A job well done? Upskilling and reskilling

24th March 2022

The Scottish government has made much of its moves to support green jobs, but what is actually happening on the ground? Catherine Early reports

The Green Jobs Barometer developed last year by PwC reveals Scotland’s conundrum. It is the joint top-performing UK region for the creation of green jobs, but also the region where the largest relative impact of job loss will be felt.

The Scottish government has kickstarted discussions about green employment options and the just transition. Since 2019, the Scottish Just Transition Commission has engaged with people in sectors likely to be affected by the low-carbon transition, and advised the government. A £100m fund has been set up to support green job creation, and in December 2020 the Scottish government launched the Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan (bit.ly/Scot_CESAP) to co-ordinate action and a Green Jobs Skills Hub to identify the numbers and types of jobs that will be needed in the next 25 years.

Upskilling and reskilling

A year on from the plan’s launch, the government and national skills body Skills Development Scotland (SDS) claim to have started training the next generation of renewable professionals, putting climate change resources into schools and working on apprenticeships. A Green Jobs Workforce Academy has been launched to help existing employees and those facing redundancy to upskill and reskill so they are ready for green job opportunities, and to provide bespoke climate emergency training and the development of a net-zero toolkit to support small engineering firms.

One area of focus is apprenticeships. SDS is working with the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board to work out how sustainability can become a component of all apprenticeships, recognising that the net-zero transition will impact all sectors of the economy.

Standards for apprenticeships are being refreshed to reflect upcoming technologies, rather than current ones. “We need to ensure the skills given to young people are relevant to the future,” says Chris Brodie, director of regional skills planning and sector development at SDS. He cites the construction trade as one where qualification development has not been sufficiently forward-looking. “When these qualifications were developed, two or five years ago, they were focused on the technologies of the noughties rather than the technologies of the 2020s and 2030s,” he says.

SDS also has a programme looking at the skills involved in decarbonising heat, predicted to require up to 25,000 extra people in Glasgow alone. SDS is working with regional economic partnerships and housing associations to identify when demand is likely to come forward, what skills will be needed, and how people can access training. Similar work is being done in Scotland’s highlands and islands, looking at what rural areas need.

“Planning needs to be rooted in real-life problems and investment opportunities, and you need to approach it in an achievable and scalable way,” Brodie says. Lessons from the work in Glasgow will be fed into the whole skills system in Scotland via the Energy Skills Partnership, a collaboration of colleges and industry formed to boost skills for the renewable energy sector.

One of the challenges is uncertainty over exactly which technologies will be deployed in decarbonising certain sectors, Brodie says. SDS has skills leads for each major sector, including finance, energy, transport and manufacturing, who spend time talking to employers about what they are planning.

“White-collar jobs are not going to fill the gap left by the loss of jobs in oil and gas, thermal generation and nuclear”

Scotland’s relatively small working-age population is an issue. It has been reliant on migrant labour, but supply diminished post-Brexit and COVID-19. “One of the fallacies about skills policy is that the problem will be solved by training people – we also need a strategy for getting people back into work,” says Brodie.

Nature sector jobs

Another area of focus is the nature sector. The potential here is underestimated, says Claudia Rowse, deputy director of sustainable growth at NatureScot.

“Conferences on green jobs are mainly about the transition out of oil and gas, and jobs in renewable energy,” she says. “Those are hugely significant for Scotland, but partners and stakeholders have been surprised to hear that 200,000 people are currently employed in the nature sector – equivalent to the number in oil and gas. It’s grown at five times the rate of other sectors over the past five years and we’re anticipating significant growth in the decades ahead.”

NatureScot is predicting that there will be around 7,000 new nature sector jobs, in areas such as peatland restoration, green infrastructure, woodland creation and restoration, and blue carbon, by 2030 – particularly given the role of nature-based solutions in Scotland’s climate change plan update. An action plan for the sector was launched in August 2021.

