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Study physics to plug the skills gap, energy industry boss urges

PUBLISHED: 14:23 03 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:55 04 March 2014

Patrick Phelan, managing director of Aquaterra Energy

Patrick Phelan, managing director of Aquaterra Energy


An offshore oil and gas firm is urging more boys and girls to study physics amid “major concerns” that a shortage of graduate engineers is threatening the future of the energy industry.

Patrick Phelan, managing director of Aquaterra Energy, said the government, businesses and the education sector had failed to keep pace with the energy sector’s demand for degree-level engineers.

The UK currently trains 46,000 engineering graduates every year, while government estimates that the actual demand is 87,000 each year for the next 10 years.

The issue is set to come under the microscope at the Norfolk Showground on Wednesday and Thursday when Mr Phelan will speak on skills and training at the East of England Energy Group (EEEGR) southern North Sea energy conference.

“With such urgent demand across the industry there is an undisputed need to rapidly increase the number of boys and girls in schools and colleges who are studying and progressing in the relevant academic and vocational STEM subjects, particularly physics,” said Mr Phelan, whose firm Aquaterra has a base near Norwich International Airport.

“By the time they are applying to university, and considering engineering as a degree subject, it is often too late.

“If they haven’t studied both maths and physics at A-level, most of the best engineering degree courses will not be available to them.”

However, Dr Lawrence Coates, senior lecturer in engineering at the UEA, which recently launched an MSc course in energy engineering with environmental management, said: “The challenge of growing engineering from scratch must not be underestimated, but we are very keen to rise to it. At UEA we have seen the rapid growth of the separate School of Pharmacy and are keen to follow their trajectory to being best in the country.

“We have just advertised for both a lecturer and senior lecturer post and look forward to sustained growth of the teaching team. We are looking to recruit at least one mechanical engineering lecturer as we see growth in that direction as important for the region.”

Data from the Department for Education and Institute of Physics shows that only a fifth of girls who get an A* at physics GCSE go on to study the subject at A-level, compared with half of boys in the same position.

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  • Yes I agree and also there is the limit on places available at top universities. My son is taking his A levels this year and wants to study for an MSc in Physics so that he can then decide what area of engineering to specialise in. However, the problem for him is that the top universities are so highly competitive - eg he just received a rejection from Imperial College for the following reason: 'Our difficulty is that we have received over 1600 applications for our Physics courses this year for only 240 places. Well over 80% of our applicants have, or are predicted, three, four or five A or A* grades at A-level or equivalent. Regrettably, as a result many excellent students cannot even be called for interview. In considering each application we look at GCSE results or equivalent, module grades (or marks if at all possible), personal statements and school recommendations and place particular emphasis on performance in Maths and Physics. We did recognise the strengths of your application but regrettably we simply do not have sufficient places in Physics to be able to offer you a place.'

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    Sarah B

    Tuesday, March 4, 2014

  • Part of the problem, well, maybe the biggest problem, would seem to be that fewer universities offer engineering now or at least have reduced the variaties of engineering available. I've just had a look on the UEA's website, all they offer is: " Energy Engineering with Environmental Management" No Mechanical, Automotive, Electrical or Aeronautical Engineering. I studied Mech Eng. at Reading University but that's dropped Mech and Elec engineering.

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    Tuesday, March 4, 2014

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