Will a shortage of green skills scupper the UK’s net-zero plans?

Achieving carbon neutrality is likely to remain a pipe dream unless the government and the private sector make urgent, substantial and well-targeted investments in training
Man in hard hat standing by a windmill

Green deals around the world will remain stuck on amber as long as nations lack the skills to deliver a low-carbon economy. There simply aren’t enough scientists, engineers, ESG experts and change-management specialists to go round. If ministers and business leaders don’t address the skills gap with retraining today, key national climate targets will not be met tomorrow.

The numbers are stark. According to an estimate by the International Energy Agency in June, 14 million jobs (including 117,000 in the UK) will have to be filled before the end of this decade merely to service the world’s growing green energy infrastructure. Across the UK economy, 6.3 million jobs could be affected by the national push for carbon neutrality, requiring their holders to acquire new skills. The government convened the Green Jobs Taskforce late last year to consider whether the country’s zero-carbon ambitions are achievable, given the scale of the training task. 

Esin Serin is a policy analyst at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, a unit of the London School of Economics. She observes that “matching the speed of the workforce transition with the urgency of investments in technology and infrastructure is a huge challenge”.

The UK’s biggest skills shortages are in science, technology, engineering and maths – and there simply aren’t enough STEM graduates in the pipeline. They are badly needed in sectors such as energy generation and car manufacturing. But other skills and industries are coming to the fore too, as many more sectors seek to decarbonise. 

Nick Molho is executive director at the Aldersgate Group, a multi-stakeholder alliance aiming to achieve an environmentally sustainable economy. He notes that “transitioning businesses are increasingly seeking candidates with soft skills in areas such as project management and communication. These are critical, as many solutions to reduce emissions require different sectors to collaborate on complex initiatives. For instance, waste-management company Suez and cement producer Cemex have developed a new low-carbon fuel, which is derived from the household and business waste that Suez collects. Cemex is using it to replace fossil fuels in its production plants.” 

There are calls among environmental experts and policy advisers for a comprehensive low-carbon skills strategy to match the ambitions of government and industry. At present, the focus is on the number of new green jobs that will be created. But these will not be filled unless society can adapt, reskill and support these roles. There is also a need to draw on a diverse pool of candidates from different backgrounds. 

“The HGV driver crunch we’re facing in the wake of the Covid crisis and Brexit will be just a preview of what’s to come if we don’t substantially increase support for training programmes,” warns Andrew Sudmant, a research fellow in the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the University of Leeds. “To shift all of the UK’s homes to more sustainable heating systems by 2050, for instance, we’d need to retrofit one home every 25 seconds. We definitely need to boost the number of workers with specific skill sets.”

The HGV driver crunch we’re facing in the wake of the Covid crisis and Brexit will be just a preview of what’s to come if we don’t substantially increase support for training

Many large businesses in the UK and beyond that are committed to net-zero goals have been creating online knowledge hubs and other educational tools, as well as embedding sustainability principles into their operations. This is happening in industries ranging from financial services to food and beverages. But there is no doubt that significant investments are needed if the needle on the skills dial is to be shifted at any kind of speed. 

“Upskilling more than 2,400 of our farmer-owners and 3,000 colleagues across the country is difficult for us, especially given the pace of development in sustainability,” admits Ash Amirahmadi, MD of Arla Foods UK. “The most important thing for us to acknowledge is that our company doesn’t have all the answers – although I don’t think anyone does.”

He continues: “We’re acutely aware that each pound we spend as a company reduces the amount of money returned to the farmers who own it. It’s a similar situation for many business leaders at the moment: the longer-term pay-off versus the short-term need. Sustainability has heightened the need for that balance. This requires a change in mindset from colleagues – one that we’re working through together.”

The government’s so-called levelling-up agenda could at least help to equip workers in certain regions for a future beyond carbon-intensive industries. The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment has found that some of the nation’s most deprived areas have a high proportion of jobs that will be affected by the transition to a low-carbon economy. Sectors and locations in which jobs are particularly at risk are also where skills are in demand. This could be an opportunity in disguise, according to Molho.

“The decarbonisation of some of the UK’s heavy industrial sites could lead to the creation of competitive low-carbon industrial hubs in areas such as south Wales, Teesside and Merseyside,” he predicts. “We’ve already seen the offshore wind industry creating jobs in different parts of northern England, for instance. About one-third of engineers in this sector have come from the North Sea oil and gas industry.”

One thing’s for sure: doing little the close the skills gap certainly isn’t an option for the government. If a significant number of workers, especially in marginal constituencies, were to suddenly find themselves unemployable, that would not make them happy voters.