Mat Ilic is co-founder and chief executive of climate ed-tech firm Greenworkx, and a former special adviser at No 10 Downing Street
The question of how to deliver a fair and equitable transition to net zero has been under the microscope in recent weeks following the UK government’s climate-policy U-turns.
“If firms cannot recruit the skilled employees they need at wages they can afford, their work will inevitably slow – bad news for our climate goals”
It is entirely right that policymakers should consider the social and economic implications of their sustainability policies and the speed at which they’re implemented. What’s not as readily acknowledged, however, is that the UK faces an almighty green-skills bottleneck that could put the brakes on net-zero progress more dramatically than any government about-turns.
An estimated 2 million frontline green workers will be needed in the UK by 2030, regardless of the recent policy changes. Currently, this workforce doesn’t exist. And it is the construction sector that will be one of the most negatively affected should this problem be left unaddressed.
Sustainable infrastructure will exacerbate skill shortages
Many of the green jobs we need in the UK – and indeed worldwide – are skilled manual roles: people who can install electric-vehicle charge points, heat pumps and solar panels; energy assessors, engineers and retrofitters. The gap between the demand for and supply of these skills widens with every new infrastructure and building project conceived.
The major political parties will likely go into the next general election with ambitious commitments around homebuilding and transport infrastructure. For example, Labour has already outlined its plans to insulate 19 million homes and build one-and-a-half-million new ones, all of which will be held to higher energy-efficiency standards.
All of this presents a stark challenge to the construction industry, where firms are already struggling to fulfil their order books due to inflation and supply issues, and over half of existing vacancies are down to skill shortages. If the construction firms responsible for major nationwide building and infrastructure projects cannot recruit the skilled employees they need at wages they can afford, their work will inevitably slow – bad news for our climate goals and terrible news for the economy.
Seizing the agenda
With little progress currently being made by policymakers to address the issue, the construction firms poised to succeed in this environment will be those that take matters into their own hands.
Tackling this problem at pace requires lateral thinking, awareness-building and radical pragmatism. Firstly, firms need to broaden the reach of their recruitment efforts so that their green roles are visible and understood by those with the requisite skills or the desire to obtain them. Green jobs aren’t just applicable to existing construction workers; they represent a viable career path for other skilled tradespeople, young people searching for a vocation, or anyone in low-income or precarious employment. Likewise, one path to success could be targeting more women or candidates from diverse backgrounds – both areas where the construction industry has struggled historically.
However, these audiences have little-to-no awareness of the roles that could be open to them – a situation that cannot change unless firms break with ‘just in time’ hiring practices, and implement more thoughtful and inclusive approaches to workforce recruitment.
Secondly, construction firms must explore every possible pathway for upskilling existing team members and training new recruits. Investment in in-house training, external courses or apprenticeships all play a role in this, but it’s also vital to acknowledge that the current traditional training routes are too rigid to deliver at the speed and scale required.
Businesses, government, and the education and training sector will need to work together to devise an approach that maximises the potential talent pool for upskilling opportunities. We need to recognise the different circumstances of candidates who may be interested in these types of role, and adapt; for example, how do you fit in learning new skills around their existing commitments, and what long-term skills will they need to develop beyond initial training?
Technology could be a key part of the solution, allowing us to scale skills training effectively and provide quality, accessible education to those entering the net-zero workforce or looking to transition from other sectors.
As green construction methods and technologies continue to advance, firms that widen the recruitment net while investing in ongoing upskilling will reap the benefits of a loyal, retained and productive workforce – crucial in an industry where the workforce is currently disproportionately older, and where the pool is shrinking.
The nature of construction is changing and the industry must change its approach, both to address the future jobs market and to drive Britain forward.