12 July 2021
by Andrea Gaini

Upskilling the workforce towards a green economy

As industries gear up towards a net-zero economy, Andrea Gaini reports on an event that explored the challenges and importance of upskilling the workforce.

© Daniel Balakov/Getty

‘Upskilling is an enormous job to do in a very short period of time. [But] if we get this right, that leads to tremendous economic growth and [the] delivery of two million green jobs by 2030,’ asserted David Symons, Future Ready Global Leader and UK Director at Williams Sales Partnership (WSP), chairing a recent Westminster Forum event on green skills development and job creation in the UK.

‘At the risk of vastly oversimplifying [the issue, a green recovery] is [also] a good strategy,’ added Eliot Whittington, Director of the Centre for Policy and Industrial Transformation at Corporate Leaders Group, UK.

‘Something we looked at [in the] last year, was comparing the value of different kinds of economic recovery efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic impact. And it's very clear, if you put up a fairly standard economic stimulus package designed to restore demand…and you compare that with spending the same amount of money…on a green recovery package – supporting home energy efficiency, accelerating the deployment of electric vehicles, rolling out tree planting, and other forms of green infrastructure – it gives you better, or as good, result in terms of GDP.

‘It also gives you much better results in…overall employment in terms of jobs created, and it delivers, of course, on the kind of green outcomes that we're looking at. It means that you'd have lower carbon emissions, and often cleaner air, cleaner water and a higher level of prosperity.’

Commenting at the event, Nick Molho, Executive Director at Aldersgate Group, UK, a cross-economy organisation which seeks to develop policy solutions to environmental challenges, noted that the economic evidence shows that those governments who pursued an environmentally sustainable, investment-led recovery strategy, following the 2008 financial crisis, were the most effective at getting their respective economies back into shape, stimulating growth and job creation.

He explained, ‘[Such] recovery strategies also tend to be activities that are more productive in the long run, which is exactly what you want, as you recover from a crisis. The Oxford Smith School published a report last year showing, for example, that for every $1 that you invest in a renewable energy project, you create twice the number of jobs in the near-term, relative to what would happen if you invested in a fossil fuel project.’

Signals to the market

One important aspect of developing 'green skills' is using policy to encourage companies to invest more in training for such skills.

‘The more we learn about this transition, the more we learn [that a] green strategy…is not a silver bullet. Is it all about nuclear? Or is it all about carbon capture and storage? Is it about renewables? Well, actually, all of those are useful, [but], increasingly, we're understanding that what we're looking [for] is systemic change,’ Whittington reflected.

He noted that, while designing policy approaches, the role of infrastructure and innovation will be essential in shifting the overall system and that ‘these transitions can gather momentum. When people used to think about climate action and green…economic strategies, they often thought about it in terms of costs…like [on] a shopping list [where] you buy the cheapest things first, and you kind of work your way up to this.

‘Whereas increasingly, what we've understood, is that there is the potential for these transitions…to accelerate. And…it's about inventing and deploying new ways of getting that systemic shift’, he said.

Molho added, ‘When we look at the recent failure of the Green Homes Grant…The problem was that we had a supply chain that was just not adequately skilled. And that, in itself, is a result of a lack of long-term policy drivers for many years now, which hasn't incentivised businesses and the supply chain to invest in skills, both in energy efficiency but also in low-carbon heat provision.

‘We need clear public policy signals to…attract private investment at the necessary scale or the necessary pace and at the lowest cost of finance possible.’

Steve Radley, Strategy and Policy Director at the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), UK, echoed this view. He noted that ‘[the construction] industry…is dominated by small firms that actually face a lot of barriers to training.’

He argued that collaborative action will be key with clear signals to make the training market ‘get itself in place to make sure that standards and qualifications react as required.

‘And I think one of the things that we feel we can make a big difference on, is actually working at that local level with local authorities and housing associations to come up with specific plans for particular areas’.

Radley mentioned that a first port of call in construction is investment to train retrofit coordinators, who have ‘that overview of the actions that we need to take in the 27 million homes and two million buildings that we need to retrofit’.

Training and retraining

Both Radley and Molho agreed that the balance between training the new workforce and retraining the current one will be crucial towards a net-zero future.

‘Our research showed [that] by 2028 we would need around 350,000 new construction workers…to deliver net-zero, some of the key areas being project managers, building envelope specialists and plumbers,’ Radley explained.

‘Just looking at the scale of the challenge for an industry that struggles to attract all the people that it needs, a lot of the focus initially has got to be about retraining and upskilling.

‘[This] creates a big opportunity to change the image of the industry and bring more people in over the medium-term, but we need to be taking action now.’

To this end, Molho added, ‘I think the important thing here is making sure that employers and employees are supported and able to take time out to take the right kind of reskilling courses, to allow them to adjust to the changing nature of their jobs, or to allow them to transition into different sectors.’

He discussed how the Green Jobs Task Force, of which he is a member, aims to ensure that the future workforce currently in education are equipped with the right skills to work in a low-carbon economy.

‘I think that's going to require a fairly important rethink of the overall curriculum, of the way in which teachers are trained, and the way in which education institutions are assessed,’ he said.

‘There's a big job to be done in terms of green careers promotion and promoting diversity within those careers and those topics. And Further Education institutions are going to need to be supported…to offer a more flexible array of courses that meet the need of that part of the workforce.’

A wider talent pool

Rhian Kelly, UK Director of Corporate Affairs at National Grid, warned, ‘Given the sheer number of jobs coming down the line, if we don't fill all these roles, we're going to miss our net-zero targets.

‘But we're going to have to fill those roles by attracting people into the…sector, people who perhaps haven't in the past considered a role within [our] sectors. And this is going to mean attracting a more diverse talent, from a more diverse talent pool from across the UK, especially women, those from ethnic minority groups and lower socio-economic backgrounds.’

Kelly urged, ‘I strongly think there's a role for business here. We can play a really important part in ensuring that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are presented with opportunities and skills they need for a career in STEM, should they wish to.’


Andrea Gaini