The race to decarbonise the British economy by 2050 will need unprecedented levels of investment. But although government and business have started to put financial weight behind the transition, there are still many hurdles ahead.
One of the most significant is a shortage of skilled workers in key sectors and trades, from renewable energy to sustainable waste management. The promise of new ‘green jobs’ has become a common refrain for British political parties, with Labour recently pledging its clean energy plans will create a million “well-paid” jobs.
But the scale of the challenge was revealed last week in LinkedIn’s annual Global Green Skills report, which found that the UK is trailing several major economies when it comes to green skills.
Just one in eight British workers possess skills such as climate action planning or sustainable design. That’s less than both Germany and France and only a nose above the EU average.
Demand is also growing far faster than supply. Almost one-third of all jobs advertised in the UK last year required at least one green skill. That pattern is repeated across all 48 countries in the report, which saw a median increase of 12.3% for green talent versus 22.4% for green jobs.
The growing gulf between employer requirements and available talent raises the prospect of an urgent skills shortage that could cripple the UK’s green ambitions.
The shortages are already well-known in certain fast-growing, low-carbon roles, such as heat pump technicians. Today, there are fewer than 3,000, but as many as 150,000 will be required to meet the government’s ambitious installation targets, according to an industry report in January. Alarms have also been raised over the lack of solar power and wind turbine engineering skills in the British workforce.
But green skills are needed in a far wider range of sectors. Biodiversity, waste and pollution affect businesses of all kinds. For instance, the sector with the highest concentration of green jobs is farming, ranching and forestry, followed by construction and utilities. Even oil and gas has a high concentration of green talent (thanks to LinkedIn’s wide definition of green skills).
Other industries have lower numbers but are growing more quickly. Professional and financial services each saw a 14.5% increase in green jobs between 2022 and 2023 – perhaps down to an increased focus on sustainable finance and climate change reporting.
Companies in these sectors are particularly struggling to find good candidates, says Nicola Stopps, CEO of consultancy Simply Sustainable. “You don’t just need to be a technical expert on sustainability and ESG but a whole host of other skills as well – data literacy, how to navigate large businesses, and how to bring people along on the journey,” she says.
Ultimately, the UK’s Green Jobs Taskforce believes one in five jobs will ultimately be affected by the energy transition. Meanwhile, 75% of respondents to a 2021 Deloitte survey expected that “all” jobs would require sustainability skills by 2050.
How businesses can help close the green skills gap
A 2023 survey of school-leavers found almost three-quarters are interested in a green career path and other studies have found the majority of workers would be more willing to apply for positions with environmentally sustainable companies.
But more needs to be done to make it easier and cheaper for people to upskill and retrain, experts say.
Think-tank Green Alliance has called for the government to set up a UK-wide body to promote green jobs and for businesses investing in employees’ green skills to get 130% tax relief, among other measures. Others back closer links between education and industry to create clearer pathways into sustainable careers for both new graduates and career-switchers.
“We need to make it as easy as possible for people to move into green jobs, and that will require combined action from policymakers, businesses and educational organisations,” says Sue Duke, head of global public policy at LinkedIn. “Targeted and tailored reskilling programmes and on-the-job training are critical to building a global workforce with the skills to tackle the climate threat.”
One positive step the current government has taken is to announce 9,000 free or subsidised courses for people who want to become heat pump technicians.
Businesses could also cast their nets wider. Many US companies are already hiring workers without previous green experience into green jobs, such as ‘solar consultant’ or ‘sanitation engineer’, according to LinkedIn. Groups like women or people of colour are currently under-represented in green careers, meaning targeted recruitment programmes could boost numbers.
“If you don’t see it, you can’t be it,” says Stopps. “Companies need to engage with more culturally diverse young people so they can feel inspired to work in our sector.”
Some hesitation might be financial. A London School of Economics study found that low carbon jobs often demanded higher technical skills but were not necessarily better paid than average.
One response could be found in LinkedIn’s data. It found that hiring for green jobs had shown no sign of slowing during the recent downturn – leading it to conclude that green skills might be more resilient in times of economic uncertainty. Communicating that to workers struggling in the cost-of-living crisis could go a long way to starting to plug the gaps.
Next, read our article exploring why green jobs are struggling with the gender gap in the race to net zero