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Employment opportunities and challenges in the context of rapid industry growth

Employment opportunities and challenges in the context of rapid industry growth

How wind and wave industries can overcome skill shortages and other growth barriers.

  • min read


Employment opportunities and challenges in the context of rapid industry growth

The wind and wave & tidal industries in the UK face a number of significant barriers to growth. Building on our experience in the renewable energy sector, Bain & Company has focused this analysis on employment and skill-related issues. The report identifies three different scenarios for the development of the wind and wave & tidal industries. It identifies steps that can be taken to resolve problems to help achieve the UK's ambitious 2020 targets for renewable energy production.

Sector development in Europe to date: early investment is paying off

The wind industry is now established as one of the highest-growth industries in Europe. It has grown at an average rate of 12 percent over the last 5 years, and at the end of 2007, the cumulative installed capacity had reached 57 gigawatts (GW). That has led to significant job creation, with approximately 145,000 people employed in the European Union (EU) wind energy sector at the end of last year. Germany, Spain and Denmark have secured the majority of the benefits from that growth and now account for more than 70 percent of the EU's installed capacity. Moreover, due to significant exporting from Germany and Denmark, these three countries account for more than 90 percent of the EU's wind-sector employees. Bain's analysis points to four factors that were common to these countries and critical to the rapid growth of their wind industries:

  • Support schemes to reduce commercial uncertainty (e.g. feed-in tariff);
  • Rapid building of new infrastructure (e.g. the grid) to accommodate the wind industry;
  • A swift process for gaining planning consent for the installation sites;
  • Support for wind energy in local communities, generated either through opportunities for participation in ownership of wind farms or through tax revenues paid to local authorities by wind farms for tangible benefits to the community.

These four factors attracted the wind-turbine manufacturers, and manufacturing clusters developed near their factories. Those clusters consisted of material and component suppliers, as well as universities and research institutions that provided tailored education and R&D support. Today, the three main clusters in Northern Germany, Spain, and Jutland, Denmark account for more than half of employment in the EU's wind energy sector.

The UK wind industry: a follower with increasing momentum

The UK largely missed out on this earlygrowth phase. Industry experts claim that the lack of a proper support scheme, with elements such as feed-in tariffs, was the primary reason for the slow start. A few manufacturers chose to build plants in the UK, but the industry did not develop large-scale momentum beyond those few investments.

With the introduction of a market-based incentive structure (the Renewables Obligation, or RO) in 2002, the dynamics of the UK wind industry were fundamentally changed. The RO is proving to be an effective mechanism for making onshore wind projects commercially viable. Whereas prior to 2002, cumulative installed capacity was less than 600 megawatts (MW), by 2007 it had increased to 2.2 GW growing at more than 35 percent per year. However, whilst large parts of the wind industry value chain have become firmly established in the UK (e.g. development, technical consulting and construction and installation), the majority of turbines are being imported from the continent.

The current level of employment in the UK wind industry stands at approximately 5,000. Of these employees, a large percentage are located in parts of the value chain where the business models are local in nature (such as development or construction and installation).

Market outlook 2020: a step-change opportunity

Europe is now poised to experience accelerated growth in the wind industry, to a large extent fuelled by aggressive EU targets for power generation from renewable sources that have been set for all member states. The UK will need to add about 260 terawatt hours (TWh) of renewable energy production by2020 in order to meet its target, according to the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR) and the UK's Renewables Advisory Board (RAB). Wind energy is expected to be the primary contributor, with 35 percent to 40 percent of the overall renewables target. In our estimates, that translates into 11 GW of onshore capacity and 14 GW of offshore capacity that must be added over the next 12 years.

The UK is currently well placed to benefit from the investments flowing into the offshore wind sector. The offshore market is still emerging, and the UK is strongly positioned to capture a significant share of installations due to its excellent offshore wind conditions and the offshore operating experience accumulated in the British oil & gas industry.

In this analysis, the benefits from the development of a strong UK wind industry are measured along three dimensions:

  • Capacity installed;
  • Level of investment (both domestic and foreign);
  • Domestic employment generated.

