Skills: a perfect storm?

This Post

This post is based on an editorial piece I wrote for the Q4 2015 Institute of Water Journal which was focused on current and future skills issues

Weathering the storm?

As storms go this is a quiet one, but it has the potential to be as troublesome as any typhoon or hurricane. At its epicentre is skills and the issue is that simply throwing money at this problem is unlikely to work.

For money-throwing to work there have to be enough people to throw the money at, and they have to want to pick it up. The evidence suggests that neither of these will happen.

Age profiles & workforce planning

When making forecasts the one reliable data set is population numbers. Clearly a population of a million 20 year olds today means one million 30 year olds give or take a percent or two, in 10 years’ time. Using this we can make very reliable forecasts of the number of retirees in a given time period.

Applying this principle to the water industry the EU Skills’ Workforce Planning Model (see box-out) is predicting retirement driven staff turnover in PR14 of 45% and 44% in PR14. It also shows that 40% of vacancies being created are in technical roles at L3.

EU Skills’ Workforce Planning Model   The Eu Skills Workforce Planning Model is a sophisticated web base tool using workforce age profile and skill set data from employers to make accurate forecasts of future recruitment and training needs for specific roles and skill sets. Further details can be found at: or contact their Workforce Planning
Consultant, Rob Murphy  (


A key issue is that technical roles need a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) based education, and evidence from the ROSE project run by Oslo University shows that young people in developed countries, such as Europe and the UK are much less engaged with science than their counterparts in less well-developed countries.

This is consistent with the idea of our young people as consumers of, rather than creators, of technology and raises the question of how they can be re-engaged with STEM subjects.

Choosing career paths

We know from the research report  “Nothing in Common” that young people choosing arts and media rather than science and technology at school. Translated into career choices this would mean media jobs being oversupplied ten-fold with science job having half the number of qualified candidates that they will need in the future.

We all understand that parents want their children to do better than they did, attaining higher status jobs and careers. The perception among many parents is that a university education is the way to do this and the evidence is that children are being actively steered away from vocational education by those parents

Careers guidance

In May 2014 The Telegraph published an article discussing research finding from The Edge Foundation which highlights that while only 27% of parent perceived vocational skills as “worthwhile” some 72% of employers regarded vocational skills “essential”.

Perhaps the most worrying statistic is the 22% of pupils who were told that they were “too clever” for a vocational education.

It is difficult to see how these perceptions can be challenged, but challenged they must be if the water industry is to get the skilled technical workforce that it needs.

Gender imbalance

EU Skills’ research shows that technical water roles are largely white male dominated with the only female role being that of the receptionist.

Clearly, an industry facing a skills crisis cannot afford to ignore potential candidates from large swathes of the population.

Sector image

The water industry cannot rely on its image. Research commissioned by the author while Head of Research for EU Skills indicates that around 80% of those asked know nothing about the utility sector or the jobs that it offered.

The remainder characterised it is being white male dominated with typical roles being envisaged as fat-cat bosses, men in white coats doing impossibly techy stuff and engineers doing manual labour in bad weather. The only female role was that of the woman receptionist.

When asked about jobs, the best they came up with was that it would be OK for some else’s children but not theirs.

Not just a water problem

This is not just a problem for the water industry. The gas and electricity industries have similar age profiles and skills needs with the consequence of all three competing for the same shrinking talent pool.

What to do

There is no quick fix for any of these issues. The water industry collectively has to address a range of significant societal issues if it is to attract the talent that it needs over the next ten years and beyond.

While technology and increasing efficiency will help, the industry will need to take a long hard look at the kinds of jobs it offers and how it markets these to the outside world.


I hope that you have enjoyed reading this post. If you have thoughts on what I have written so far please leave a comment. Also if you have an idea for another business topic let me know and I’ll be delighted to find a space for it.

Thanks again

Bob windmill

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top