- Size of the energy training industry: The UK energy industry employs 159,000 people, the majority involved in electricity production, oil and gas extraction or gas supply. The EU employs 1.38 million people in traditional energy generation and over a million in renewables. In the USA, 3.64 million people work in the energy industry, with 600,000 contributing to low-carbon electricity and 1.9 million working on energy efficiency projects. In total, renewable energy employs 8.1 million people worldwide – including 3.5 million in China, where oil and gas boast 2.6 million workers.
- Training spend per annum: Given the range of courses available, a hard figure is difficult to come by. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) opportunities range from between £1,000 and £3,000 for a two or three-day course, with lower rates available through professional associations. Initial training often takes place on the job but can involve undergraduate qualifications costing up to £27,000 per trainee, with additional postgraduate CPD. The tuition fees for postgraduate-level specialist training can amount to £70,000 per year.
- Key training areas: Extraction, refining and distribution of fuel; production and distribution of energy. Besides these technical areas, there is also a need for trained personnel in marketing, trading, logistics and PR.
28% of workers in the energy sector hold a first or higher degree; 45% are qualified to A-level or below and a minority of around 5% hold no formal qualifications. 75% of employers offer on and off-the-job training; a further 11% support continuous professional development opportunities outside their company.
Other opportunities – including short CPD courses taking days rather than years – are provided by professional bodies such as the Energy Institute. Key training programmes include efficiency management, environmental management and risk management, as well as the technical guidance necessary for extraction procedures.
Like many others, the energy sector is currently facing a skills deficit. The oil and gas industry in the USA has work for 60,000 petrochemical engineers, but only 1,300 graduated in the field last year. These graduates arrive in a sector where constant change is the norm, driven by government policy, new technology and the transition towards a low carbon economy. Particular growth areas include renewable energy, nuclear power (expected to generate 25% of the UK’s energy by 2025) and electricity supply. As smart metering becomes the norm, new standards and practices in data management and IT support are under development, requiring new approaches to training and practice.
Other issues facing the energy sector include its poor visibility as a career option, which hinders recruitment, and ageing of its core workforce. By 2022, 23,000 key workers will have retired from the UK coal, oil and gas sectors, along with 20,000 in electricity. Knowledge must be passed to a new generation of workers who will be far more comfortable with learning techniques like VR mentorship than their predecessors.
Finally, there are the practical challenges involved in extraction and distribution of fuel. Refineries, offshore rigs and mines are large, complex and constantly in operation. They are often in remote locations with harsh climates, and workers at these sites must be trained to deal with toxic substances, fires, spills and leaks before they arrive on site.
VR training is a natural fit for these sites, and the energy industry has been swift to adopt 3D simulations for visualisation exercises.
These simulations close the gap between the abstract experience of a lecture and the concrete experience of navigating and handling actual objects on-site. They enrich the learning experience by providing opportunities for learners to interact with equipment and environments, gaining a better understanding and improving retention.
The NORCAT Centre in Ontario, Canada, uses 3D environments as part of its orientation and safety training, enabling new employees to explore sites and experience standard operating procedures in advance. This level of preparation means they’re ready to hit the ground running and keep up with the demanding pace of extraction and processing work once they’ve arrived on site.
The developers who created NORCAT’s 3D environments predict that the next generation of energy sector trainees will be digital natives and lifelong gamers – people used to learning through immersive play and exploration. VR streaming also allows mentors and trainees to come together far more easily than a physical trip to a conference or course event.
VR is also set to become a more significant part of the actual working process within the industry: ‘digital planning’ allows for repair and upgrade scenarios to be tested and kinks to be worked out before execution, ensuring minimal downtime at the actual site. Employees will therefore benefit from exposure to and familiarity with VR technology as a working tool.
The energy sector is also set to see major growth in the developing world. China’s emissions programme is driving an expansion in both renewable and nuclear generation, while India’s modernisation and manufacturing ambitions are pushing up the demand for energy. India needs to invest in an enormous upgrade of its electrical infrastructure, and such an upgrade will create demand for skilled personnel. VR training will allow trainees in China and India to explore sites and contact mentors elsewhere in the world, building on the remote training solutions offered by organisations like Petroskills.
Energy businesses are a natural fit for VR training. They must train employees in dealing with complex equipment and environments, in harsh climatic conditions and with serious emergency risks. In those circumstances, it’s small wonder that the industry has already adopted 3D simulation to create training environments. The next step is likely to be greater interconnectivity across the industry, allowing trainees to experience a greater range of sites and learn from a greater range of experienced professionals.
Featured image credit: By Ben (Out with the Old, In with the New) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons