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Utilities: industry sector overview

Utilities: industry sector overview

As a graduate engineer you will help to supply the UK with the necessities it needs: energy, clean water and telecoms.

This area covers the production and delivery of energy, water and telecoms to homes and businesses, and the processing of waste water.

The energy sector consists of energy suppliers, who produce or import energy supplies and sell these to consumers (eg npower and E.ON); transporters, which provide the main highways for power distribution (National Grid in England and Wales); and distribution companies (eg Western Power Distribution and Scottish and Southern Energy), who own the local networks that connect homes and businesses to their electricity and gas supplies.

There is a plethora of satellite organisations. Smart metering is growing into a separate business, IT services companies work with energy suppliers in areas such as billing, and there is a vast supply chain serving transporters and distributors.

In the water sector, regional water companies provide both drinking water and the associated waste infrastructure. Ownership of the UK telecoms network infrastructure is complex. Companies such as BT, Virgin Media and Cable & Wireless own parts of it, while others simply rent their usage.

Trends and developments in the utilities sector

Growth in broadband demand is driving change in the telecoms sector. The energy sector must adapt to face climate change targets, changes in energy sources, increased energy usage and the growth of electric vehicles. Challenges in the water industry include tackling the legacy of old water mains, reducing leakage rates and planning for droughts.

What it’s like working in utilities

As consumer choice is limited, the sector is regulated by organisations such as Ofgem and Ofwat, which act as a proxy for a fully competitive market. This creates quite a fast pace, as companies anticipate and respond to regulatory changes.

Engineers in commercial or construction-related roles can expect a great deal of travel. However, there are jobs that require less travel, for example asset engineering (designing or maintaining equipment).

Big infrastructure projects can run for years while short business improvement projects may be turned around in a month. Expect to work closely with engineers from different disciplines and with legal, property, finance, environmental, communications and PR experts.

Getting a graduate job in utilities

Engineers typically spend the first five or ten years of their career working in broadly technical roles but gaining project and people management experience. They can then choose to become a technical expert or move into a general management role.

Graduate engineers need strong commercial awareness. They must be able to communicate in a clear, logical manner, for example to translate complex technical information so it can be understood by non-technical colleagues. Familiarity with spreadsheets also helps.

The highlights of a career in utilities

  • The pace of change: there are constantly new things to learn.
  • The opportunity to meet a diverse array of people.
  • Being at the forefront of technological, societal and commercial changes.

The utilities industry seeks graduates in...

  • Chemical
  • Civil/structural
  • Control
  • Electrical
  • Electronics
  • Environmental
  • Instruments
  • Materials
  • Mathematics
  • Mechanical
  • Physics
  • Power systems
  • Software
  • Telecoms

Always check individual employers' requirements.

Thanks to Neil Pullen, CEng FIMechE, for his help with this article. Neil is director of gas transmission asset management at National Grid. He has a BEng in mechanical engineering from the University of Bristol.