Solar Taskforce: tackling the solar skills challenge 

The start of 2024 will bring with it the anticipated conclusion of the Solar Taskforce and its findings on what actions are needed to meet the UK’s ambition of 70GW solar deployment by 2035. 

Solar Task Force at Solar and Storage Live

The taskforce brought together key players from government, industry, regulatory bodies and other relevant organisations to look at how the fivefold increase in solar PV can be achieved. 

After being established early in 2023 and first meeting in May, the taskforce was given until February this year to conclude its work. 

Its main objectives are to help develop a strategic step-by-step roadmap to achieving the 2035 goal, to identify what measures are needed to unlock deployment and putting structures in place to ensure investment in UK supply chains, jobs, skills, innovation and infrastructure. 

Four issue-specific subgroups were created to focus specifically on the grid, skills, rooftop and the supply chain. 

And, as the taskforce approached its conclusion, we spoke to chair of the skills subgroup, Mark Wakeford, of renewable energy solutions provider, EvoEnergy, about the sort of actions that might be proposed in forwarding the skills agenda. 

Mark has a long and illustrious background in construction and has focused on renewables for many years. He’s represented the industry on several organisations, bodies and councils over the years and was happy to step up when asked to join the Solar Taskforce – despite the high workload involved. 

There’s no denying the extent of the skills challenge when it comes to solar deployment, with estimates suggesting some 60,000 people will be needed throughout the supply chain, although the taskforce is waiting on the results of a detailed survey on this. 

The scale of the solar skills challenge 

Mark said: “The problem with skills is it’s a long process and we’ve only got 12 years to get 70 gigawatts up and running. We’ve got to find enough people to do it and make sure they’re qualified.  

“Most of the businesses in the sector are relatively young, and there’s a lot of family- owned or small businesses designing, installing and then maintaining solar installations and these are much more difficult to get into and to persuade them to double their turnover and do all these other things we need them to do so. 

“We’ve got quite a lot of challenges and we’re looking at everything we need to do to overcome them. 

“The indications are we need around 60,000 people spread throughout the entire value chain. We know, for example, that planning is a major problem. We’re trying to get solar farms through the planning process when there simply aren’t enough planners in local authorities to deal with it.” 

Fortunately, planning isn’t an issue for domestic installations, but this is also suffering from a shortage of skilled workers. 

Improving pathways into solar careers 

If the 70GW target is to be achieved, it’s vital that all pathways into solar careers are improved, whether that’s a school leaver entering the workplace for the first time, an electrician looking to branch out, a roofing company, or anyone else wanting to work with home renewable energy solutions. 

“We need to target every pathway if we’re going to find 60,000 people, and we’re at almost full employment and competing with every other sector. We’re looking at every area, including the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, schools advisors, charities. 

We also want to reach those who might be overlooked for jobs. We’ve got the opportunity here to provide proper, well-paid work to everybody across society. 

“At the same time, we’ve got to gradually raise the professionalism within the sector. Providing a good foundation course, for example, that someone can take before moving on to an apprenticeship might be a good way of attracting people in, while delivering secure and robust installations.” 

“We want to be offering careers, not just jobs.” 

“The industry needs that quality because the last thing we can afford is to do everything twice. We’ve got limited resources and if something isn’t installed right the first time and they have to go back, that impacts the ability of the industry to deliver what we need to install to achieve 70GW, so it’s in everyone’s interests to get the quality on site right.” 

As part of its work, the taskforce has set up a trailblazer group working with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) to look at apprenticeships for the solar sector; to assess what’s already out there and determine whether a new course is needed, or if existing courses might be adapted to meet the needs of employers. 

Regional skills hubs 

Mark is also a governor at a further education (FE) college and would like to see the FE sector playing a bigger role in solar recruitment. 

“I’m hoping that one of the recommendations we’ll be making is to have some regional skills hubs within the FE sector to act as regional centres for employers, and to coordinate courses across providers within a particular region. That way we’re not spreading the need for lecturers too thinly and people can be confident in the courses that are running.” 

A fantastic opportunity for installers 

“What all of this represents is a fantastic opportunity for installers, and that’s the bit I keep coming back to. We’re talking about achieving a five-fold increase in outputs so the opportunity to invest in your installer business and see growth over the next decade is fantastic. 

“The Labour Party has come up with a similar target and would be proposing 45 to 50GW by 2030. Again, it’s a massive ask and would also have to come from across all the categories of PV we have. So, for the rooftops and the installer community, there is this fantastic opportunity going forward.” 

Helping installers scale up

“The bit I think people sometimes underestimate is the challenge of actually scaling a business to do two, three or four times the turnover. I know, from experience, that most companies go bust when there’s too much work going on rather than too little. 

“And so, one of the one of the key things which I think applies across the whole sector, whether you’re a very large business or a very small business, is making sure your boards of directors, the people running those companies, have the skills required to grow. 

“There are all sorts of things that a business needs to do to step up the workload, including improved governance, processes and knowledge. There might be a sole owner/ director, and there’ll be many who are happy to stay at that level, but we need the whole industry to grow if we are to achieve the solar target. 

“So, one of the things we’ll be promoting is a qualification for directors to be able to accommodate that scale-up safely. We see this as effectively an apprenticeship for directors to learn the skills they need to grow their businesses, alongside a support network with other people facing similar challenges and issues.” 

Achieving the 70GW target 

We couldn’t let the interview end without asking the million dollar question as to whether the 70GW target is achievable. 

Mark replied emphatically: “Absolutely! I wouldn’t be personally putting all this work into it if I didn’t think it was achievable. Of course, there are challenges, but we’ve got a really good team looking at all of them.”