Motion 0009

Skills Training: Working Together to Inspire a Digital Generation

June 22, 2023
The next generation of electrical engineers could be the real actors in saving the planet – but business, industry and education providers must work together to inspire them to be part of the energy transition or risk jeopardizing it.

The world is shifting toward a cleaner, more sustainable power distribution network, however unless more is done to address the global shortage of properly qualified and skilled engineers, our journey to net zero is sure to hit an impasse.

To ensure there is a next generation of engineers ready to meet the challenge ahead and embrace the technological advances being made to integrate more renewable energy into the network, collaboration between those skilling the engineers of tomorrow and the companies who need them will be essential to successfully bridging the divide.

Where are all the Engineers?        

Everyone is looking for talented engineers to help them create the networks of the future – so where are they?

With the exception of just a handful of countries that are still managing to train enough of the skilled people they need – such as China and India – almost every country around the world is struggling to find enough STEM profiles to fill the current and pipeline of roles required to enable their energy transition. The reasons behind the shortages vary between countries and particularly between developed and developing economies.

In Europe, for example, engineering workers are among the four most in demand occupation groups. Little wonder when in Italy alone electrical engineering graduates can have up to 22 job offers when they leave education, according to the Politecnico di Milano, the largest technical university in Italy.

In developing countries, the skills shortage is more complex. These countries are building and expanding their power networks in a new way, considering the role of renewable energy integration and digitalization from the start. These new technologies are being rolled out at pace in Europe, USA and China, but many regions in the developing world don’t have the structural advantages conducive to training the engineers of the future.

The global shortage is being compounded by the number of experienced engineers leaving the industry. During the 1960s and 1970s, engineering was a vocation of choice; a job for life. But these ‘boomer’ workers are now reaching retirement age, leaving a big gap that needs to be filled.

From that perspective, you could say that our industry has a PR problem. The transformation of the electrical distribution network is a dynamic field to work in but the younger generation doesn’t find the energy industry very exciting – or they don’t know enough about it to make an informed choice.

Externally, utilities are often seen as traditional (even boring!) but they are at the forefront of the energy transition and saving the planet, and this is something Gen Z does care about. As part of our industry, they can be the real actors in reversing the effects of climate change. How do we channel their enthusiasm for sustainability into working in our industry?

The Evolution of the Engineer

In the struggle to recruit and retain engineers, there is an added dimension to the skills shortage in that the engineers working on future grids need different skill sets from the traditional power engineers who came before them. New technology developments are coming quickly, and we need education providers to be able to evolve and keep pace.

Given the increased digitalization required to operate a modern grid with distributed energy resources, engineers need to have a much deeper understanding of information technology for a start. Essentially, they need to be able to understand both the electrical engineering and the information technology sides of the job.

We have traditionally trained electrical engineers who understand the hardware, and IT engineers who understand the software. We need people with both skill sets and there is a distinct grey zone where knowledge is lacking.

Learning Together – Building Together

Overcoming these hurdles requires a collaborative approach between industry and higher education providers to offer an enriched learning experience for students which adequately prepares them for their future roles. For example, businesses can propose real-world challenges and problems for students to solve. In our experience, what comes from this is a fresh perspective on age-old problems, creativity, asking questions, and challenging the status quo – and it can produce some remarkable breakthrough concepts.

At ABB, we engage with students and education providers on many different levels from arranging company visits and running early talent programs such as the ABB Discovery program, to supporting scholarships and having our experts teaching on university courses. We offer internships and thesis possibilities too.

Of course, our work is far from done – the ongoing shortage of engineers is proof of that! We, and other organizations in our industry, need to work closely with colleges to impart our specialist knowledge to future engineers and to open up even more entry level opportunities. We need to encourage more students to visit our factories and R&D centers to see the applications of electrical engineering. That’s where the inspiration begins.

In 2015 we opened in Italy the Smart Lab, so far visited by more than 20,000 people, of which more than 8,000 were students. We recently invested in external facilities to support engineers in learning more about future technology. In September 2022, Vietnam’s first Smart Grid Lab was opened at the Industrial University of Ho Chi Minh City. Fully equipped with ABB solutions, the lab will help 350 students a year to understand the complexities of modern power networks and allow students to visualize how a power grid operates in real-time.

Digital education tools, developed by the industry, can also support student learning. We have developed a virtual reality program to offer 3D immersive training, allowing engineers to learn without being exposed to medium-voltage power. This is done using virtual reality glasses and it builds confidence, knowledge, and experience. It can be used by undergraduates as well as to upskill engineers already working in the field.

By being involved in the learning process, we can help shape an engineer’s skills and knowledge so that from day one, they can apply what they’ve learned in the field.

We can also share our knowledge and help plug the skills gap through key international partnerships. ABB is currently working with RES4Africa to provide technical expertise on decentralized, digital and innovative renewable energy solutions to support Africa’s energy transition. RES4Africa is a foundation which acts as a bridge between Europe and Africa and it is creating a network of members from the clean energy sector who will – among other things – provide support to the individuals and institutions which will train the people required to lead the sustainable transformation of Africa’s electricity sector.

The Future

So, we have some ideas and programs to enrich the learning of new (and existing) engineers to equip them with what they need to excel and to help enable the energy transition. But we also need to bring more young people into the industry.

The journey to inspire students starts at primary and secondary school, engaging individuals to pursue STEM subjects. We also need to invest more in encouraging applicants from currently underrepresented groups in our industry, and this too can start in those formative years. For example, ABB globally engages in programs to support women in engineering, encouraging young pupils to participate in technical subjects in their classrooms and organizes the Sustainable Talent Program, where women in engineering can get mentoring from ABB representatives and visit our factories.

To support outreach work, we need to raise the visibility of power and utilities in society too. During an event with secondary schools, a student once remarked to me that you never see electrical engineers on television or in films – they are never even the killer in a crime drama! We are invisible to the world unless there is a power cut.

While we are waiting for directors to cast electrical engineers as characters in lead roles, we can raise the profile of our industry by engaging young people in the places and spaces they inhabit – online and on social media. We need to talk to them in a way they will respond to, using short-form digital content and authentic people stories that show how flexible the job can be and the impact it can have on society and the environment. Even sharing a job opportunity or talking about one’s own career experience can inspire and be helpful.

It’s a real step change in thinking about the skills shortage and the payback in terms of new engineers will be 5-10 years down the line. But if we don’t act now, things will only get worse and without the skills to make the energy transition a reality, we are left with big ideas, innovative technology, and little progress on our journey to net zero. 

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!