or move up from their current positions.
At an international level, earlier this year the European Commission and European Battery Alliance launched the European Battery Academy, which aims to effectively coordinate re-skilling and up-skilling efforts at the European level and roll out high-quality training immediately across Member States.
Yet another option that is often overlooked is the cross-skilling of individuals from aligned sectors, for example, hiring from traditional sectors that are in decline and re-skilling them for renewable sectors. According to Ernst & Young Global Limited (EY), around seven in ten jobs in oil and gas have at least partial overlap with skills in low-carbon industries.
As organisations within this sector, we have a duty to ensure that we are engaging with future talent through initiatives that demonstrate the interesting real-world problems that engineers face.
This means working with government bodies to ensure the education provided in schools and universities is reflective of the current and future demands of the world. But more than that, companies need to have the incentives in place to not only attract but retain current talent, namely learning and development programmes to upskill employees as well as those from traditional energy sectors.
Doing so will not only contribute to the success of organisations but that of Europe and the US, enabling them to compete with China and rapidly increase the clean energy market to meet the demands of tomorrow.