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What are the green skills of the future?

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The UK education system must maintain pace with the rapidly changing job market to achieve net zero.

Recent studies suggest that an economic transformation is needed for the UK to achieve its goal of net zero by 2050. Thousands of new workers will be needed in various industries, many of which will be entirely new roles. According to the latest net-zero workforce report by EngineeringUK, the energy industry requires 400,000 positions by 2050, such as grid infrastructure, wind and solar power. In the buildings industry, retrofitting will need 70,000 heat pump installers by 2035 and the electric vehicles industry will create 50,000 new jobs by 2040.

Isabel Divanna, the director of business development and partnerships at EngineeringUK, explains that energy, transport and the built environment represent the focus of decarbonisation plans the entire economy must contribute toward the green transition. Divanna emphasises that all skills will need to transform into green skills in the future.

Technical positions will play a significant part in this transition, with EngineeringUK predicting that 124,000 engineers and technicians are required annually to meet decarbonisation plans. Supporting careers will also be critical, as highlighted by Jim Coleman, the head of economics and engineering consultancy WSP. Coleman explains that positions such as environmental and land use planners represent a vital skillset that the UK lacks. We will also require other professionals, such as green finance experts, ecologists and data scientists.

New research by WSP suggests that filling these new jobs will be challenging. The survey delivered by WSP with market research business Savanta ComRes discovered that many young people aren’t encouraged towards careers in sectors considered vital to net zero. Professionals from other industries will also be valuable for this intended transition. Employees from sectors that are due to be phased out, such as oil and gas, offer substantial expertise for the onshore and offshore wind industries, carbon capture and storage sectors. Divanna explains that she wants to ensure the economy isn’t damaged or that a large proportion of the workforce becomes unemployed. Divanna highlights that the only net transition supported is a just transition. 

The UK has made progress with its green transition plans, reducing carbon emissions by 38% since 1990 and renewable energy sources making up 40% of the UK energy supply. Despite the positive changes, more work must happen to enable workers to transition. This shift requires the government to pay more attention to retraining and reskilling people. Coleman explains that we are good at training young people but not as effective at reshaping people already in the workplace. Technical education and apprenticeships are just as important as university degrees and will cover a broader range of people nationwide.

EngineeringUK has reiterated this call for the government to focus on technical qualifications and apprenticeship opportunities for people from under-represented backgrounds. The group is also calling for £40 million to be invested every year into STEM careers advice in secondary schools and for the government to improve STEM teaching standards. 

Divanna believes STEM teacher recruitment and retention are very poor across the country. School education should encourage people to be part of the solution to net zero rather than focusing predominantly on its causes. Local recruitment could support regional economic prosperity. A localised approach is critical to support different areas tackle their challenges.

A localised recruitment drive is vital as our energy system shifts from a centralised grid powered by fossil fuels to multiple sites. Industry hubs are emerging based on specific geographic capabilities, such as offshore wind facilities in coastal regions. These hubs, which connect industry, universities and training institutions, will support education and employment for local communities. 

Jane Cooper, director of offshore wind at RenewableUK, explains that we are shifting from a centralised to a decentralised system, and an offshore wind system will be vital to regenerate areas where the industry has declined.

While some skills will be localised, other skillsets will be needed nationwide, and as Coleman highlights, decarbonisation will have to happen everywhere. No local authority will be capable of reaching its net-zero target independently. They will all need to be part of a broader system. Collaboration between other sectors and regions will be critical and green skills shouldn’t be viewed as a competitive landscape but as an opportunity to partner and work together.

The UK net-zero target of 2050 means more jobs are coming to the UK, but ensuring people are ready to fill these roles will require further efforts to increase workforce skills. We must accelerate our focus on STEM careers and train more people to support this transition to net zero. The jobs will come, but we must create the necessary skills to facilitate the future.

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