NatureScot is working to identify where and when those jobs will be needed, and at which level, according to Rowse. It is also planning an awareness-raising campaign to help the public understand what a nature-based job is. Working with the Council for Ethnic Minority and Voluntary Organisations, it has taken on four graduates from minority ethnic backgrounds, whom it hopes will act as ambassadors for the nature-based sector within their communities.

“Nature-based jobs are not just digging holes or planting trees – there’s a varied range, including highly qualified jobs such as engineers, hydraulics and the use of new technologies such as remote sensing, as well as generic jobs around administration, project management and social behaviour,” she says.

Market reliance

The Scottish government’s green jobs agenda needs to go a lot further to make a real difference, according to Richard Hardy, Scottish national secretary for the trade union Prospect. Though the Scottish government has gone further than its UK counterparts in discussing the issue, it still relies too much on the market to provide jobs, he says, with most jobs created so far being professional level ones in the renewable energy sector.

“That sort of white-collar managerial job is not going to fill the gap left by the loss of jobs in offshore oil and gas, thermal generation and nuclear. The approach seems to be driven by the view that if we invest in the university sector and produce world-beating research and solutions, it will automatically generate supply chain and manufacturing jobs in Scotland,” he says.

Hardy, a commissioner on the Just Transition Commission, believes the government needs to be more interventionist – or foreign-owned businesses will buy the intellectual property from universities and set up manufacturing and supply chain work in Denmark or China. “We’ll be concreting other people’s work into the seabed and shipping it from the other side of the world in order to do that,” he says.

The Scottish government must create and enforce local content rules that bring about tangible job creation, rather than just asking for a percentage of the total value of the contract to benefit Scotland, he says, adding that companies have got around these rules via clever accounting.

In January 2020, the then Scottish Economy Secretary Derek Mackay acknowledged that renewable energy was not delivering sufficient benefits to the local supply chain. The only wind farm equipment manufacturer based in the UK, CS Wind, closed its Campbeltown factory in September 2021, while Scottish steel manufacturing firm Burntisland Fabrications went into administration in 2020 – though it was bought last year by London-based firm InfraStrata, which wants it to win offshore wind contracts.

In January, the Scottish government announced the first ScotWind leasing round, which will see 25GW of offshore wind built around the coast. All developers must submit a Supply Chain Development Statement outlining how they will deliver benefits to Scotland. Developers have committed to invest at least £1bn in the Scottish supply chain for every GW of energy generated via projects, according to the government.

Hardy warns that the government will lose support for the low-carbon transition if quality manufacturing jobs are not created to replace high-carbon industries. “People will fight to stay in dirty energy and think the just transition talk is just a sop. They’ll think, ‘I’m not being protected, so sod saving the planet’.”

SSE – a strategy for the just transition

Energy company SSE published a Just Transition strategy in November 2020, setting out the principles it plans to follow to help protect workers and communities as the UK moves towards net zero. These included attracting people from high-carbon industries to low-carbon roles, and supporting greater diversity in the workforce.

The company is leading the development of Scotland’s largest offshore windfarm, off the coast of Angus, and one of Europe’s most productive onshore windfarms on the Shetland Islands. These alone are creating more than 1,000 skilled green jobs, it says.

A survey found that at least 1,500 of its employees who now work on low-carbon projects had previously worked in high-carbon roles. At the Beatrice offshore wind farm off the Caithness coast, as many as two thirds of the control room staff are former oil and gas workers.

An update to SSE’s plan revealed actions it was planning to take, including piloting an engineering conversion programme for new talent who transition to SSE from other sectors. The firm pays for any skills training that employees need to move roles. It also pledged to report against the strategy in its annual report.

One of the biggest challenges is planning for the transition, says SSE head of social impact Kate Wallace-Lockhart. “We’re currently trying to work out how many jobs can be created, as skills can move very quickly,” she says.

“The level of capacity in the ScotWind announcement is higher than anyone thought it would be. You can try and plan as much as possible, but the further into the future you look, the harder it is to get it right.”

Catherine Early is a freelance journalist.
Image credit | Ikon

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