On Richard Clatworthy’s very first day for the South Western Electricity Board he was given two pieces of advice by the new colleagues training him for the job. The first was to join a union and, the second, was to join the pension scheme.
“It wasn't peer pressure, but certainly the message from them was: “You're part of this industry now,” and the industry at the time, and still today, has a strong union influence, whichever trade union you belong to,” says Richard, who was just 17-years-old at the time.
“Secondly, join the pension because that's your future. So that's what we all did. I can't recall anybody who wasn't part of one of the unions. So I joined the union, and in the early part of my career, I didn’t really think much more of it.”
The early part of his career, in and around Exeter, involved learning the ropes as an apprentice fitter and working in electrical fitting. He then joined the 132kV & Major Projects team and completed his training to become a technician.
In 2000 Richard moved to Cornwall when he successfully applied for a traineeship to become a project engineer. The county remains his current base, where he is now a senior project engineer for the by-now privatised and renamed Western Power Distribution.
The projects team is responsible for all new construction work at 132kV and 33kV substations and the maintenance of the 132kV tower lines and substations and in recent years, setting up customer connections for renewable sources of generation.
Richard now has more than 32 years’ experience in the energy industry, and perhaps, the only constant has been that things are always changing.
“First, there was privatisation and lots of people leaving the industry and there’s now a huge focus on customer service,” he says.
“There have been big improvements over the years in how to we respond to people going off supply. In the past, if it happened in the middle of the night, we'd have left them off, and dealt with it in the morning. Now, we're straight out there restoring people’s supply.”
Not to mention, of course, all the technological advancements and the switch to renewables.
“Obviously, we're seeing a reduction in the use of fossil fuel, especially around coal, and a much greater use of renewables but I still think we are looking for a balanced energy mix, rather than a wholesale transition. Not until we can get to a point where renewables can supply power in the same way as the baseload capabilities that several large power plants can give,” says Richard.
“A personal opinion is that we are making a lot of new connections to the grid, but we are not necessarily adding to the system’s stability or baseload capability.”
While he has been a union member since day one, Richard, understandably, focussed on his career rather than on union activities during the early days.
He gradually got more involved about 20 years ago when he was asked to take on a rep’s role, when the branch was trying to encourage younger members to take on union responsibilities.
“I found it was really interesting. When you look behind the union membership, look at the people who are part of it, those who form the various committees and look at the work that they do, it revealed all the massive effort going on in the background,” he says.
“If you were just a member, but not an active member, you weren't really aware of how much work goes into it.”
Through the years, he “got more and more involved, taking on more responsibility, enjoyed helping people and did all the Prospect training courses that he could.”
He is also currently the WPD branch vice president. The roles of president and vice president rotate every two years between the WPD Southern section and the WPD Midlands section.
This year, following the sector conference in Manchester, Richard became the president of the Prospect energy sector, which brought together for the first time members working in nuclear, generation, decommissioning, energy supply, transmission and the renewable industries.
On the challenges ahead, Richard says:
“Following a review of Prospect energy policy we concluded we needed to become more inclusive. Previously, we had not been servicing the whole industry. I think we're on a bit of a learning curve. All of us who are current members belonging to the energy supply or nuclear groups, we knew what we were doing before, supporting and representing our own members.
“Now though I think our biggest remit is to look to the future and to grow the sector. First and foremost, our mission is to try and become a leading voice and to speak for all people involved in energy.
“It'll be interesting to see where we are in a couple of years’ time because we've set out our programme of work for the next two years, and it's quite challenging. We discussed at our inaugural energy sector executive committee: how do we move this forward?”
Richard mentions the mapping work going on to identify recruitment opportunities in the nuclear supply chain and the challenge of boosting union recognition in the renewables sector. Many big energy companies recognise unions in their traditional divisions but have so far not done so in their renewable units.
Richard, in common with all reps and committee members of course, carries out his union activities while doing the day job at the same time. It can be a tricky balancing act. But, he’s not complaining.
“At the end of the day, it's not totally altruistic because I'm part of the industry and it is my livelihood. We all want the best for it and we need to take a long-term view. We need to make sure that the energy industry is modern, efficient, well-staffed with the right skills and is well supported for the future – my greatest desire is to see both employers, employees and the unions working for the good of the industry and the customers we all serve.”