By: Mkhululi Maxontana, Client Business Executive, BLU Cynergy
Correctly matching skills with business opportunities is an age-old problem in every industry. Does a business onboard skills and then find opportunities, or sign deals before hiring the skilled individuals who will fulfill those contracts? What if skills can’t be found? And on the other side of the equation, what happens if a business carries large overheads but does not have enough work to justify a large staff complement?
It’s a delicate balance, and one that is complicated even further in industries that are projected to soon experience growth – but are not there yet.
Renewable energy is one such sector in South Africa. At a global level, trends such as decentralisation, decarbonisation, and digitisation are impacting energy production and consumption, driving the growth of renewables. Locally, this uptake has been slower, but government’s decision to increase the licensing-exemption threshold for companies to produce their own electricity from 1 MW to 100 MW, opening the doorway to exploring renewable energy solutions, which will directly impact the growth of the industry.
The challenge is skills. While there are many standardised skills required in the construction and implementation of solar plants and wind farms, there are also technology-specific specialised skills related to OEM equipment, such as solar panels and inverters. These are the skills that the industry is currently lacking.
Why is there a skills gap in the renewables sector?
Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem restricted to the renewables sector. I’ll use the electrical sector as an example. Electrical technicians receive generalised sector training, including an in-depth understanding of how heavy currents work, how inverters work, the safety and regulations governing commercial and private electrical installations and so on. However, product training is required to install or troubleshoot a specific inverter as an example. This training does not happen while a technician or artisan is receiving their training and diploma. Instead, on-the-job training takes place.
Which is where the gaps in the renewables sector come in. How the renewables sector operates, the various technologies available, trends and innovations are all covered at a university and degree level. But not OEM-specific product information.
The challenge is that a contractor interested in the renewables sector would need to hire the necessary skills in year one and provide product-specific, on-the-job training for the next two years to ensure they are ready for a project in year three – and in most cases, this isn’t feasible. Independent power producers (IPPs) can’t invest in future contracts that may or may not materialise. Similarly, the ability to design and spec a wind or solar plant is based on experience, which is difficult to attain when sectors and technologies are still relatively new.
The result is that we are expecting growth in this sector – but we don’t have the skills to support that growth. There’s also a disconnect between the skills needed for the construction of these plants and the geographic areas where we historically find those skills. For example, experienced crane operators tend to be based in Cape Town, Durban and Mpumalanga, but wind farms are built in the Northern Cape and Eastern Cape – areas where there is a decided lack of crane operators.
What’s the solution?
As a provider of flexible labour solutions, AdcorpBLU specialises in helping businesses to right-size their staff complements based on current contracts and business opportunities. The fact that we have an onboarded labour force to draw from means that we can deploy skills immediately.
BLU Cynergy is an extension of these capabilities. We offer turnkey, customised and fully outsourced project team solutions to fit all clients’ needs within the energy, engineering, mining and construction sectors.
We recognise that there is already a skills shortage in the renewables sector in particular, from design gaps to OEM product gaps to geographic challenges, and as the sector expands these skills gaps will become more pronounced. Our ability to onboard employees and assist with on-the-job skills training that can be deployed as contractors require them will be invaluable to this sector.
However, we cannot do it alone. Currently, South Africa’s training and development in this sector is primarily theoretical. Upcoming engineers are not being adequately trained by educators and OEMs in order to align them with the technology advancements happening within that sector. This focus must shift to ensure that the correct skills are available as the renewables sector gains traction.
Mkhululi Maxontana holds a National Diploma in Electrical Engineering from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and has worked for the World Bank as Renewable Energy Advisor. He has 10 years of Managerial and sales experience within the Energy, IT and Infrastructure fields. He currently works as a Client Business Executive for BLU Cynergy.