If the UK is to achieve its goal of reaching net zero by 2050 an economic revolution is needed. Hundreds of thousands of workers will be required across multiple industries, many in entirely new roles.
According to the non-profit organisation EngineeringUK’s latest net-zero workforce report the energy sector alone will need to fill 400,000 roles by 2050, across areas such as grid infrastructure, wind power and solar power. In the buildings sector, retrofitting will require 70,000 heat pump installers by 2035 while electric vehicles will generate 50,000 new jobs by 2040.
While energy, transport and the built environment are the main areas of decarbonisation, the entire economy will need to take part in the green transition, says Isabel DiVanna, director of business development and partnerships at EngineeringUK. “All skills will need to be green skills,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re an engineer, a teacher or a bricklayer.”
Technical roles will play a big part in this. EngineeringUK estimates that 124,000 engineers and technicians are now required every year to meet current and future demands to decarbonise. But complementary careers will also be vital, explains Jim Coleman, head of economics at the leading engineering professional services consultancy WSP, such as environmental and land use planners, a “hugely important skillset” that the UK is currently lacking. We will also need structural investigators, project managers, economic experts in green finance, ecologists, data scientists and more.
New research published by WSP alongside the market research company Savanta ComRes suggests that filling these jobs with new workforce entrants could be difficult. The survey of nearly 4,000 16- to 23-year-old UK students found that they were not being drawn to careers in sectors crucial to net zero. Only 7 per cent said that they were considering a career in utilities, despite 24 per cent saying they thought it was the most important sector in reaching the UK’s emissions targets.
Existing workers in adjacent industries will also be extremely valuable. For example, employees from industries that will be phased out, such as oil and gas and petrol car factories, will bring relevant expertise to offshore and onshore wind, carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS), and building retrofitting.
“We don’t want to see the economy fall over, or a large percentage of the workforce become unemployed,” says DiVanna. “The only net-zero transition we support is a just transition.”
The UK has already made some headway in its green transition. It has cut its carbon emissions by 38 per cent since 1990, faster than any other major developed country, while renewable sources like wind and solar now make up 40 per cent of the UK’s energy supply. The government has invested £30bn over the last 18 months in supporting the “green industrial revolution”.
But more needs to be done to ensure existing workers can transition, says Coleman. The government needs to put greater emphasis on retraining to avoid people falling out of the labour market, which occurred during the deindustrialisation period of the 1980s, severely impacting already disadvantaged communities.
“We’re quite good at training young people, but we’re not as good at reshaping people who are already in the labour market,” says Coleman. “I don’t think there’s enough thought going into this, particularly for people with complex needs or who are located in certain parts of the country.”
He says there should be a focus on technical education and apprenticeships, rather than solely university degrees. “Further education is the part of the education sector that is much more likely to absorb a wide, diverse range of people,” says Coleman. “It’s also the part that gets completely neglected by government, in terms of policy and funding.”
EngineeringUK has echoed this call and wants the government to focus on qualifications such as T-levels and apprenticeship opportunities for those from under-represented backgrounds. It also wants £40m to be invested annually into science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) careers advice in secondary schools, and for government to improve Stem teaching standards by incentivising experts to become teachers and providing regular training.
“Stem teacher recruitment and retention is absolutely dire at present across the UK, [meaning] not all students are being taught by subject specialists,” says DiVanna. School education should focus more on helping students be part of the solution to net zero, rather than solely looking at its causes, she adds, including proactive signposting to local work experience opportunities.
Recruiting locally can help to boost a region’s economic prosperity. A devolved, localised approach is crucial to helping different areas to tackle their specific challenges, says Coleman. For example, WSP works with local authorities such as the West Midlands Combined Authority to devise bespoke net-zero strategies, looking at jobs and skills gaps.
As our energy network moves away from a centralised grid powered by fossil fuels to multiple sites of energy generation, a localised recruitment drive will follow. Hubs are being developed across the country based on geographic capabilities – for example, offshore wind clusters in coastal areas such as Humberside and the Scottish Highlands. These hubs, which link up industry, universities and training facilities, will help to boost education and employment opportunities for local people.
“We’re going from a centralised to a decentralised system,” says Jane Cooper, director of offshore wind at the trade body RenewableUK. “Offshore wind clusters in particular will help to regenerate areas where industry has been decimated.”
While some specialist skills might be localised, others will be needed across the whole country, such as heat pump engineers. “Decarbonisation has to happen everywhere,” says Coleman. “Every transport system must decarbonise, and almost every house must be retrofitted.”
Specialisms in one part of the country could also be used to service another area. For instance, London has a goal to install 2.2 million heat pumps by 2030 while Yorkshire is progressing in heat pump production. “Maybe we could use London’s demand for heat pumps to stimulate a specialised cluster in West Yorkshire,” says Coleman. “No local authority can achieve its net-zero target on its own – they all need to be part of a system.”
Cooper agrees that cooperation between sectors and regions will be crucial. “Green skills are not a competition,” she says. “This is an area where we should be working collaboratively.”
The transferability of these skills also means that workers’ training could be useful across multiple infrastructure projects. “There’s no reason why someone couldn’t do an apprenticeship in nuclear then move to a job at an offshore wind farm later,” says DiVanna.
The UK’s net-zero target of 2050 means that jobs are essentially guaranteed, but to ensure there are people available to fill those roles the government needs to concentrate on raising the skills of the workforce. Cooper is calling for a national campaign to promote Stem careers and change perceptions. “People don’t understand what can be done with these subjects,” she says. “This is not necessarily ‘dirty’ engineering – this is problem solving.”
And with prospective graduates of 2030 currently taking their GCSEs, this recruitment drive is urgent. “We’re not training enough people to be able to do this transition to net zero,” says Cooper. “The jobs will be there – what we need is the skills.”