Power to the people
We use a lot of energy to heat and light our homes, power our workplaces and keep our phones fully charged. It has to come from somewhere, and in the UK that means solar, nuclear, wind, gas and coal power. Our vast national grid – all four thousand miles of it (that’s more than four times the length of the UK) – connects power stations to homes and businesses, and needs lots of skilled people to keep it humming.
Types of Apprenticeship
There are loads of new Apprenticeship Standards in the energy sector. They include Utilities Engineering Technician, Power Network Craftsperson and Electrical Power Protection and Plant Commissioning Engineer.
About the energy sector
Working in energy means being involved in one or more of the stages required to generate power and get it out to homes and businesses all over the UK. The sector covers traditional power sources such as coal and gas, as well as renewable ones like wind and solar. The UK was recently powered for a full 24 hours by renewable energy sources for the first time, so there are big changes happening and the sector is going to need tens of thousands of skilled workers to meet them. It’s a good time to power up your career.
What can I do?
Broadly, the energy sector is made up of three areas:
– generation (creating the electricity in the first place)
– transmission (moving it all over the country, via the national grid)
– distribution (connecting the grid to buildings, so we can access power)
As an Apprentice you could be working in any of these areas, carrying out a range of different tasks depending on your role. Working in a generation you might be based in a power station, maintaining the huge array of equipment that’s needed to keep the country supplied with power. Or you could be working as a mechanic on a wind turbine, keeping those giant sails turning.
If you work in transmission you’ll be responsible for the upkeep of the national grid itself: that’s the overhead wires crisscrossing the country, as well as the underground cables and the various sub-stations that regulate the grid. That might mean physically working on the cables yourself, or in more senior positions planning and overseeing maintenance on the grid.
At the other end of the line, when you work in distribution you’ll be responsible for getting power safely from the national grid and into people’s properties. That might mean working on the cabling and connections in residential areas or in homes, offices and business, or perhaps building new sections of cabling.
Alternatively, if you work in nuclear energy you might be maintaining a reactor, or joining a team looking to take one apart – known as decommissioning – in the safest way possible.
As you might expect, a thorough knowledge of how electricity works and how to be safe on the job is an important part of professional life in this sector, and it’s one of the main skills an Apprenticeship will teach you.
Alongside learning how not to get shocked, you’ll develop all kinds of practical maintenance skills as you learn how to test, repair and service the machinery involved in power generation. Because no-one likes to be without power for long you’ll also learn how to work well under pressure, while still keeping everything safe.
Your working environment will be pretty unique and you’ll need skills to match, including working at heights, in all weather conditions, in protective anti-radiation suits; even at sea. These will all develop over time as you’re exposed to more aspects of the job. What you’ll need at the start are decent literacy and numeracy skills so you can get your head around the principles of power supply and transmission, and a good helping of common sense so that you always work smart, and safe.
Finally, most roles will involve working with others, and many will have a element of dealing with the general public. With that in mind you’ll need to be confident in teams and be a good talker, with the ability to keep your head in challenging situations or when you’re talking with people who are frustrated that the power is out when they’re trying to make the tea.
Some of the roles open to Apprentices include:
· Power engineer
· nuclear technician
· gas network team leader
· wind turbine technician
· decommissioning operatives
· radiation monitors
To find out what’s available near you, visit careermap.co.uk and search for energy vacancies. You can also head to energy-uk.org.uk, which has lots of information on the industry itself, including on renewable energy and sustainability – both useful things to know about in an interview.
Routes into energy include:
– Vocational qualifications / A Levels
– National Diplomas and Certificates
– Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Diplomas (HNDs)
– Foundation Degrees (England and Wales only)
– Bachelors Degrees
Higher level qualifications may let you start in more senior positions right away. The Electrical Power Protection and Plant Commissioning Engineer Apprenticeship, for example, is a Higher / level four qualification (more below) that will set you up for a career testing power plants and making sure they’re safe to switch on. So it’s a pretty important job.
Levels of Apprenticeship
There are generally three levels of Apprenticeship offered in these areas. The one you choose will depend on your previous experience and qualifications:
Level two / Intermediate – equivalent to GCSEs / Standard Grades
Level three / Advanced – equivalent to A Levels / Highers
Level four and above / Higher – equivalent to Foundation Degrees or Bachelors Degrees
Your training will last between one and four years depending on the programme. If you don’t have the qualifications you need yet, a Traineeship can help fill in the gaps in your learning.
Life as an Energy Apprentice
The different areas of power generation offer contrasting experiences, so your working day will vary depending on where you work on what your role is. In a nuclear decommissioning role, for example, the work will be planned months ahead and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect, although there will still be plenty of variety on the job.
In a maintenance role, on the other hand, you often won’t know what’s going to be lined up for you until you arrive at work as it will depend on what needs repairing or looking at on that particular day. You might need to repair a part for a wind turbine, for example; or carry out some maintenance on a transformer (not that kind) to make sure that it stays in good working order.
If you’re out working on the power network itself, you could spend some of your day travelling (or even going out to sea in the case of offshore wind farms), before assessing the problem with your colleagues and carrying out repairs as required.
In all cases you’ll probably spend a fair bit of time at the start of your Apprenticeship getting up to speed on some of the technical skills you’ll need, which you’ll either do at college or by following a programme of online study in your own time. The good news is that, unlike school, this is work that you’ll get paid for, so you’ll have some income while you’re learning your trade.
You could work in…
Energy Apprentices can be found in:
Working on cables
Up wind turbines
Find Apprenticeships in energy near you at careermap.co.uk