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UK workforce needs reskilling for net-zero transition

Green Jobs Taskforce report looks at how the UK’s workforce can be skilled up to support the transition to net zero

The UK’s workforce will need to develop a range of new “cross-cutting” skills to manage the proliferation of green technologies during the country’s planned transition to net zero, says a report by the government-backed Green Jobs Taskforce.

Convened in November 2020 by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Education, the Taskforce’s overarching aim is to help the government develop an action plan to support its commitment to creating two million good-quality green jobs by 2030.

Published on 14 July 2021, the Taskforce’s 83-page report looks at how the government can support workers in reskilling and upskilling during the transition to a low-carbon economy, and claims that “every job has the potential to become green”.

From its analysis of the potential of green jobs – which it defines as “employment in an activity that directly contributes to, or indirectly supports, the achievement of the UK’s net-zero emissions target and other environmental goals, such as nature restoration and mitigation against climate risks” – the Taskforce said that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills in particular will underpin many of the jobs needed for the transition.

“For example, scientists will be needed to innovate the technologies for the net-zero transition as described in the government’s energy whitepaper on powering our net-zero future as well as provide vital research on climate adaptation,” the report said.

“Equally, engineers will be needed to utilise systems thinking to approach the complex challenges of decarbonisation, and will also have a crucial role to play in enhancing the resilience of infrastructure and buildings to climate change.”

With the introduction of more low-carbon technologies, the report said many workers will also need a diversity of skills. Giving the example of retrofitting houses from traditional natural gas heating to low-carbon alternatives – a key aspect of the energy transition – retrofitters will need to be able to work across, and optimise, multiple technologies, it said.

At present, boilers and insulation are installed independently, but in a net-zero world, multiple technologies would operate in a home, including solar panels, electric vehicle (EV) chargepoints, heat pumps, batteries, and smart systems to control these interacting technologies, it said. “This demonstrates the importance of the materials and skills supply chains working together.”

Beyond STEM and increasing skills diversity, the report also highlighted the need to improve digital and data skills throughout the workforce, which will similarly cut across many areas of the economy.

“Renewable electricity generation sources are intermittent and managing this will require storage and flexibility across local and national systems,” it said. “This will require better use of data and digitisation skills to enable smart grid infrastructure to deliver a reliable system. Other areas for digital skills include EVs, which require efficient digital control of batteries and motors to achieve the required range, and logistics, where consolidating deliveries and reducing the number of vehicles on the road maximises emission reductions.”

It added that the construction of energy infrastructure, especially in new technologies involving hydrogen and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), will also create demand for improved digital skills.

Other areas that will be critical for the workforce in delivering net zero include project management skills, education and change management skills, as well as general leadership and communication skills, the report said.

Read more about the transition to net zero

“The drive for net zero is not only essential for the future of the planet, it has the potential to usher in a new wave of good-quality, high-skilled jobs right across the country,” said Sue Ferns, Green Jobs Taskforce member and senior deputy general secretary of the Prospect union. “But this won’t happen without coordinated action from government, industry and trade unions.

“Together, we need to work to make sure we properly deploy the skills we have, develop those we need, and create green jobs in every nation and region – and this report sets out a plan to do it, starting with the creation of a new national body to help guide the important process of workforce transition so that no worker is left behind as we green our economy.”

However, the report also highlighted that many of the impacts of the transition to net zero will be unevenly distributed across regions of the UK, and will largely depend on the sectoral makeup of local employment.

For example, industrial clusters such as Merseyside and Humberside are likely to benefit from a concentration of employment opportunities in CCUS and low-carbon hydrogen, while the demand around EVs will probably benefit automotive manufacturing hubs such as the Midlands.

“Similarly, the impacts of the transition will be unevenly distributed across the country, with sectors most exposed to the transition being concentrated in specific regions, many of them already dealing with other socioeconomic challenges,” said the report. “Analysis shows that the percentage of jobs impacted could vary from 19% in London to 23% in the East Midlands.

“The highest concentration of construction, transport and manufacturing employment is in the East Midlands, West Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, and north-east Scotland is still significantly dependent on the oil and gas industry, with over 10% of workers in Aberdeen being directly employed by the sector. If poorly managed, the transition could have serious impacts on the broader local economy.”

To deal with the uneven nature of the transition, the report recommended that the government establish a UK-wide body with national representation to ensure momentum and coherence on workforce transition, including progress in delivery.

Other recommendations include: promoting the effective teaching of climate change and the knowledge and skills, particularly STEM, required for green jobs; ensuring every adult is continuously supported in accessing green careers advice and pathways; and building on ongoing work to create new employment pathways, such as through the use of traineeships, T-levels, internships and skills bootcamps.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, UK energy and climate change minister and co-chair of the Green Jobs Taskforce, said: “As we lead the world in tackling climate change, we need to invest in the UK’s most important asset – its workforce – so that our people have the right skills to deliver a green industrial revolution and thrive in the jobs it will create.

“We have welcomed the recommendations put forward by the Green Jobs Taskforce, which are a big step forward in delivering the skilled workers and green jobs essential for the UK’s transition to net zero.

“Its report, alongside our ambitious skills programmes, will be invaluable to us as we build a pathway into green careers for people from all backgrounds and ensuring that workers and communities dependent on the high-carbon economy are supported as we build back greener into a cleaner future.”

The Taskforce comprises 17 individuals from industry, trade unions and the skills sector, including: Rhian Kelly, UK corporate affairs director at National Grid Group; Yvonne Kelly, principal and CEO of the East London Institute of Technology; Russell Smith, managing director of RetrofitWorks; and Nick Molho, executive director of Aldersgate Group.

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