Mike Hughes goes inside the Clean Energy Education Hub at Redcar and Cleveland College and finds a UK breakthrough that is changing the lives of young people and laying the foundations for an exciting future.

Getting hands-on with training and skills is a vital part of any education.

Youngsters with ambition need inspiring teachers to guide them and bring the best out of them (I still talk about mine 50 years later) and their own clear idea of what they want their careers to look like.

That’s a powerful combination, but put it together with kit that they can get their hands on and see and feel what that career would be like and you have the perfect launchpad for people who will be running our companies and coming up with the new ideas for generations.

Over at Redcar & Cleveland College, part of the Education Training Collective that also includes Stockton Riverside College, NETA Training and Bede Sixth Form, there is a room literally like no other in the country. Supported by bp, it is filled with pipework, valves, nozzles, gauges and levers that replicate precisely the tools students will have at their disposal when they start their careers in clean energy.

This is the Clean Energy Education Hub, part-funded by the UK government’s Towns Fund as part of levelling up plans, and its heart is the carbon capture rig that is the only one of its kind in the UK, showing the principles of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and fuelling the ideas of young people who are in the perfect place at the perfect time.

A few years ago this sort of opportunity just wouldn’t be there, and in a few years time it will be the norm and the jobs market will be a very different place.

But now they have the Teesside Clean Energy Technician Scholarship, a two-year full-time engineering course, and at the end of last year bp announced a further 20 scholarship places at the college. The bespoke opportunity will give young people looking to study engineering the chance to earn while they learn the skills of their future trade.

In a drive to encourage more girls to pursue careers in STEM, the college wants at least half of the places in the next tranche to go to females.

The Northern Echo: Anya LarkinAnya Larkin (Image: Sarah Caldecott)

It’s an amazing place to be, and for bp’s social mobility and skills partnerships manager, Hisham Hamid, it is particularly inspiring.

Bp need people like Hisham. He is their voice, filled with passion and still a sense of wonder at what is happening here, but with the skills to help it all grow and influence more and more lives like his.

“I was born and raised in Teesside and I’m second generation,” he tells me, sitting next to the carbon capture rig.

“On my mum’s side, my grandad migrated to the UK and worked as a labourer at British Rail in the Sixties. My dad is a goldsmith and very proud to be a part of Middlesbrough. His business is called Boro Jewellers, so Boro through and through.

“I ended up doing a degree in chemical engineering so I moved to Newcastle to study because I think there was a lack of awareness of the opportunities on our own doorstep from an industry perspective, and maybe not the representation from a diversity perspective as to what a career in engineering could look like.

“So I did the only rational thing for a South Asian individual who was interested in science, technology, engineering – I applied for dentistry. For me it was medicine, dentistry or stay at home working in the family businesses.

“I got straight rejections despite having the grades for it, because what I didn’t appreciate at the time was I didn’t have the social and the cultural capital that builds up the resume, the employability skills.

“But the saving grace for me was that in my school the teachers were very well aware of the opportunities that were on our doorstep for myself and my family, so I was made aware of a partnership programme with Newcastle University, which was a social mobility initiative for local students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Northern Echo: Hisham HamidHisham Hamid (Image: Sarah Caldecott)

“What it did was enable the students to fast track to an offer that had been contextualised, based on the area that they grew up in, for specific disciplines, such as engineering. The programme would support them in bridging some of their gaps from a soft skill perspective. On the scheme, you would spend summer at the university, effectively building out some of that social and cultural capital.

“It completely changed the trajectory in my life, but had we not had the initial industrial exposure and an awareness of those kinds of opportunity I don’t know that I would have been able to get into.”

For Hisham, the sort of opportunities bp and Redcar & Cleveland College are able to offer show how far the whole region has come since it became a global focus of clean energy and technology. From no idea of what a career would look like to being able to plan one right on your doorstep is a gamechanger for thousands of young people.

Hisham told me: “One of the key driving factors as to why I do the work that I do today on the people side and in the social mobility space is that it has been a living theme throughout my life, whether I knew it or not.

“The right support, whether it be through people or infrastructure, government initiatives, industry initiatives – it all makes such a huge impact on the trajectory of where an individual ends up. I’ve been so fortunate I was able to get scholarships to go through university, which helped from a financial perspective. I had education, maintenance allowance, free school meals, these kinds of things.

“What underpinned all of that and the reason I ended up ultimately doing engineering and getting the buy-in and support from my own family was because we understood that engineering equals a job at the end of it. And then seeing that in the place where I grew up and having witnessed first hand the impact bp and operators of that scale and size can have on individual lives from a generational perspective is incredible – a little bit surreal actually.

The Northern Echo: The team at Redcar & Cleveland CollegeThe team at Redcar & Cleveland College (Image: Sarah Caldecott)

“I always had this perception growing up that I had to move away to really maximise my career prospects and opportunities, but the reality is if everything goes well with these projects in terms of construction and development and operation, you’ve got work for generations.”

He knows the impact it is all having and beams with pride at now being part of that wave of innovation and opportunity.

“People are still trying to understand what the compounding effect is of having a bp or an organisation of that scale in our region. It attracts a whole list of other suppliers and contracting companies and then you have that added ripple effect of indirect jobs just because you’ve got a workforce being generated locally.

“When there are so many industries active within the region it drives other value for restaurants, for hotels, for shopping centres – that’s where I think the real value is of the socioeconomic impact around Teesside.

“I never perceived that I would be saying this growing up, but if you’re living in the likes of a Teesside or an industrial cluster, you’ve won the postcode lottery.

