Building the Workforce of Tomorrow: Why Investing in Green Jobs and Skills is Critical for the UK
With the transition to net zero, new sectors, technologies and industries will emerge. But creating a workforce able to make the most of tomorrow’s opportunities demands action today. Ahead of the publication of their nationwide survey of young people’s views about their future careers, we spoke to leading engineering and environmental professional services consultancy WSP and EngineeringUK to find out more about the challenges of developing the skills and jobs needed to deliver a low-carbon future.
As the nation moves towards net zero, the nature of the UK workforce will have to change too, presenting an enormous economic opportunity. For instance, the Government’s ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ sets out an ambition to create 250,000 highly skilled green jobs in the UK by 2030.
However, Rachel Skinner, WSP’s Executive Director for ESG & Government Relations, believes that even that figure does not come close to reflecting the scale of the skills challenge that the nation faces.
“We know that our buildings and their immediate urban environments are directly responsible for about 40% of carbon emissions,” Skinner explains to The House. “This however does not acknowledge the full impact of our built environment and its supporting infrastructure systems, including all transport and buildings, digital connectivity, water supply, waste treatment and so on. This puts the percentage much higher at around 70% of total emissions.”
“On that basis, the green skills challenge isn’t about 250,000 people training for new, green jobs. It is about millions of people across the UK doing their current jobs differently,” Skinner says.
As a recent President of the Institution of Civil Engineers focused on the theme of climate action, Skinner has seen at first hand the way that her own industry is preparing for change. She believes that everyone with a stake in supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy now has an important role to play in ensuring that the right skills are in place for the future.
But Skinner sounds a note of caution about the current pace of change. The two words that she constantly returns to throughout our discussion are “importance” and “urgency”. She is clear that, if the nation is to tackle the challenges caused by climate change andalso benefit from the economic opportunities that new sectors and industries will bring, then we must accelerate the development of a workforce with the skills to participate.
Achieving this is something that everyone has a stake in, and Skinner warns about the dangers of complacency. “We simply can’t just carry on doing things in the way we always have,” she says.
“A global net zero outcome is not optional. It is not a ‘nice to have. It is absolutely essential. While we cannot solve the climate crisis alone, the UK should seize the opportunity to continue its lead role, actively shape new skills, existing jobs and expertise, and look for ways to support others through their green transition.”
Isabel DiVanna, Director at EngineeringUK, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to inspire the next generation of engineers,agrees that the sheer scale of the new jobs required demands new thinking.
“The sheer number of these jobs is just crazy,” she tells us. “We need 100,000 jobs in offshore wind, 30,000 in onshore wind, 64,000 in solar PV technology, 70,000 pump installers for retro-fitting, 44,000 new jobs in hydrogen, and about 140,000 new jobs in energy.”
DiVanna points out that the nation currently does not come close to producing the number of engineers required each year. As large parts of the existing workforce head towards retirement, it is clear that there will be a significant skills gap that could present a significant barrier to achieving net zero.
For DiVanna, part of the solution starts in schools where all too often young people do not specialise in the subjects that provide a foundation for a career in engineering. This is particularly true of girls, leading to women being massively underrepresented in the industry.
“Just 16.5% of the engineering workforce are women,” she explains. “The number of women in the industry has increased by around 400,000 over the last decade and while we'd love to see a faster uptick, even a continuation of the current rate would make a real difference to the profession.”
For that to happen requires increased collaboration between schools, industry, and government.
However, if we get this right industry experts argue, then the benefits could prove to be economic as well as environmental, positioning the UK at the forefront of an emerging technology that will have global applications in the coming decades.
Not only will this deliver on the climate challenge, but it will also provide an opportunity to create new jobs and sustainable economic growth in parts of the UK that struggled to rebuild when previous industries declined.
This potential for new sectors and industries to help deliver government aspirations around ‘Levelling Up’ is currently high on the agenda for UK politicians.
“I am passionate about opportunity, social mobility, and social justice,” Robert Halfon, Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, tells The House. “By boosting access to green skills training, we are driving innovative industries and keeping our planet green whilst offering that ladder of opportunity to people in every region of the country.”
Skinner shares Halfon’s view that the economic opportunity created by a transition to net zero has the potential to revitalise areas of the country that have been left behind.
“Climate action and economic growth are so intertwined,” she says. “There is a real opportunity to remap our perception of particular places. Whoever gets there first will have an advantage in delivering good growth.”
It is a view that Isabel DiVanna supports. “There is an amazing opportunity for government to join up the green recovery and Levelling Up,” she tells us. It can unlock opportunities for young people to get good quality, stimulating jobs. We should come to a point where all young people, from Bolton to Brighton, from Newcastle to Newquay, can look at those opportunities and use their skills and passion to make a difference.”
However, for this to happen will require clear strategic leadership from central and local government. This will include action on technical educational routes such as T Levels and apprenticeships, as well as effective partnerships that bring together industry, academia, and schools at a local level.
“There is some good effort in this area at the moment, but we need to accelerate,” says Skinner, returning to her theme of urgency. She cites apprenticeships as a critical area where she believes “the work is far from done.” But she is equally clear that getting this right will bring benefits to young people and local economies.
Robert Halfon agrees that apprenticeships can potentially play an important role in shaping the future skills landscape. “Being green means building a skills and apprenticeships nation,” he explains. “We must see green industry not just as crucial for the environment, but also as a fantastic opportunity for the future which we are well-placed to take advantage of.”
The UK’s engineering sector stands ready to accelerate progress and play its role in equipping the workforce to contribute to our national net-zero journey. “If government continues to push in this direction,” Skinner concludes, “industry is right there with them.”
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