February 3, 2020
I began my career as a technical apprentice at the age of 16 during the height of the UK engineering boom and was based at the former C.A Parsons and Company site in Heaton, Newcastle.
Today, I’m only 100 yards from where I started my career and it’s fantastic to see that operations are still running from the site which is now owned by Siemens.
When I joined Parsons, our site was responsible for manufacturing steam turbine generators and all kinds of engineering, manufacturing and production relating to power stations, which at the time were predominantly coal-fired. We really were instrumental in bringing power to people all over the world from Tyneside.
Joining as a technical apprentice, I learned the skills you would typically expect an apprentice in the engineering industry to learn nowadays including processes such as milling and fitting, working with technical drawings, assembly and testing of components, alongside implementing the correct safety procedures.
However, engineering was very different back then and was typically organised with paper, pencils and slide rules, given that digital hadn’t entered the equation yet. Everything we did as a business, and an industry, was linked very much to a manual process.
That being said, skills such as heavy lifting, generator repairs and turbine blade fitting and, most importantly making sure everything was done safely and to a high standard is still important today.
We’ve made great advancements as an industry when it comes to making sure we keep our people safe; there’s nothing more important than our people going home safely at the end of a working day.
Looking back in the 1980s, we didn’t really have an issue with a skills gap at the time; engineering and manufacturing in the UK was in its prime and the pace of change was slower than it is currently. Today, there is constant innovation in technology and digital tools which require ongoing training and development.
In the 70s and 80s, UK manufacturing was booming and we were known as the heart of turbine engineering, and a key player in the energy industry. Parsons was specifically known for manufacturing large-scale steam turbine generators from its site at Heaton. We provided turnkey power plants, turbines and generators and a whole host of related equipment to power stations all over the UK and further afield to Australia, Canada, Iraq and India, to name a few.
It’s testament to the quality of Parsons engineering that some of those turbines are still operational in both the UK and overseas markets today – some of them have been running for well over 50 years, and the team in Newcastle still support and service them to this day.
In regards to apprenticeships in the industry, when I began my career Parsons was one of the biggest recruiters in the North East for apprentices and graduates along with Vickers, Reyrolle, and other Northern engineering industries, all of which were the forward thinkers in the sector.
It was still a competitive process to secure an apprenticeship place at that time and we all had to demonstrate we were prepared to learn the skills needed to work in such a large business that was really making waves across the world.
When specifically looking at Siemens Gas and Power and the facility we have at Heaton, the skills provision has changed as we’ve moved from mainly being a manufacturing facility to a servicing facility. In the UK, with the move to renewable energy we make fewer steam turbines, but we are now involved in connecting offshore windfarms and distributed energy sources to the National Grid.
Traditional skills are still important, but we are also embracing new digital technologies like Additive Manufacturing, to support our customers. As our traditional markets have changed, so have we, and as the transition to a decarbonised future continues at pace, we will continue on that change and transformation journey well into the future.
In my current role, I oversee a business that supports the full energy value-chain including grid connections, newbuild power stations, substations and the servicing of transmission solutions as well as oil and gas. Predictably, the increase in digitalisation has been a huge learning curve for the industry in terms of controls and condition monitoring of the full spectrum of power generation and transmission systems.
We now have greater connectivity to power station equipment than we ever have before – allowing us to see how things are performing, predict failures, avoid breakdowns and ultimately keep the lights on!
Connecting offshore windfarms to transformer modules in the North Sea and transporting them to remote locations onshore is also an area that requires more skills, careful planning and project management to ensure they are delivered safely and on programme.
We’ve also had to evolve in terms of remote working, with many of our technicians working on offshore platforms and at sites across the world.
We employ 3600 people specifically in Siemens Gas and Power in the UK across 15 different locations from Aberdeen in Scotland to Frimley in southern England and at sites including factory environments, power stations, a 3D printing facility and project offices to support customers with sales functions.
We’re all one business and connecting our people and sites is an important part of what we do by ensuring they have the skills they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability. In terms of how training has changed, the green agenda is something the industry is really focusing on and we want to understand how we can continue to keep the lights on but in a sustainable way.
We’re very much a key player in the energy transition and as a business we plan to be carbon neutral by 2030, taking a leading role in supporting the UK Government and our customers in achieving net-zero by 2050.
We’re making huge steps in the evolution of our technology to generate and transmit energy using new fuels to emit less carbon. Because we can’t just turn everything off – we have to make the transition in a way that benefits society, as well as the environment.
When looking specifically at recruitment in the industry, it’s no secret that engineering is still a male-dominated space, but we are moving towards becoming more diverse and inclusive by recruiting people with different backgrounds. When we recruit, we’re looking at how we can get different talent into the business and we’re pushing an internal drive to make sure we properly address gender, diversity and the pay gap.
The future for our industry is all about greener energy and we need to make sure we bring existing employees along on that journey. It’s a complete learning process for us all to ensure everyone from apprentices to leading industry experts are equipped with the skills to understand how we can make a difference and play our part in creating a better environment.
At the same time, we’re looking at the technological innovation needed to apply more sustainable technology. As we transition into the new standalone Siemens Energy organisation, the plan is to use our Newcastle site as a servicing facility while also identifying and exploring new business fields such as hydrogen electrolysis.
To move the green agenda forward within the industry, we really need to see investment from the Government and get clarity on energy policy, which is something we anticipate in the short term.
Without policy, it’s difficult to create a market and for the industry to develop skills to push it forward. We need a plan of action so we can all drive an agenda the whole industry is on board with and to make sure we meet net-zero ambitions.
Internally for Siemens Energy, our future, alongside the green agenda, is looking more at the skills diversification that new technologies and policies bring. We believe there is a bright future, a renaissance in energy and this will bring new and exciting opportunities as we embrace new technologies to reduce the impact of energy on our planet.
Siemens Gas and Power