The CEO of Centrica has told BusinessLive he is making it a net creator of jobs as it moves towards being a Net Zero carbon energy provider.
Chris O’Shea, the boss of the British Gas parent company, said it plans to create 3,500 engineering apprenticeships over the coming decade at four UK training academies to meet the changing nature of its business.
He said a third of the 650 or so recruits taken on so far were female – compared to a previous figure of just eight per cent of the engineering workforce. The ambition is for half of all new recruits to be women.
Mr O’Shea spoke as he hosted a visit by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak to the British Gas training site in Aylestone Road, Leicester.
They were given a chance to see apprentices going through their paces and hear how the business is moving away from fossil fuels.
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor also unveiled the company’s 500th electric vehicle, one of 3,000 Vauxhall Vivaro-e trucks bought over the last two years, representing the biggest electric fleet order in the UK so far.
British Gas has training centres in Dartford, Hamilton, Thatcham as well as Leicester, and the new workers – called “Smart Energy Experts” – will install and maintain carbon-efficient technologies including electric vehicle charging points, heat pumps and hydrogen boilers.
Mr O’Shea said British Gas already sells 100 per cent renewable and nuclear electricity and is planning to replace traditional gas with hydrogen, which he said can be used in much the same way but without the dirty by-products.
He said: “We were very happy to have the Prime Minister and the Chancellor visit, principally to talk about the commitment we are making to recruit 3,500 new apprentices this decade – one apprentice for every day of the decade.
“They were also here to talk about how we meet the UK’s net zero ambitions, how we decarbonise the energy system, including heating, and to talk about electric vehicles – we have the largest electrical fleet in the UK.”
Mr O’Shea said the first part of the training is to learn how to install smart meters, then the new engineers can be “upskilled” to install other green tech including at-home and business car chargers as well as hydrogen gas boilers.
He said: “I think the Government has announced no natural gas boilers in new homes from 2025 onwards, but I think the question has got to be around how you transition from natural gas to carbon-free gas – to hydrogen.
“Large-scale projects such as hydrogen production take time to come in so there should be a managed transition.
“We need a combination of increased heat pumps which are run on electricity and hydrogen in the gas system in order to deliver net zero.”
Mr O’Shea said as the business changed it would grow the number of people it employed rather than cut-back.
He said: “We employ 20,000 people now, the vast majority of whom are based in the UK, and I would like to grow that number of jobs, I’d like to invest behind the energy transition.
“We are a net creator of jobs in 2021 in British Gas and that’s the best part of this role, which is to have new well paid jobs in the UK.”
He said reaching national Net Zero would take a joint effort between government, industry and consumers, which he said, although not easy, was achievable.
He said: “We’ve got to work together to find the best way to deliver this, but I think the UK Government should be commended for their leadership in this area in legislating for Net Zero because you need that drive, because without that you will not achieve it.”
As part of a campaign to boost the take-up of apprenticeship roles, two new British Gas electric vans will travel from John O’Groats to Land’s End this week visiting cities including Glasgow, Salford, Wolverhampton and Cardiff, with engineers encouraging people to gain green skills by applying for an apprenticeship.
The Prime Minister said it was “totally futuristic stuff”, describing the British Gas training centre as “unbelievable”.
In a joint interview with BusinessLive and BBC Radio Leicester he said: “These are high wage jobs – they will leave their apprenticeships on £29,000 and they will have a fantastic skill.
“What it shows for me is the connection between saving the planet, cutting CO2, making sure the UK is the lead as we go into COP26 at the end of the year – but creating jobs as well.
“British Gas is really forward looking. They are looking at how they can start to transform their output from hydrocarbons to hydrogen – liberating the hydrogen from the hydrocarbons as it were.
“What I don’t think people realise is the existing gas network, which 85 per cent of homes are on, is capable of taking hydrogen.
“And indeed, back in the seventies what was called the “Town Gas” network actually had 55 per cent hydrogen on it.
“We won’t be going back to that, because that was quite dirty stuff – with lots of naphtha and what-have-you as well – but this will be a really clean and renewable approach.”
Commenting on Centrica’s commitment to bring more women into the workforce Chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “As we have seen in this pandemic, women have been at the forefront of improving the lives of people across the country, and we want to encourage more and more women into these vital roles in STEM.
“Apprenticeships are a cornerstone of our Plan for Jobs, and these new opportunities ensure that people across the UK are given the tools and skills they need to fulfil their true potential.”