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Skills shortage could undo UK government’s net zero plans

The UK government has set out its plans for reaching net zero emissions. This target, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson says will be met by 2050, is a crucial test of whether countries can move to a carbon-free economy.

From replacing gas boilers with heat pumps to expanding power generation from offshore wind, the government can only meet its net zero target if it delivers infrastructure projects the scale of which the UK has not seen since the industrial revolution. While the government is promising extra funding for these projects, it’s failing to deliver on a critical ingredient for their success: workers.

Take the offshore wind sector. The government aims to generate 40 gigawatts of additional wind power by 2030. To achieve this, the industry is building large windfarms at Hornsea and Dogger Bank that will deliver power to over 12 million homes. These projects need a highly skilled workforce, including scientists, asset managers, project managers, engineers and technicians. The offshore wind sector alone needs 69,000 people to reach the 40 gigawatt target.

But a report I published uncovered widespread worker shortages which threaten to undermine net zero projects. This includes the government’s own admission that the UK is short of at least 20,000 engineers. A 2019 report estimated that shortfall is likely to be much bigger: between 37,000 and 59,000. These shortages pre-date Brexit, but are likely to have been exacerbated by limits on EU workers.

In the 2021 budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced £1.6 billion (US$2.2 billion) to roll out new T-levels for 16 to 19-year-olds. These are new and very demanding courses which are supposed to be equivalent to three A-levels and include at least 45 days of work placement. This might sound like a promising partial remedy to the skills shortage. But my experience suggests it will be an enormous challenge for most companies to take large volumes of students and find them useful projects to work on over such long periods of time.

The net zero workforce

Why are sectors like offshore wind, which are expected to grow in coming years, struggling to attract and retain workers? A lack of long-term job security, a failure to attract workers from diverse communities to work in more remote coastal areas (where many offshore projects are based) and a lack of investment in lifelong skills training. The government, working with the private sector, higher education institutions and colleges, must overcome these problems if the UK is to meet its net zero ambition.

Governments need to help sectors like offshore wind plan for the long term. This means securing projects which are intended to last several decades, allowing young people to begin a career in the industry, safe in the knowledge there will be work beyond the next few years. More detailed long-term plans would help the sector recruit more effectively. At the moment, offshore wind projects have too little time between planning and construction, often giving just a few months for workers to be found.

In the UK’s political culture, it feels as if politicians pit urban communities against those in small towns. But the barriers preventing people in these places from entering science and engineering careers are similar. Both need more support with training and education to access opportunities building renewable energy and green infrastructure.

An engineer adjusts the large fan unit of an air-source heat pump.
Installing heat pumps in buildings will require skilled workers in every community. RossHelen/Shutterstock

What underpins all these challenges is a failure to think about the people and skills needed to reach net zero. For instance, in 2019, the government gave offshore wind companies a funding deal which obliged them to ensure 2.5% of the workforce is apprentices by 2030, and to raise the proportion of women working in the sector from 18% to 33%, and from 5% to 9% for Black and minority ethnic workers. This puts offshore wind in competition with other parts of the energy sector, which are also trying to attract talented people. The government must support the whole energy sector to get the skilled workforce needed for a green infrastructure programme.

Aside from T-levels, the government recently introduced a raft of new skills programmes targeted at young people. But they’re unlikely to increase social mobility or end long-term unemployment due to the speed at which they’ve been introduced into an education sector under pressure to recover from the pandemic. Currently, teachers and instructors have to use their own time and resources to secure placements and guarantees of work for students in industries that are also still reeling from the economic effects of COVID-19. The government, industries and education sector need to provide training programmes linked to career paths and supported by simplified funding structures.

The UN climate summit in Glasgow has been talked about as the last chance to save the planet by agreeing a fair transition from the fossil fuel era. A skilled workforce will be integral to pulling this off. Without it, failure to meet net zero seems inevitable, and so does a missed opportunity to transform the lives of communities around the UK.

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