“If you’re that age in this current time, the only thing I can really liken it to is when we had the initial industrial revolution and then the oil boom, in terms of the potential for job creation and these young people with us today not limiting themselves in any way.”

Hisham is at one end of the bp pipeline. He is the refined end product perfected by being filtered through so many levels of innovation, passion, commitment and determination.

At the other end, just starting their journey down the Redcar pipeline, are the young people who will build, run and maintain our future. The likes of Anya Larkin, Alfie Breckon and Isaac Baines already have a glimpse into the future and have had their hands on equipment that few young people in the world will have seen.

Anya, 17, from Hartlepool told me about an abrupt change of direction that brought her to the course: “I originally wanted to be an interior designer, but it all seemed to be sitting in a classroom with no practical side to it.

"My dad was an engineer and had always said it was a good career to get into, and when I came to Redcar they took me around all of this equipment and the workshops they have here and I saw all the practical side to it, which I’d never done before, so I thought I’d enjoy it.

“I think there are so many opportunities that might not have been there in previous years, so it’s nice to know that there will be jobs open once I finish this course and gain more experience. That means I can probably stay local and get a career here as well.”

The Northern Echo: Isaac BainesIsaac Baines (Image: Sarah Caldecott)

She swiftly dismisses the idea that being female on a course like this is anything unusual.

“I don’t think it matters at all. I mean, I get on with everyone in my class and I am working alongside them, so it doesn’t really make a difference in that sense.”

Alfie, from Saltburn, breezes in with more confidence than I could ever imagine having when I was 16. He is first with the handshake and later is waiting at the door with Isaac when I leave to thank me for coming. Keep an eye on Alfie.

He tells me: “I understood renewable energy was a step forward for Teesside especially and I know it’s on my doorstep, but that’s not the reason I’m here. The reason I’m here is because I understand I have a future down this route.

"It’s all over social media about Net Zero Teesside and I’m just looking forward to being part of the greener future. I’ve still got my whole life ahead and there’s many people that are leaving school and so on and I feel like a lot of them get rushed into what they want to pick. I feel like people just need to not rush it, and think about it, understand where the future is going to take them, and if they take a course, it’s still going to be a future.

“I feel like this is only the beginning. What bp and the college have got here is going to start a domino effect where other people will take a look because it is the first one in the UK – it’s only going to grow.

“I’m a logical guy and I believe in action over anything. My grandad worked for British Steel, so I understand engineering as a way forward. As soon as I heard about the course I put my suit on and I was ready and I kept coming in and just got a feeling of success. Probably the first step to greatness, I’d say.

“I understand there will be a lot of jobs at Teesworks and I do not see a reason why I cannot be working there. I would be reliable and will work for that. I’ll make sure of it.” So that’s a big tick against Alfie’s name for a couple of years’ time.

Isaac is 16 and from Nunthorpe, another confident young man who can see the value of the chance he is being offered.

“My dad found out about the course online, so I had a good look at it and thought it was a good idea to come in and have a talk to some of the people who were running it,” he said.

“I prefer to get hands on with all the pipes and the valves and everything and my dad’s an instrument engineer and my grandad worked up at British Steel, so I’ve always known about this sort of work being a possibility.

“But I didn’t think I’d get on. I don’t know why, I just thought loads and loads of people would be going to such a great opportunity so maybe I wouldn’t be one of them, but thankfully I was.

“Obviously bp have started all of this and then hopefully loads of other companies will come in as well and start building new sites with clean energy, net zero technology and everything that goes with it.

“The thing is, with all the new things coming to Teesside, it’s obviously really exciting so I’ll probably stay around and try out on some of the new sites around here.”

The Northern Echo: Rob LeishmanRob Leishman (Image: Sarah Caldecott)

The generational links I’m hearing about are so important to the bigger picture here. Grandads and grandmas working for British Steel mean these young people know about how important jobs are to putting down roots for your family and how hard you have to work to keep them and grow them into a career. Being able to say in a few years time ‘my grandad worked for British Steel and I work for bp’ is now a tangible goal in their lives.

Rob Leishman already knows it is one they can reach. As the Clean Energy Education Hub manager here at the college he oversees the whole operation and shares their local pride.

Middlesbrough-born, he had been an apprentice at NETA on Portrack Lane in Stockton in the 1980s – now part of the Education Training Collective alongside the college – then ended up back there as one of the staff before taking up his new role at Redcar.

“Obviously the nature of the renewable green energy sector was very appealing with my previous industry experience. That was more the traditional oil and gas and chemical, but the sector’s focus now on renewables and green energy meant this was a fantastic opportunity that I couldn’t turn down – and I’ve got the chance to work with some outstanding students.

“Honestly, every one of the bp scholars that we’ve got on board are absolutely exceptional. I could bore you with facts and figures about attendance and punctuality, but they are just a credit to themselves and to bp, who have shown how willing they are to invest in young people, and I know these students will return that investment many times over.

“We’ve got the facilities, with more to come thanks to investment from the Local Skills Improvement Fund and we want to make sure we encompass all aspects of the green energy sector right here at Redcar & Cleveland College. If you can’t get excited about this place – where are you ever going to get excited?”

As ever with bp, this is about equipping young Teessiders with the skills to access the low-carbon jobs that will place the region at the heart of the UK’s energy transition. With Hisham and Rob helping to make it happen here at Redcar and Anya, Alfie, Issac and their fellow scholars moving so swiftly and confidently along that pipeline, what a future we have in store.