Mind the skills gap

3rd August 2023

The UK faces a huge task upskilling the workers it needs to deliver net zero by 2050. Chris Seekings reports on the key challenges, solutions and opportunities

Earlier this year, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) revealed that up to 725,000 net new jobs can be created by the UK’s net-zero transition, providing huge employment opportunities in economically deprived areas, and boosting diversity in sectors where women and ethnic minorities are under-represented.

However, there is often a lack of clarity that amounts to “magical thinking”, when it comes to how these jobs are going to be delivered, according to IEMA CEO Sarah Mukherjee MBE. The CCC has also warned that options for developing the net-zero workforce are “not being considered systematically across government”.

Aside from the urgent environmental needs, delivering well-paid green jobs and training could have massive economic benefits, and help tackle the social and political unrest that has been bubbling away in the UK for decades.

Scale of the challenge

IEMA’s new Green Careers Hub will go some way to help, providing businesses and individuals with all the information they need on green skills and career pathways in one easy-to-use resource.

Nonetheless, the UK still faces a “huge challenge”, according to the Skidmore Independent Review of Net Zero, which states that skill pools “will need to grow significantly”.

Post-Brexit immigration changes and knock-on effects from the Covid pandemic have not made this any easier. All sectors are struggling, with some having seen a 30% decline in skilled workers over the past three years, and up to half experiencing recruitment challenges.

These challenges are particularly acute in less affluent areas, with vacancies for low-carbon jobs often located outside London and the South East (see Figure 1). This also presents a huge opportunity.

Overall, the Confederation of British Industry estimates that green jobs could contribute up to £60bn of gross value added to the UK economy by 2050 and numerous studies show that the potential rewards far outweigh the costs. There are also a great deal of possible social benefits.

Many of the constituencies that have felt left behind in recent decades and voted for Brexit have the greatest potential for green jobs. For example, the north of England, the East Midlands, and Yorkshire and the Humber are home to 16%, 9% and 21% of energy-intensive manufacturing workers, respectively, who can be upskilled for the low-carbon transition.

Opportunities in environmental development, such as tree planting and urban green infrastructure, exist in the 20% of British areas facing the most significant employment challenges, while there is also massive potential for job creation in carbon capture utilisation and storage and low-carbon hydrogen in Merseyside, Humberside, Scotland and South Wales.

And it’s not just carbon-intensive sectors that are ripe for change, with 75% of senior sustainability professionals surveyed for a report by IEMA last year saying that all jobs will require ‘green’ or sustainability skills by 2050.

“Environment and sustainability specialists are now working in a far broader spread of organisations than they did in the mid-2000s, and there is a broader set of skills involved,” explains Paul Gosling, a recruiter at Hays, one of the Green Careers Hub partners. “The type of people involved in the early stages were almost entirely engineers and scientists.”

Upskilling will be required across the UK’s service-based economy, and new jobs could be created in sectors traditionally dominated by certain sections of society.

The future workforce

The Skidmore review revealed that approximately 82% of employees in net-zero industries are male and that just 18% are female. Meanwhile, research released by SOS-UK and IEMA last year showed that just 4.8% of environment professionals in the UK identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic, compared with a 12.6% average across all professions.

New green jobs and training can help address this imbalance: taking advantage of a huge pool of untapped talent, while ensuring that a diverse set of perspectives are included in the net-zero transition.Initiatives such as The RACE Report and IEMA’s Diverse Sustainability Initiative will help. Speaking last year, IEMA’s CEO said: “As a British Asian, I know how important it is to address systemic inequality and the real need to reflect the diversity of this country. We must continue to gather data and offer our support and encouragement to people who wish to join our sector but feel they don’t belong.”

Learning from the past

Of course, there is a risk that the net-zero transition could be negative for some workers and sectors, with the UK’s shift from coal and steel in the 1970s and 1980s characterised by abrupt business closures in areas of concentrated regional employment.

However, the pace of change will be more gradual, and there are reasons for optimism, with the UK having successfully cut its emissions by 48% between 1990 and 2021 – faster than any other G7 country – while growing its economy by 65%.

To ensure a smooth transition, and to give businesses time to respond, the government must give more clarity on its long-term aims.

Indeed, the Skidmore review found that the main barrier to creating a sufficiently skilled workforce is “confidence in existence and longevity of jobs”. This was followed by access to and affordability of skills provision, the training and retraining skills pipeline, and a parity of esteem for entrants into trade vocations. The Department for Work and Pensions – another Green Careers Hub partner – sits on the UK government’s Green Jobs Delivery Group.

A spokesperson tells me: “We are ensuring that other departments and industry is doing everything in its power to overcome barriers preventing jobseekers from taking up roles in green sectors. This includes work coach interventions and targeted provision, including sector-based work academy programmes, and by referring people to skills bootcamps, apprenticeships and other skills provision.”

Long-term government support for net-zero technologies will also give employers the confidence they need to invest in training. However, higher education, training providers, professional bodies and recruiters have an important role to play, too.

“Recruiters can add real value by connecting workers to the different types of companies that are looking to recruit and train, and providing that contextualisation of sustainability issues to business scenarios,” Gosling adds.

The global race

The US Inflation Reduction Act and the EU’s proposed Green Deal Industrial Plan have increased the risk to competitiveness of the UK, which could miss out on new opportunities by not supporting the skills needed to attract investment.

“To see the amount of climate action happening in the US, compared with just five years ago, is astounding,” explains Anshuman Bapna, founder of Terra.do, another partner of IEMA’s Green Careers Hub. “We went from having a climate denier-in-chief as president, to having both parties talking about whose Green New Deal is better.”

That’s not to say that the US does not face its own challenges. “We have a massive shortage of engineers, and don’t have enough people to install new heating systems, or electricians and plumbers,” Bapna says. “But the fact that America turned the ship around politically so quickly gives me a strong sense of optimism.”

All countries face challenges as we look to build a workforce capable of averting the worst impacts of climate change. Alongside launching its Green Careers Hub, IEMA has called on delegates at this year’s COP28 climate summit to include more support for green skills on the cover text.

“This shift simply will not happen quickly enough unless we equip the global workforce with the skills and training necessary for it to happen.” Mukherjee said earlier this year. “A clear declaration of intent at COP28 would be a great way to start.”

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