Can the UK bridge its net-zero infrastructure skills chasm?

Transitioning to cleaner, greener operations has implications for all areas of infrastructure. Will dedicated upskilling and reskilling programmes help the UK’s engineering workforce keep pace?

The UK’s ambitious net-zero goals loom large over the infrastructure sector, affecting everything from design to delivery. They’ve also created a workforce skills crisis

That’s because modern infrastructure projects based on net-zero goals are very different to those of the past. They demand a different set of competencies, ranging from a basic knowledge of data analytics and computer programming through to advanced technology skills, such as AI and 3D modelling to design, build and maintain sustainable infrastructure. 

Apprenticeships and further education technical training routes are bringing some new talent into the engineering sector, but employers are also having to redouble their efforts to upskill their existing talent and to reskill workers brought in from other sectors – at scale, and quickly. 

For instance, the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) – which forecasts a need for an additional 25,000 workers for major projects by 2026 – is calling for more government support to enable the reskilling of oil and gas workers for jobs in other, related sectors. After all, that workforce should be cut loose by the transition away from fossil fuels.

Answering the transferability question

Upskilling and reskilling are key to achieving a just energy transition, ideally one that delivers quality jobs and career progression for those in the energy sector. BP, for example, is focused on providing opportunities for its workforce to apply their skills to new challenges in low-carbon technologies.

“We see high levels of skills transferability into lower-carbon tech,” says Kerry Dryburgh, BP’s executive vice-president, people and culture. “In a skills-constrained environment, more collective efforts are needed to help people move across sectors. This could mean more access to technical and vocational training, more flexibility in how that is funded, and more modular approaches to development, including top-up training, to help people bridge skills gaps.” 

To realise this goal, BP is now giving its employees access to a personalised learning portal and company-wide ’growth weeks’ focused on learning, alongside a range of other programmes designed to help technical staff acquire new skills for the future. 

In a skills-constrained environment, more collective efforts are needed to help people move across sectors

The business already has many examples of engineers and other specialists applying their skills to low-carbon projects to help the transition away from oil and gas. It recently ran recruitment campaigns for some of its fastest-growing clean energy segments, including offshore wind, electric vehicle charging and hydrogen. Applications from other parts of the business were highly competitive, with internal candidates securing 50% of roles in areas such as hydrogen.

“Getting this right not only helps create green jobs in the UK but also helps level up the country,” says Dryburgh. “It can ensure that those in social mobility ‘cold-spots’ can access opportunities in the sector, including in places like Teesside, where we operate.”

How to keep older workers on track

And it’s not just about energy. Major transportation projects such as Crossrail, HS2 and the Stonehenge Tunnel are also set to rely on a similar transition of engineering skills. 

For example, the rail industry has an ageing workforce, with more than 28% of the current workforce over 50 years old, according to research from City & Guilds and the National Skills Academy for Rail. This means the focus has so far been on securing the talent pipeline, with apprenticeships forming an essential route for young people to start a career in the sector. 

However, work is also ongoing to help existing workers embrace digitisation as a path to safer, more efficient and more sustainable working. Specialist engineering and technical recruitment firm Morson Group supports clients with this skills challenge through its training delivery arm, which has been heavily involved in HS2 and other major rail projects, often upskilling contractors in the use of technologies that didn’t exist when they began their careers. 

“HS2 is a game-changer because of the massive investment in tech, which is advancing at such a pace that how it will look over the lifecycle of the project is unknown,” says group training director Matthew Leavis. “We need to incentivise people to adopt new ways of working and become champions of tech.” 

Through its Pathfinder Academy, the company works with employers to retrain existing employees, those who have left the sector or retired, and people from more diverse talent pools, through digital engineering boot camps. By the end of April, the Morson training division will have trained 175 new entrants and upskilled 50 existing workers in the north west, with plans to roll out this model nationally. 

Morson also runs ‘train the trainer’ boot camps, upskilling those in training roles to help them overcome resistance to digitisation and to use tech such as VR and digital twins as part of the training methodology.

This upskilling component is likely to be particularly important, as it should help free up entry-level roles for people coming into the sector. What’s more, ongoing training opportunities should make transport more appealing for people at all stages of their careers. 

“Part of that is about training,” Leavis adds, “but it also relies on employee value propositions that highlight the positive impact the industry will have on greener and more efficient journeys, for example, along with the opportunities for a sustainable career with progression in terms of skills and salary.”

How to break down resistance to change

Among the biggest barriers to upskilling are a lack of time, funding and strategy. Employees could also resist change, often prompted by concerns over a return to training after what may have been a considerable number of years for some individuals. 

HS2 is a game-changer because of the massive investment in tech

All of these factors can derail upskilling initiatives, says Raconteur columnist Bernard Marr, a strategic adviser to business and government and author of Future Skills: The 20 skills and competencies everyone needs to succeed in a digital world.

“Overcoming these challenges requires a mindset shift to prioritise learning,” he says. “Best practices for organisations include providing flexible learning options, offering incentives and aligning upskilling with career advancement to encourage employees to take ownership of their development.”

Over at the National Grid, for example, the upskilling and reskilling strategy is a vital part of the organisation’s role in the UK’s transition to clean energy sources. Resistance to change among staff has not been a significant challenge, says Lee Wallace, director of safety, health and environment training and engineering policy, because the organisation has focused on encouraging staff to see change as an opportunity. To help this process, it has provided training programmes tailored to the skills gaps of workers who have been out of education for an extended period. 

The organisation also makes clear the distinction between ‘new’ skills and the upskilling and reskilling of current employees. “We are clear on that difference and ensure that our new training and refresh programmes address and include technology changes,” Wallace explains. “Separately, we undertake assurance and competency checks, including any refresher training of staff in existing roles.”

Why soft skills matter

Crucially, it’s not just technical skills that matter. “Individuals with strengths in communication, teamwork and emotional intelligence can take advantage of different career opportunities, such as working with clients,” says Marr. “And those who can adapt to new technologies and processes quickly, and be creative in their problem-solving, will be more prepared to match the changing demands of the industry. 

“Therefore, organisations that invest in upskilling and reskilling programmes that address both technical and soft skills will be better positioned to succeed in the high-tech engineering landscape.”