Our sensitivity analysis shows that the size of the opportunity along each of these dimensions will be mainly driven by three factors: political support, degree of local content in production, and development of the export business. Based on our understanding across a number of countries and comparable high-growth industries, we see three potential scenarios for the UK wind industry:

  • Solid progress scenario (base case). This scenario assumes clear political support for wind energy, market leadership in offshore development, the UK becoming self-supplying, and achieving a limited degree of export in knowledge-related activities such as technical consulting and offshore operations. By 2020, this scenario would lead to wind capacity of 27 GW, which is broadly in-line with current market consensus. This scenario would generate cumulative investment of £26B and 36,000 jobs. (Design & Manufacturing would cover 35 percent of the UK's offshore turbine market along with a limited amount of export);
  • Dynamic scenario (best case). This scenario assumes stronger political support for wind energy, recognition of the UK as the global centre of expertise in offshore development and manufacturing clusters that allow the UK to become self-supplying and a significant exporter of both knowledge and components. By 2020, this scenario would lead to wind capacity of 34 GW, which is broadly in-line with the current estimate from the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA). This scenario would generate a cumulative investment of £39B and 57,000 jobs. (Design & Manufacturing would cover 70 percent of the UK market for offshore turbines and would be exporting a similar volume to continental Europe);
  • Static scenario (worst case). This scenario assumes a lack of political support for wind, failure to achieve leadership in offshore development and the absence of manufacturing within the UK that would lead to significant imports and limited exports. By 2020, this scenario would lead to wind capacity of 22 GW, cumulative investment of £19B and 23,000 jobs. (Design & Manufacturing would remain at its current level, i.e. covering 15 percent of the UK market or offshore turbines).

Which scenario will become a reality will depend on whether barriers to future growth can be anticipated and overcome by industry players and public stakeholders in the UK. Bain has, therefore, investigated these potential show-stoppers in detail.

The challenge: potential barriers to future growth

In recent years, the UK has launched a number of initiatives to ignite growth within the sector by confronting critical issues such as grid access (Transmission Access Review), national planning (Planning Bill), local planning (the Killian Pretty Review), and the supply chain (establishment of the Office for Renewable Energy Development) amongst others. However, despite these actions, the industry still faces significant challenges. According to industry experts, these are the top five obstacles to growth in the UK wind industry:

  • Grid connectivity. Grid capacity is limited in the areas where there is good wind supply and site approval is achievable. Getting significant transmission capacity built out to remote locations can take up to 10 years. The dominant view is that gaining access to grid connectivity and the actual connection of wind farms will remain a challenge;
  • Site approval. Experts throughout the industry share the view that the UK is one of the most difficult places in Europe to get planning consent; it can take up to five times as long as in best-practice European countries. The UK is a densely populated island, and the planning process is very complicated, with many stakeholders having deeply entrenched positions. Although the site approval issue is unlikely to be fully resolved, current initiatives may drive some improvement in the short term. In addition to this, the site approval process is less complex offshore, so the shift in emphasis to offshore will gradually reduce the significance of this bottleneck;
  • Employment and skills supply. The UK faces a significant demand/supply imbalance in the wind energy labour market already, and the sector continues to grow. The pools of people with the skills and experience to perform many of the roles are limited. As growth accelerates, filling the new roles will be challenging, and a number of specialist roles will become even more difficult to fill. Industry players currently see this issue as the fourth most significant barrier to growth in the sector, though it is set to increase in importance (see below for more in-depth analysis);
  • Supply chain. A number of points in the supply chain are prone to shortages—the most important of which are wind turbines, themselves, vessels, cables, and offshore substations. Significant manufacturing capacity is due to come into operation into Europe in the near future, and when it does it will go some way towards addressing certain bottlenecks. Nevertheless, supply chain shortages will remain a concern, particularly in offshore wind;
  • Offshore operations. The offshore environment presents unique challenges due to tidal activity, the hostility of the environment in stormy weather, and the remoteness of many sites. The trends towards larger turbines and sites which are further offshore will magnify the challenges. Despite this, experts believe that time and experience will allow the development of the expertise and skills that will gradually address such issues.

All five of these growth barriers must be tackled if the UK is to maximise its chances of success in the offshore wind arena.

