Training focus: 21st century workers

6th December 2012


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Linda Miller on the findings of an EU study looking at skills needed for the green economy

European policies are increasingly focusing on the need to move to a more resource-efficient, low-carbon economy that minimises environmental damage – the so-called “green” economy. But to enable progress, people must be equipped with the skills needed to meet the demands of new and emerging roles.

How well prepared the EU workforce is, in terms of the skills needed, and how ready employers and training providers are to equip employees with these skills, were questions recently posed by researchers from the Institute for Employment Studies. The study was commissioned by the European centre for the development of vocational training to inform the EU’s skills strategy, and examined current and future skills requirements as well as the training necessary to meet those needs in nine occupations across eight countries: Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia and the UK.

While the research found positive trends in learning providers’ and employers’ attitudes towards the development of the green economy and its implication for skills, it also revealed a changeable and fragmented picture of policy coordination and stakeholder cooperation. Uncertainty about the longevity of environmental policies makes it difficult for employers to anticipate skills needs, while training providers are discouraged by vacillating and diverse employer needs and are not proactively planning for future demand.

How are needs changing?

A wide range of technologies is emerging in response to demands for energy security and reduced impacts on the environment. These include renewable energy technologies; new materials and building methods to ensure energy efficiency; and more sophisticated approaches to recycling. In turn, these require skills to assess environmental impacts and energy use; to develop and build new equipment, infrastructure and buildings, as well as retrofit existing premises; and to efficiently collect, sort and process waste.

In attempting to identify the skills demands of emerging and changing job roles, key questions to be asked are: does the job require new skills or existing skills to be applied in new settings, and/or the use of existing technologies to be transferred to new applications? These questions have helped with estimating and classifying the types of skills that will be required in different jobs. Three different types of skills need have been identified:

  • Increased demand occupations (IDO) – these will remain much the same in content, but demand for them is expected to increase – for example, electricians and insulation workers.
  • Enhanced skills occupations (ESO) – these are existing occupations will have their content changed, requiring enhanced or additional training to extend the skills of workers. This group includes environmental engineers and sheet-metal workers.
  • New and emerging occupations (NEO) – these are new occupations that are emerging from the introduction of new technologies or processes. NEOs include nanotechnology engineering technologists and installers of solar photovoltaic (PV) equipment.

The transition to a green economy will involve the replacement or refurbishment of critical elements across energy, transport, housing and other physical infrastructures. This means that there will be a greater demand for intermediate- and low-level skills as well as high-level skills.

The extent of the skills changes has implications for the nature of the education and training required: NEO occupations are entirely new jobs, which will most likely need individuals to train in before entry to the role (or engage in a significant period of on- and off-the-job training).

ESO occupations are likely to require significant amounts of training to be provided for existing employees, most likely off-the-job. Meanwhile, for IDO occupations, there is no immediate need for any change to the nature of the education and training provided, but ways will need to be found to increase provider capacity and, perhaps more importantly, attract more potential entrants or trainees to the occupation.

The education and training for these occupations also differs in terms of its focus. The main focus for both IDO and NEO occupations is on pre-recruitment training; for ESO occupations the focus is on professional development. So, what are the education and training routes that facilitate entry to the occupation? What provision is available to update and upskill people in a particular occupation? And what options are available for people who want to move into these newer or expanding occupations?

Future demand

There was rapid growth in some of these occupations before the economic downturn. Although the recession led many to believe that the scale of job growth and skills needs was unlikely to be as rapid as anticipated, some growth was still expected. In the UK, the greatest expansion in jobs is predicted to be in energy auditing, environmental engineering and nanotechnology, but the pace of this growth is unclear. In the medium-skilled occupations, there may be higher demand for insulation workers, but this is dependent on government investment in large-scale construction projects and regulation on energy use.

For refuse collectors, electricians and environmental engineers, there is likely to be a slight broadening of skills requirements, while sheet-metal workers, energy auditors and insulation workers will probably require greater knowledge levels and technical skills. Most of the training identified as necessary for medium-skilled workers consists of regulatory updates or refresher courses, driven by the demands of new technologies or the need to ensure compliance with regulatory changes.

In some high-skilled roles, there is evidence of a need for greater commercialisation and sales/marketing skills. Nanotechnologists, for example, are likely to need health and safety management and risk assessment knowledge due to concern over the risks posed by such materials.

Uncertainties over policy make it hard for employers and professional bodies to predict the volumes of jobs and, consequently, the demand for training. For example, if the green deal is a success, it may lead to a significant increase in the demand for home energy assessments and domestic energy auditors in the UK.

Many of those who trained as home energy assessors under the HIPS scheme – the home information packs introduced by the previous government and then discarded by the coalition – are likely to undertake this work and will have most of the required skills, so there may not be much demand for additional people. However, historically there have been problems in the quality of training provided for energy auditors, which may mean that existing assessors will need more skills and new courses will be required.

The use of energy-efficient technologies in buildings (as well as the provision of subsidies and financial incentives to install those technologies), investment in public infrastructure and rising energy costs are all likely to drive the demand for electricians, solar PV installers and insulation workers. There will potentially be demand for additional training to update existing workers and to train more individuals in these activities. Most employers surveyed were relatively satisfied with current training provision, although some reported a lack of clarity about the quality and content of training offered for electricians and PV installers by different providers.

There probably be little demand in the short term for training for refuse collectors. In the longer term, however, they may need to be able to identify subtle differences between what can and cannot be recycled (for example, different types of plastics) and to improve their communication skills to explain such issues to the public.

Developing programmes

All things considered, developing education and training to support the expansion of these occupations is not straightforward. The first question for any provider is: how many people will the programme attract? And this can be a challenging calculation.

Learning providers in general are enthusiastic and willing to change curriculum content to meet new demands, but this is tempered by concerns about insufficient numbers of learners. Low demand from employers for new qualifications, along with inconsistent national policy, has not helped allay concerns.

Unsurprisingly then, some providers have been cautious in their response to demand for new programmes, viewing the case for change as risky at present and waiting for further market developments and/or stronger government commitment to green policies before investing in developing new courses.

Consequently, course and qualification development has been rather piecemeal and reactive. The increasingly diverse nature of occupational profiles in this emerging economy, together with the wide geographical dispersion of employers and learners in what are currently the early days for some of these occupations, mean that it is difficult to target the provision of courses and learner numbers are sometimes too low to deliver training effectively.

In addition, fluctuations in policy – such as the change in feed-in tariffs in the UK leading at first to an increase in demand for solar PV installations, then a fall – can render providers (and employers) understandably reluctant to commit resources to changing the nature and extent of training provision or the services they provide.

Ongoing economic unpredictability may also serve to mask future skills needs, causing short-term swings in the overall take of green technologies. However, while demand remains relatively low this may provide a breathing space for training providers to catch up and plan future courses, presuming they do believe the overall trend is towards increased demand.

It’s all in the delivery

The research did identify some examples of good practice, with one of these coming from the UK. In this case, a major building supply company is organising early morning training sessions on topics such as use of new insulation materials, enabling builders picking up their materials to easily take in a short briefing or training session before going on to work.

For more mainstream provision of courses, decisions will need to be made about the optimal ways in which to deliver training so that it causes least disruption to work schedules, while remaining a viable proposition for a college or training company to provide. Online learning is one option being considered. Another is standalone or add-on modules that can be incorporated into existing curricula to create economies of scale or used to upskill existing workers.


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