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An overview of the utilities industry

Utilities: industry sector overview

Engineers in the utilities industry help to supply the UK with the necessities it needs: energy, clean water and telecoms, while finding solutions to global challenges.

The utilities industry covers the production and delivery of energy (ie electricity and gas), water and telecoms to homes and businesses in the UK. It also covers waste management. The sector's goal is to provide safe and affordable power and water to its customers while tackling the challenges of high global energy prices and environmental concerns.

The energy sector consists of suppliers, transporters and distribution companies, supported by a vast supply chain. It is dominated by the big six: British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON, RWE npower, Scottish Power and SSE. Major players in renewable energy include RES and Siemens; big names in the water sector include United Utilities, Scottish Water and Thames Water; and companies who provide waste management to the UK include Veolia and Biffa. The UK's telecoms sector is made up of companies who own parts of the network, such as BT and Virgin Media, and others who pay to use the network.

Trends and developments in the utilities industry

The spotlight is very much on alternative energy sources. The sector must adapt to climate change targets and increasing regulation. Engineers need to research, develop and test alternative sources of energy, such as wind, solar, tidal, biomass, nuclear and geothermal power. Shale gas is also being explored as an alternative energy source for the UK but there is debate over the safety and environmental impact of fracking, the method for mining shale gas.

The huge demand on broadband and the increasing capabilities of mobile devices are driving change in telecoms. Key trends include video streaming, the Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile payments. The water sector is focused on reducing leakage rates, planning for droughts and tackling old water mains, while the waste management sector continues to tackle challenges such as toxic waste and contaminated waste water.

What it's like working in the utilities industry

The sector is regulated by organisations such as Ofgem and Ofwat. Companies need to anticipate and respond to regulatory changes, which makes the industry fast-paced. Work can be based in an office, laboratory or on site; site visits and outdoors field work are common. There are lots of opportunities to travel across the UK and work abroad, especially for engineers in commercial or construction-related roles.

An engineer might work in a small team of three to ten engineers or on a large project within a very large team. A short business improvement project can be turned around in a month but a big infrastructure project can run for years; for example it may take six to seven years for a new power station to go from consent to use. Many projects also involve upgrades and ongoing maintenance.

Getting a graduate engineering job in the utilities industry

Engineers tend to start off working in broadly technical roles while gaining project and people management experience. Later on in their career, they can opt to either become a technical expert or take the management path.

Graduates will need a technical background, good maths and IT skills, strong commercial awareness and good communication skills. Working in the industry also requires a lot of teamwork. You can expect to work with engineers from different disciplines and other professionals.

The highlights of a career in utilities

  • Working on solutions to global challenges.
  • The opportunity to work with a diverse range of people.
  • Being at the forefront of technological, societal and commercial changes.

The utilities industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:

  • chemical
  • civil/structural
  • control
  • electrical
  • electronics
  • environmental
  • instruments
  • materials
  • mathematics
  • mechanical
  • physics
  • power systems
  • software
  • telecoms

Always check individual employers' requirements.