Adaptation of the job market in the renewable energy sector with Mike Thornhill
“We believe that for the world to move forward into a transition into renewable energy, there needs to be a rebalance between what the economy, the environment and society.”
Mike Thornhill studied Chemistry at the University of Manchester, and worked within fossil fuels recruitment for five years. He made a career change to the renewable energy industry when his company sent him to work in Germany. He then founded his own company, Rebalance, a renewable energy recruitment company.
“When I arrived in Berlin, I was surprised by the attitude of people here, by the energy industry. Everything was focused towards renewable. The people I met here were very passionate about renewable energy. I quickly realised that the market here was all about renewable energy. So I went back to my superiors in London and told them that we should make the shift. So the first reason why I got into renewables was from a business point of view. I needed to make our office work. However, very quickly I became very passionate about renewables, about the environment. Since January 2016, I now have my own company Rebalance Recruitment GmbH.”
Mike’s main goal is to assist German and international companies in finding expertise within the renewable energy industry for projects in onshore and offshore wind energy, solar energy, energy storage, transmission and distribution. Rebalance is shaking up the traditional recruitment market and drastically reducing the time it takes for renewable energy companies to hire experts.
“We work with our clients to help their projects move forward with the right people on board. Our business is recruitment but our service can be described as strategic hiring partners or consultancy. We are advising our clients on the problems and solutions of finding and retaining staff within the renewable energy sectors and how to deal with the lack of skill or expertise and how we can help the industry grow together,” explains Mike.
The need for a specific skill-set
As Mike mentioned before, the renewable energy industry is a relatively young industry, and there is still a shortage of specific skills and expertise, from design engineers and installers to project managers and business developers. This means that the demand for most roles exceeds the number of qualified candidates. In other words, there is a glut of available jobs, and companies are struggling to find corresponding applicants.
How can companies find the right people for their projects and attract top talent in the renewable sector? Today, renewable energy companies have to double their efforts to become more and more attractive to the most qualified profiles. That’s where Rebalance comes in.
For Mike, “one of the main problems for companies that work in renewables today is the amount of time it takes to hire the right staff, to find an ‘off-the-shelf’ perfect candidate with an adequate amount of experience and expertise for a particular project. It would normally take them four to six months and we are bringing that down to one to three months.”
“We are strategic partners with every company that we work with,” Mike specifies. “We look at the issues they are having to find people, and together, we are providing them with innovative solutions on how they can attract the right amount of people, to assure that they always have the right person on the projects, on time and on budget. If you don’t have the right people on board for an offshore wind farm construction it can cost you a lot of money. We are here to make sure everything runs smoothly from a personnel perspective.”
However, some profiles are more difficult to find. “The area which is the most difficult to find candidates is where there is a skill-gap, and where there is more demand for a certain skill-set than there is a supply for it. When there is a lot of projects being designed, then going through to construction and then going through to operation and maintenance, we help clients plan for the future by looking at strategic and proactive resource planning for all stages of the project life-cycle. Wetrack when projects are finishing, who is becoming available for work, when new projects are starting and create a smooth transition from project to project for both candidates and clients alike.”
Mike continues, “every client, every project is slightly different. However in Germany specifically, companies are looking for candidates that have had experience on German offshore wind projects. There is a lack of candidates that have good experience on these specific projects because there aren’t many of them that have been completed so far. We help candidates with high potential to achieve their next career step to help fill these skills gaps. We also have a strong focus on transitioning experts with transferable skills from fossil fuel industries into new green renewable energy careers.”
Renewable energy companies must be attractive to candidates
Renewable energy companies also need to shift, to change their focus.
“We are educating companies on the way they can attract people and how they can take people from other industries. For instance, if they receive an application from someone with 15 years of experience in oil and gas, they might not even look at his résumé. However, this person is probably going to be more technically experienced than someone with five years of experience in the wind industry. If you give them three to six months working with you, one could argue that they are going to be a better investment in long term due to their transferable experience.”
A major focus of Rebalance’s objective is to facilitate the conversion for workers from the dirty fossil fuel industry to clean renewables. The conversion does not happen naturally; it requires a certain level of convincing on the part of the renewable energy company, in order to attract skilled employees.
“For instance,” Mike continues, “it is very difficult for a company to find an electrical engineer with offshore experience for working on an offshore wind farm project. There is only a certain amount of these kinds of engineers available; and there are more projects than people available. So we also need to attract candidates who are working in fossil fuel industries to bridge the gap and involve them in the transition to renewable energies. We have the duty to give those people the enthusiasm that we have for renewable energy and utilise those skill-sets which are transferable from the non-renewable to the renewable industry. It is not a question of when we will reach a 100% renewable energy planet but when? Utilising cross industry skill sets is fundamental to how quickly we can make this happen. With global CO2 levels now exceeding 400ppm, time is a luxury that this transition no longer has.”
Universities are hubs for experimentation
As the industry shifts, educational institutions must also adapt. These institutions and their students are important components for implementing the necessary conditions for the future of the renewable energy industry.
“We need to be rebalancing the educational system in showing that this needs to be the way forward,” explains Mike. He continues, with an emphasis on a sense of urgency: “we need to inspire future generations to want to work within renewable energy and cleantech. This needs to combine the excitement that companies like Tesla are bringing to the market and also offer well paid, secure and infinitely interesting careers for the future. Through inspiration, education and career opportunities in renewable energy we can offer current and future generations the chance to make and be a part of the real change the world needs to see.”
