The UK’s energy sector plays an increasingly crucial role in our day-to-day lives – impacting on both the economy and the environment. It also remains an important employer, as Civvy Street explains.

hat comes to mind when you think about the UK’s energy industry? Massive North Sea oil rigs being lashed by hostile waves? Vast oil and gas refineries, their constant illumination lighting up the night sky? Huge nuclear reactors such as Torness and Sizewell B?

The truth is that the UK’s energy sector – an umbrella term for a host of industries involved with the extraction, generation, distribution and supply of energy – is about much more. And increasingly it covers not just nuclear power and fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) but also our increasing exploitation of sustainable alternative sources of energy such as wind, wave and solar power.

As a result, the range of jobs in the UK’s energy industry is vast, and there is plenty of potential for Service leavers to enjoy real career success in a variety of engineering, managerial and logistical roles. For example, the oil and gas sector offers opportunities in exploration and production (surveying for new reserves and drilling for fuel), refining (requiring both operational and maintenance staff) and research and development into improving overall efficiency.

There are three main divisions within the UK’s energy industry:

• Generators: these are the companies responsible for generating the energy we use in our homes and businesses. By extension, this includes those prospecting for, and exploiting, natural resources – such as the owners of coal mines and hydroelectric dams, oil and gas companies, and petroleum refiners.

• Distributors: the companies that ensure fuel/energy gets from generator to customer, either through pipes, cables or in containers of all sizes. This can involve distribution across international borders and the journeys from central to local distribution points. Distributor companies also include those that build and/or manage the distribution infrastructures on behalf of other organisations.

• Suppliers: the companies that sell electricity and/or gas directly to individual households and businesses.

The energy sector relies on cutting edge technology. Indeed, the development and use of sophisticated equipment is just as vital for the continued exploration, production and transportation of oil, gas and coal resources, as it is for the development of sustainable energy sources.

As a consequence, most technical roles in the energy sector require you to have some higher level qualifications, although some companies may run their own training programmes for entry at a variety of skill levels. So, while BP runs training programmes for undergraduates and graduates across a range of technical disciplines – such as automotive engineering, chemical/process engineering, IT, geoscience, health and safety, electrical engineering, petroleum engineering and reservoir engineering – National Grid also trains those with A-levels or HNC/Ds. For those with a higher level engineering qualification, National Grid employs both generalist engineers (electrical, mechanical and civil), and will train up functional specialists (engineers who focus specifically on the transmission or distribution sides of the business) through an 18-month graduate scheme.

But working in energy is not just about developing, building and maintaining complex machinery and equipment. In today’s increasingly competitive and customer-aware marketplace, the ongoing success and growth of energy companies like BP or National Grid depends on them being able to gather strong financial information and then ensure it is accurately analysed and acted upon. And, in a wider sense, no large organisation in the 21st century can succeed without focused financial controls and accountancy, effectively managed human resources and the most efficient procurement and supply of services and resources; all these areas offer career potential for those with a range of skills and qualifications.

The rewards can be spectacular; many of the major players in the UK energy sector are global organisations, meaning the work can be on a huge scale and offer unrivalled opportunities for travel and experience.

Thanks to growing public concern about pollution, the energy sector is increasingly being encouraged to develop effective and commercially viable sustainable energy technologies that will allow humanity to meet its ever-increasing demands for energy without triggering irreversible – and potentially catastrophic – climate change. According to the Department for Trade and Industry, sustainable/renewable energy is the fastest growing sector of the industry in the UK. That growth means increasing employment opportunities and the British Wind Energy Association estimates that recent investment in wind energy alone could lead to the creation of 5,000 engineering jobs and 19,000 other new positions by 2010, while the DTI believes a second round of offshore wind developments could create a further 20,000 jobs.

Engineers are, of course, on the frontline of sustainable energy projects – indeed, they’re vital to their overall success. And opportunities here are growing, since every new wind farm, large scale biomass (largely plant-based fuel) installation or wave-power facility requires engineers to build and support it, and to construct or modify the national power grid to distribute the resulting energy elsewhere. Engineers working in conventional energy generation also have an increasingly important role in ensuring that conventional fuel sources are used as efficiently as possible and cause the least disruption to the environment.

Nevertheless, these days the growing range of careers in sustainable/renewable energy are as much about influencing the development and implementation of energy policy as the physical and mechanical construction of projects themselves. The UK has committed itself to meeting internationally agreed targets on the reduction of harmful emissions, and so there are increasing opportunities for energy conservation officers, who are responsible for improving the energy efficiency of domestic and commercial properties. Energy conservation officers are employed chiefly by local authorities across the UK, as well as large housing associations, higher education institutions, the NHS, some larger charities, a range of voluntary/community organisations and large commercial businesses. (Gas and electricity suppliers also employ energy teams to co-ordinate efficiency initiatives and to provide customer advice.)

In a wider sense, the move towards energy conservation and the use of renewable sources is contributing to the UK’s construction sector; be it through the installation of insulation in domestic housing or the construction of windfarms.

The Energy Institute is the leading professional body for the energy industries, and supports almost 12,000 energy professionals in the UK and overseas. Under its royal charter, the EI gathers together knowledge in both scientific and technical disciplines, and is licensed by the Engineering Council to offer Chartered, Incorporated and Engineering Technician status to engineers. The EI runs a range of training and education packages (from one-day courses to bespoke full programmes) for energy managers, technicians, maintenance staff and other personnel holding energy-related positions. They have also devised a special European Energy Manager Qualification which is aimed at plant/facility managers, energy representatives and process engineers – people predominantly working in manufacturing operations who have a responsibility for improving energy efficiency and reducing energy costs, but who have had little or no energy management experience or training.

The UK Energy sector is a vital player in the life of the nation – without affordable, reliable, safe and sustainable energy supplies, the UK would grind to a halt. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the sector offers a wide variety of responsible and important employment opportunities that can offer a real challenge to Service leavers.


Energy Institute
020 7467 7100

National Energy Foundation
01908 665 555