In the scenarios described above, it is estimated that 18,000 to 52,000 additional FTEs will be needed to support the UK wind industry in the medium-term future. However, the industry is already facing a considerable staffing challenge today: more than half of companies currently have vacancy levels of above 5 percent. In certain specialist roles that shortage is significantly higher. The urgency of the shortage is directly linked to the maturity of the industry: roles critical to the planning & development stage (e.g. project managers) are currently in particularly short supply. Acute areas of shortage are:

  • Project managers: 46 percent of companies find this role hard to fill. Project managers are usually qualified engineers who are responsible for managing either the development or the construction process;
  • Electrical engineers: 40 percent of companies find this role hard to fill. Electrical engineers are qualified to design and construct the high-voltage connections between the wind farm and the national grid;
  • Turbine technicians: 25 percent of companies find this role hard to fill. Turbine technicians have the skills and qualifications required to operate inside the nacelle of a wind turbine.

The majority of non-graduate hires into the sector have experience in some other related industry, such as another renewable energy, oil & gas, or construction. Hiring from other sectors, as well as from other markets, must be actively pursued. The current shortage of skilled personnel within the sector has also led to employees being lured away to work for rival firms. That has resulted in above-average wage increases and a high level of intrasector mobility over recent years.

Current market estimates suggest that the number of engineers graduating each year in the UK is likely to remain broadly flat over the next 12 years. As a result, the current share of new engineering graduates entering the wind sector is unlikely to be sufficient to support the growth demands of the industry. Some of the historical issues driving the low percentage of engineering graduates entering the sector have been addressed, such as unclear industry prospects, concerns about career path progression, and salary levels, but more needs to be done. Given that fresh graduates will not satisfy the demand for specific skills, firms must also look inward and make significant investments in training and HR processes to generate in-house capabilities and experience.

Seizing the opportunity: what's required?

Some steps have already been taken to overcome growth obstacles, such as simplifying the connection process, reducing the length of the approval process, and addressing the skills gap. In this section, we reflect the views of industry experts and our own analysis along a set of leveraged actions, both from the public side ("what more can governments do?") and from the private side ("what more can companies do?").

Industry participants highlighted to us that one of the most fundamental prerequisites for kick-starting the emerging offshore industry is a clear, long-term, irrevocable commitment from policymakers to supporting the wind industry. This is expected to bring more stability and predictability to the market, thus facilitating incremental investment. Options that the government could consider to achieve this are:

  • Extend the Renewables Obligation (e.g. from 2027 to 2040 and beyond);
  • Set the obligation level out to 2020, including a headroom mechanism;
  • Review progress towards 2020 renewable energy production targets annually, and take action if necessary.

A number of actions are required to boost employment and address the skill shortage. The shortage of engineers is not unique to the renewable energy sector and is being addressed at a national level. At the same time, the industry can increase its share of the talent by doing the following things:

  • First, the wind industry must seek to attract talent by levelling the playing field with sectors such as oil & gas. That may require the adaptation of taxation schemes for offshore wind employees in order to match the tax breaks available to many offshore employees in oil & gas. In addition, the effective marketing of career paths that are both challenging and fulfilling will increase the attractiveness of the sector;
  • Secondly, the government is expected to invest further in education, perhaps through the provision of university grants for engineers or by continuing in technical colleges. Over time, specialised education programmes tailored for the wind industry should be developed;
  • Finally, the government and companies alike have a role in establishing an attractive value proposition for the sector based on the opportunities and rewards that a high-growth and ecologically sound sector can present. They also have a role communicating this to potential employees via educational establishments and the media. The government and the private sector need to work together to create a framework for world-class training and professional development.

Two things that would help to address grid connection issues are laying out a long-term grid strategy, and enabling the resolution of current inefficiencies by making amendments to the grid governance code. The current market mechanisms encourage a piecemeal and reactive approach to building out the network. A long-term strategy will increase the likelihood that investment in infrastructure is made in a logical and structured fashion. Greater coordination is needed between Ofgem and National Grid to agree to more strategic investment in the grid—for example by allowing capacity to be freed up from stagnant projects. Companies can maximise their chances of achieving a successful connection by ensuring obligations are clearly understood, giving comprehensive input, and participating as fully as possible in the connection dialogue.

Additional actions are required to further facilitate the site approval process. Local support could be stimulated by returning some of the tax revenue generated by a wind farm to the local community. That has proven a key enabler in the countries which have led onshore wind development to date. Another key issue is that the incentives of a number of different stakeholders are often not fully aligned. Government should give more guidance to public sector organisations on its targets so that there is less disruption from them in the planning process. By ensuring that guidelines for these organisations are consistent with energy policy goals, it should be possible to simplify the application process significantly. Companies can try to manage site approval issues by broadening their site portfolio, which will reduce the impact of a failed approval, whilst at the same time, they may maximise their success rate in the site approval process by over-investing in clarity and communication during each approval procedure.

Certain measures have been taken already to address supply chain concerns, including the establishment of the national Office for Renewable Energy Deployment, which will help UK firms take advantage of opportunities in renewable energy to build R&D and manufacturing capacity. A key factor in resolving supply chain issues is the creation of the right environment for investment to enter the UK. Companies must then take advantage of that environment and build new R&D or manufacturing capacity to meet the increase in demand generated by growth. The European experience demonstrates that a highly effective way to stimulate growth of the supply chain is through the development of sector clusters. As previously discussed, in key European clusters, the establishment of turbine manufacturing plants was soon followed by component manufacturers, R&D facilities, and educational establishments. Strong infrastructure (port facilities, airport, and roads), a deep supply of qualified but relatively inexpensive labour, proximity of sub-suppliers, and support and incentives from the government are required to kick off the growth of a cluster. Key success factors for cluster building are focus and momentum. By focussing on developing just one cluster, government will help simplify the decision-making process for the investor. Once companies start to invest, the proposition becomes more attractive as suppliers and customers can easily be found. The successful development of an offshore wind cluster in the UK would be a significant accelerator for the UK wind industry.

Finally, the government can help resolve the challenges of offshore operations by such measures as underpinning the development of offshore wind with financial support, placing offshore planning into the hands of a single approval body (such as the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which could be achieved by reducing the Marine Management Organisation planning threshold from 100 MW to 1 MW in the Marine Bill), and encouraging investment in ports and related infrastructure. However the required competitive advantage in the offshore environment can only be developed through companies building their own experience in offshore operations.


In summary, the UK wind industry is poised for extraordinary growth, though for that to be fully realised, numerous obstacles must be overcome. There are many specific actions that the government and companies must take to overcome these obstacles. If that can be achieved, and the sector is promoted in the right way, then 50,000 new jobs could potentially be created in the wind industry in the UK.

Dr. Markus Boettcher is a partner at the Munich office of Bain & Company. He has worked for various industrial clients in the engineering, machinery, construction, chemical, and high-tech industries. His experience includes strategy development, organisational work and operational improvement. Most recently, he worked on several assignments in the wind industry. He earned a diploma in Business Administration and Mechanical Engineering from the University of Technology in Berlin. In addition, he obtained a Doctorate with a dissertation on industrial marketing in Japan. Niels Peder Nielsen is a partner at the Nordic office of Bain & Company and leads the Danish practice. He has sixteen years of consulting experience and gained specific expertise in the area of renewable energy from multiple strategy and operations assignments across Bain's client base of leading companies. Broader experience includes his work for Bain's logistics, private equity, and telecom clients on M&A, strategy, and organisation. He holds a Master of Science from MIT Sloan School of Management, and a BA from Copenhagen Business School.

Dr. Kim Petrick is a manager at the Munich office of Bain & Company. He has specialised in strategy, corporate transformation, and performance improvement, with a strong focus on Bain's clients in the energy industry in Europe (utilities, renewables, and oil & gas). Dr. Petrick obtained his doctorate in International Energy Economics/CO2 emission trading schemes at University of Technology in Berlin. He holds a diploma in Business Administration and Engineering from the same institution, and a Master of Science in Management from EM Lyon.

Contributors to this report include Bain colleagues Morten Bigum, Charlie Thurstan, and Jim Bojko.


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