The importance of raising awareness
Mike emphasises that the main challenge is convincing people about the importance of renewable energies: “people need to be fully educated. We need to make people fully aware of the fact that climate change is not fictional. It’s happening now. We’re going to reach a two degree increase of global temperature. Currently we are on a trajectory to hit irreversible climate change which if not acted upon will lead to a man-made 6th extinction of the planet. That’s not an exaggeration. Yes, it might be difficult for people to adapt. But there is no other choice.”
“The most difficult situation is someone who is a manufacturer labourer and he’s coming to the end of his career in the coal industry. It’s going to be difficult. This person will need to adapt. But he needs to understand that he’s going to contribute to the future of the world,” Mike explains.
“The question is: why are people still working in oil and gas and fossil fuel industries? Why are people still training to do that? Our company is called Rebalance because we believe that for the world to move forward into a transition into renewable energy, there needs to be a rebalance between what the economy, the environment and society. What can the economy offer to people who work in renewable energy? We live in a capitalist world so there always needs to be an economic value, a financial reward for people to work in renewable energy projects. We have to create jobs within renewable energy industries that pay well, that offer a future, that offer security. Then why wouldn’t people work within it? From there, you can create the workforce that we need for renewable energy projects to go forward. Take my example. Why did I change? I realised through education, through awareness, what was actually going on. And it’s difficult, once you are aware, to ignore it.”
The government’s role
“I think what needs to happen is that the governments, the states, and major companies and people who are writing energy legislation policies need to sit down and discuss this. The main topic should be: ‘Let’s create a balance together about something that’s going to benefit everybody. You need workforce for your energy projects, these guys could do this with a bit of training, why don’t we split the cost half-and-half and create something that works for everybody’. It needs to be a rebalancing of what is happening. To do that, people need to talk. There needs to be money involved — this is the world we live in — there needs to be financial benefit for the company and benefit for the government as well, everybody needs to win but I think it’s possible.”
Mike is very critical about the people in power: “governments will not change quick enough. Because governments are about votes, about making sure they stay in power. If we want to make that change, what we need to do is to show our governments that we want renewable energy. It’s everybody’s responsibility to create a grassroots movement where everybody takes responsibility to make their own changes and to make people aware. It’s too late for everybody to be a spectator in this now. We need to start putting pressure on the governments and big companies. Everybody can do this straight away. That’s what the Break Free movement is all about.”
Break Free (www.350.org) organises peaceful direct actions who target the world’s most dangerous fossil fuel projects. The first act saw protesters gathered in Ffos-y-Fran, on the site of the UK’s largest open-cast coal mine. The protest resulted in the shutdown of the mine for over 12 hours. The international movement’s main goal is the rapid shift from the fossil fuel economy to the 100% renewable and clean energy future. In the Philippines, protesters demanded the cancellation of a proposed 600 MW coal power plant and, in Australia, 2000 people shut down the world’s largest coal port for a day. Kayakers blocked the harbour entrance while others blocked a critical rail crossing. Similar actions were taken in Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia, South Africa, USA, Ecuador, Canada, Turkey and Germany. Thanks to this global coordination, every week a coal mine is disrupted. This act of coordinated civil disobedience is a powerful tool for change.
“It’s the first time that the world has collectively said ‘we don’t want coal/fossil fuels anymore, we want renewable energy’. I hope and I believe that this is the start of something where people are standing up to the government,” said Mike. “We are the people that can and will make the shift. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this, if the governments start to listen, if it changes anything. The most important thing to understand here is that this is what the people actually want. People want this. Now we need to work together to create a structure that’s economically viable.”
The Break Free community hopes that these peaceful mobilisations will serve as an important point in the climate movement’s journey to increase pressure on the fossil fuel industry.
Companies have a role to play in the transition by contributing portions of their profits to important causes that, in turn, help us shift towards a renewable future. For instance, with Rebalance, Mike contributes parts of the company’s profit towards environmental charities.
“There needs to be a rebalance from large companies having the monopoly. People should choose smaller companies so we can start rebalancing the profits, redistributing from large companies to smaller companies. At Rebalance, we want to help rebalance the profit share and redistribute the profits from the larger energy companies and put those into charitable projects around the world which are going to help offset the problems that we’ve done with years of industrialisation and fossil fuels. We are just getting started. For one example on of our donations was for the oil disaster in Peru which hasn’t been publicised too much. 8000 inhabitants of the Amazon River live without water supply. The Peruvian government were employing children, on little money a day, and with no protective clothing to clean up this mess. We want to create awareness through this, through education, by giving back to charities and letting everybody know.”
“Since we have implemented this model of business, we have had a great success and we have several projects in the pipeline which we are looking to launch over the next months. Our main project will be the launch of our official charity which we will be able to donate profits from our recruitment business, into the charity and then direct to social and environmental projects worldwide. All of the time we will be raising awareness and action points on climate change in the hope to involve more and more people in the green revolution that our planet desperately needs. This will be a 100% non profit organisation as all costs of employees for the charity will be paid for by Rebalance, so every cent generated will go direct to the causes that need them.”
Mike, after reflecting on the role his company plays within the transition to a 100% renewable energy world, returns to what the shift is all about:
“The shift is about adapting new habits, about living differently, about thinking differently. The shift is not about the previous generation and it is not about the future generation. The shift begins today.”
Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou