Atlas Professionals – The Human Capital Wind Specialist

The Netherlands is in the midst of an accelerated energy transition. However, while the 2030 targets for offshore wind have tripled in a short time to meet climate goals, the question arises at the same time who will ensure that these wind farms can actually be built. Especially with the large labour shortages being experienced already in this sector.

Windpowernl spoke about this with two professionals of global recruitment and HR services provider Atlas Professionals, which has its headquarters in the Netherlands. Atlas Professionals, founded in 1982, has been providing staff since the rise of the commercial wind industry and as such has been able to follow its developments closely.

Miranda de Kraker has been working for Atlas Professionals for five years at the Vlissingen office, which was set up specifically for the wind sector at the time. “That’s where I got passionate and hooked on the wind sector!” she says enthusiastically. De Kraker started as a recruiter, then as an account manager and team leader. She now uses this experience in the role of Global Client Relations Manager, which means she works on managing and further expanding large accounts worldwide on a daily basis.

Marvin van Dijk is jointly responsible for setting up Atlas Professionals’ Renewables branch in the Netherlands. He first worked as an account manager in the oil & gas sector, before consciously making the switch to the green sector. He has been working for Atlas Professionals for eight years at their Hoofddorp office. His role as Business Development Manager Renewables perfectly combines his strength and passion for sustainability and commerce.

‘Living off the wind’

You could perhaps say that Atlas Professionals partly ‘lives off the wind’. Indeed, annually, the Renewables Netherlands team deploys about eighty per cent of its staff in the wind industry, both onshore and offshore, throughout the whole chain. In recent years, both colleagues have seen a slight shift following the trends towards hydrogen, energy storage and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. Van Dijk: “It is quite special to see how progressive we are in these areas in the Netherlands. Yes, there is a shift but, for now at least, around seventy per cent of our people are placed in the wind industry.”

Two distinctive phases

Two major phases can be distinguished in a wind farm project, each of which has its own specific requirements in terms of labour needs. De Kraker explains: “The first is the installation phase. This is a fairly short period during which everything involved in the realisation of a wind farm is being installed. This requires a large group of people. Here you often see people going from project to project. These people mainly work on a project basis.”

Once the wind farm is ready, the Operations & Maintenance (O&M) phase begins. Here, a smaller group of people is required for a longer period. Working mainly on a fixed contract basis they are generally committed to a specific wind farm. This applies to both onshore and offshore wind. Onshore, these people may sometimes cover a specific region, but always work for the same client.

The wind turbine manufacturers carry out wind turbine maintenance for the wind farm owners during the warranty period. This can range from 2 to 5 years or sometimes even longer. After that, the wind farm owner either manages this in-house or outsources the work after tendering to third parties, which incidentally can again include the turbine supplier. When the wind farm owners have their own people they will have been trained by the wind turbine supplier.

This can sometimes lead to unusual situations, says De Kraker. She cites an example where both the wind turbine supplier and the wind farm owner of the same wind farm approached Atlas Professionals with the same vacancies. Van Dijk: “Both do not have the personnel to run the entire wind farm. The only difference is that one needs more qualified staff and the other has a bit more time to train them. But other than that, both are looking for the same qualified candidate in exactly the same regional market.”
For Atlas Professionals, this brings a nice challenge. Because these vacancies require different personality types for both clients. De Kraker explains: “You have to truly understand the candidate’s background and personality. Is it the techie who really enjoys being with the manufacturer, who really wants to learn all the ins and outs and progression of the technology – a person who is on top of the latest developments? Or is it someone who wants to go for the long term, stability and enjoys doing the same type of work for 20 to 25 years? Because you know both the turbine supplier and the wind farm owner, your response can provide the best match very accurately.”

Gap between supply and demand

In a good example illustrating the current shortage of qualified personnel in the Netherlands, De Kraker describes the size of the gap: “Every year, an average of around 300 FTEs enter the wind industry from MBO schools (secondary vocational education) and 150 from HBO schools (higher professional education). If you consider that the demand is somewhere around 10,000 FTEs at MBO level and 5,000 FTEs at HBO level, that gap is gigantic. You cannot, with the best will in the world, bridge that with what we currently have on hand!”

“By the way, this shortage applies to both the onshore and offshore wind sectors,” De Kraker confirms, “With onshore, you talk about smaller numbers but at the end of the day, the problem is just as big for an onshore company as for an offshore company.”

The challenge applies to all job levels within the wind sector. However, the biggest shortage is in the MBO-level jobs. Van Dijk: “You have to imagine that against 20 Blue Collar jobs there are one or two White Collar jobs on the work floor. In this respect, it is important that people enter at the right level,” he adds. “Of the four MBO levels, the first two levels are too low to grasp the complexity required. So that means you have to start looking at levels 3 and 4 and then ideally where electro is also included. That could be mechatronics, AOT (General Operational Techniques) or Robotics.”

Huge task ahead

The Dutch government wants to accelerate the realisation of offshore wind to 21 GigaWatts by 2030. But with an already dire shortage of personnel, this fine ambition does bring additional challenges. How can the sector go about solving this?

Van Dijk: “It seems at times that there was a challenge and now it is slowly moving towards panic.” Both Van Dijk and De Kraker agree that the shortage cannot be filled by people living in the Netherlands alone. Since other Western European countries with a wind sector are facing the same challenges, the solution does not immediately lie across the border either, after all, these countries are fishing in the same pond.
De Kraker: “Right now, you already see a large group, mainly British and people from Eastern Europe, moving from wind farm to wind farm in Europe. That is the aforementioned caravan of people working in the installation phase. Everyone is pulling on that group of people. For the O&M phase, you need people who are more location-bound and can work for longer periods of time. Then you soon end up with Dutch people again anyway.”

Difficult to attract more women

The wind sector is still predominantly a man’s world. It is difficult to get women into Blue Collar positions, especially offshore, tells De Kraker. This is also due to practical issues. Take the example of a female offshore wind turbine technician. There would have to be a ladies’ toilet in the wind turbine. It is different for White Collar jobs, where De Kraker and Van Dijk do see more women joining. Especially in management positions and as engineers behind the computer. But they see few hardcore technician women. The will is there, though, for years, adds Van Dijk, both at Atlas Professionals and at their clients or other employers. Almost all of them have set up diversity and inclusion programmes. For example, Atlas Professionals have included interviews in their HEROES magazine to attract more attention from women. Unfortunately, Van Dijk does not see much change yet: “We can count on one hand the number of women we have deployed to clients as technicians, if at all.” In schools, too, they still see few new recruits of girls into engineering.

The right pitch

“To reach the right candidates, a vacancy must also be pitched properly, says De Kraker. “I think you choose to work in wind because you are really looking for a certain kind of adventure. A wind turbine is enormous, it is very impressive to go out on the water towards such a turbine. Moreover, almost everything you come to work with is innovative. Without wanting to romanticize it is, of course, because this sector also really has its tough side and challenges.”

Indeed, not everyone seeking adventure is suited to the wind industry. Atlas Professionals has also experienced and learned from this. You can take medicines against seasickness, for example, but if you know you must go back and forth in a small vessel for the next 20 to 25 years then it becomes a different story. The same goes for acrophobia, explains De Kraker: “You would be surprised how many people don’t know about themselves that they are afraid of heights. Standing on top of a wind turbine is very different from standing on a mountain. A turbine moves a little bit, which gives a very strange sensation. It is not the only time that someone has been brought down, stiffened with fear, by emergency services.”

Fortunately, there are customers who organise walk-in days, for instance. A potential candidate then goes up the wind turbine with the engineers as a guest. On wind turbines without a lift, candidates also experience how physically demanding it is to climb up with equipment and tools. De Kraker also sees large wind companies increasingly using virtual reality training.

Atlas initiatives

Atlas Professionals is also proactively trying themselves to promote interest in the wind industry, says De Kraker. Besides the diversity and inclusion programme, Atlas Professionals also organises Wind Experience Days at several locations in the Netherlands. Schools are invited to these and sometimes a client hooks up. De Kraker: “We had young people put on PPE equipment, for example, to experience what it is like to work with a harness on and with large, heavy tools, or a young wind turbine technician has shared his experiences.

Presentation during Atlas’ Renewables Roadshow All photos ©Atlas Professionals

“Furthermore, we also launched the Renewables Roadshow. This is specifically geared towards the MBO schools in the Netherlands. We created a programme for this purpose and communicated it to the MBO schools. These can then put together a package of choice which we present at the MBO schools, together with the DOB-Academy in Delft. This way, we try to enthuse young people to go for a career in the wind sector.”

Different generation, different wishes

There is currently a lot of talk about the young generation now entering the job market having different wishes about how they want to shape their careers. At Atlas Professionals, they also recognise this. Hybrid working, faster job switching, for a variety of reasons, and higher expectations from an employer, is really a trend nowadays. Van Dijk: “It is a new generation we are working with. What you see is that there are two types of persons: either they enjoy going from project to project or they want to be trained at a company for longer term employment. This is where we can differentiate by already making that first selection. For example, if we get into the installation phase where staff go from project to project, they can also do this while being permanently working with one employer. They don’t always have to be self-employed. They can also be just school leavers who want to get a certificate in a type of turbine in addition to their current MBO 3 or MBO 4.”

De Kraker: “I think there is some misunderstanding among the older generation. They don’t quite understand the younger generation. After all, they grew up thinking that your CV should show that you are loyal to an employer. While the younger generation may see the list of short experiences as enriching their CV.”

“That is a very different approach,” agrees De Kraker. Employers in the Wind industry will therefore have to make some more effort themselves to reach and attract this generation, De Kraker believes. “Companies will really have to learn more how to trigger this generation and put some time and the investment into that.”•

This article is featured in the spring 2023 edition of Windpowernl magazine. Pick up a copy at WindDay 2023 in Lelystad, Global Offshore Wind in London, or read the magazine ONLINE.

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