Utilities: industry sector overview
The utilities industry is the lifeblood of the UK's economy, serving millions of homes, businesses, schools and hospitals in order to keep the lights on, taps running and gas flowing.
In electricity, six distribution network operators, including UK Power Networks, Western Power Distribution and Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks, own and manage local power lines, cables and substations. Transmission operators, such as National Grid, own the extra high voltage electricity system. Energy suppliers, from the big six to start-ups, sell the electricity that runs through the power networks and bill customers. There are also aggregators, such as Flexitricity and Limejump, who provide demand-side-response services.
Major players in gas include Wales and West Utilities and Northern Gas Networks. In water there are companies such as Thames Water and in telecoms big names include BT and Vodafone.
Trends and developments in the utilities industry
The UK's transition to a low-carbon future is revolutionising the way we generate, distribute and consume electricity. In future, more people will own electric and driverless cars, use smart appliances in their homes and generate, store and sell their own electricity. Customers will expect the organisations behind their energy to respond flexibly to enable this transformation.
Coal is declining, while distributed energy resources such as solar and wind farms are on the rise. There have also been advancements in electricity storage technology and grid-scale storage has emerged in the last few years.
The water sector is undergoing its biggest change since privatisation whereby the retail market has opened for competition. Telecoms is supporting communications behind the roll-out of smart metering and the expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT), to connect devices such as fridges and kettles to the internet.
What it's like working in the utilities industry
The utilities industry is fast-paced, entrepreneurial and client facing. As many utility companies have a monopoly in the area they operate in, there are regulatory bodies in place to set frameworks and incentivise the right behaviours: Ofgem (gas and electricity), Ofcom (telecoms), Ofwat (water).
Graduates will join a business unit – for example, my department includes over 20 people – but will also be part of project teams and there is a larger team of internal and external stakeholders. As projects are multi-faceted, graduates work with a variety of colleagues, including engineers from other disciplines, senior management and public affairs, communications and operations staff.
Projects vary in length: you may work from start to finish on a short-delivery project lasting several months, or you could be involved in one particular stage of a three-to-four-year programme. One-off analytical or assessment work may take a few weeks.
Your job can involve travel in the UK for site visits and cross-departmental work, and internationally to gain insights from around the world.
Getting a graduate engineering job in the utilities industry
As well as engineering knowledge, the industry is looking for people with software, telecoms, customer, commercial and data analytics skills. You will do well if you are proactive, inquisitive and willing to challenge the status quo. The ability to work in teams, translate technical projects into layman's terms, negotiate and influence people will also help. Problem solving, project management and analytical skills are all of value.
Ways to get into the sector include work placements, internships, graduate programmes and direct-entry roles.You can also find opportunities through the Institute of Engineering and Technology (such as its Power Academy) or the Royal Academy of Engineering.
The highlights of a career in utilities
- The opportunity to work with a diverse range of colleagues and engage with new people, both nationally and globally.
- Pride in your engineering skills, helping customers and leading change.
- The chance to make a significant imprint on the future of your industry, your employer and your peers.
The utilities industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:
- power systems
Always check individual employers' requirements.
Thanks to Lynne McDonald for her help with this article. Lynne is a smart grid engineer and manager at UK Power Networks. She has an MEng in electronic and electrical engineering from the University of Strathclyde and has worked in the industry for eight years.