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Is the UK's Workforce Without Critical Green Skills?

Right now, the UK’s commitment to that 2050 net-zero target – reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 100% of the 1990s levels – appears to be wavering, despite how legally binding the target is. Rishi Sunak’s government has delayed and backtracked on numerous policies and stances that make the target feasible. 

These policies, though, have always had a fuzzy element to them, like their reality hadn’t quite been banked on. While the UK has implemented and developed numerous, tangible measures to reach net zero – very visible ones like commercial solar installations, wind turbines, wooden buildings, cycling lanes, and slow fashion practices – other, quieter measures that don’t quite score the photos and headlines they should slip by, underfunded, underappreciated, underexplored. It’s these latter measures that generally form the foundation of the transition – the frameworks to make the transition final, sustainable in its own right, and successful.

Training the UK workforce’s green skills is one major, defining example.

What are ‘Green Skills’?

Green skills is a circulating term, as described by Deloitte, used to describe knowledge, behaviours, technical skills, and capabilities that contribute to tackling climate change problems and achieving net-zero goals. 

In our minds, we immediately jump to the energy sector: green skills = green energy. That’s true – there is a very direct importance to having green skills to leave fossil fuels behind and move to full renewable energy generation.

However, green skills will find their way into many, many industries. Namely because the climate mission isn’t limited to energy. There’s transport, IT, construction, farming, finance, logistics, tourism – to name but a few.

Green skills aren’t defined by a homogenous curriculum. They’ll be specific to the role and the industry. However, it’s the starting point that the UK government, businesses, schools, and universities are failing – the initial groundwork for the green skilled workforce.

The Employment Market

According to Raconteur, one-third of the jobs advertised in the UK during 2023 required at least one green skill. There’s a demand for a workforce who are already trained to step into roles. However, the same report says that only 12.5% of the British workforce have those skills. The demand rises; the supply must match.

But that’s where the disconnect is. 80% of 2030’s employed population are already working today. Already working today. This doesn’t include the school leavers to come, who are very interested in acquiring green skills and taking on green jobs. The younger generation is known for taking the ‘moral’ view that being employed by a green company, looking to help the planet achieve its survival targets and avoid climate collapse, is the right thing to do, the right way to work.

STEM learning and a general sense of environmental awareness are commonplace in classrooms up and down the country. Understandably, this translates to higher education, too, with colleges and universities supporting green education with specific courses or modules within courses. Exposure to environmental issues is all well and good for creating that ‘moral’ hook, inspiring a new generation to take responsibility for past oversights and failures. However, the idea of a ‘vocation’ – a job you love for its own sake, a job that you will persist with and unfailingly be happy to do despite working conditions being inadequate – is quickly fading for Gen Z. 

They are a generation that places more demands on employers to create favourable working conditions: an environment that reflects and enables the diversity of their generation, pay that reflects their expertise with plenty of opportunities for growth and promotion, and continuous access to training and support. 

These demands are all growing defaults in the employment market, but, also, defaults the employment market is stubborn to embrace and, ultimately, failing on. And it’s not just Gen Z that are being particular about the standards – or at least it shouldn’t be. In general, what’s holding back the green transition is the employment market itself. Being committed to the ethics of climate recovery won’t be enough to inspire a whole workforce to take on green jobs and develop green skills. The jobs have to be good.

Workforce Diversity

It’s no surprise to say that women and marginalised groups are underrepresented in the workforce. That’s especially true for STEM and jobs like electricians, plumbers, and other technical jobs. As we reiterate, a net-zero world has to be a just world – a world that’s fit for everyone, and that enables everyone. Part of that is creating environments for women and marginalised groups to not only be ready to take on jobs in these sectors – which begins with schools and universities making key subjects and courses more open and accessible – but also to feel safe and supported when they’re in these jobs. 

Men dominate the offshore wind and climate finance industries. For women starting jobs in these industries, the environment may be an intimidating place, even if they need only look out for ‘a few bad apples’.

The fact that women are often overrepresented in administrative and supporting roles contributes to the existing gender pay gap: they’re left in lower-paid jobs while technical jobs have a higher scope for salary increases and promotions. That needs to change, especially as the necessary influx of green-skilled green workers is upwards of 250,000 to make the 2050 net-zero target feasible. 

Reflective Pay

A fair wage is an ongoing issue for the whole employment market. 2023 was a year defined by public-sector strikes, bartering for better pay, better investment, and better working conditions. Wage growth in the private sector isn’t looking rosy, either, with it looking to drop to around 5% by the end of 2025.

Raconteur reported that the problem green jobs already have is that technical jobs don’t mean a higher wage. While the green jobs market shows signs of resilience in a job market that’s struggling – though, it should be noted, alarmingly, that green job adverts dropped in 2023 from the record levels set in 2022 – they aren’t immune the larger employment market. The fossil fuel industry pays its workers better than the green industry, currently. It’s one of the reasons some workers are resistant to the transition.

If green jobs fail to be worth their time and pay, if employees and prospective employees fail to see that their efforts are rewarded with good salaries, good bonuses, and good scope for increases to both, then the workforce will look elsewhere.

Continuous Access to Training

Upskilling training and adapting existing training programs to help the workforce transition to the green economy is one of the key areas for improvement from both the private sector and the government. Incentives, subsidies, and stricter standards are being asked for of the government by the private sector and the general political body to help the workforce and their employers accelerate the acquisition of skills and define what good practice looks like.

Businesses are inert or too slow to make the changes. The wider economic and employment market may be to blame. They’re concerned about their current standing and are unwilling to make investments and would be conservative. While many remain optimistic about the green transition for both its opportunities for innovation, job creation, and business growth, the macro factors play a role, and if the government is unwilling to instil that sense of confidence and strong framework.

Apprenticeships are a great option for school leavers looking to have those skills honed, developed, and expanded on in the field, on the job, but, again, the emphasis needs to be on those already in positions and need re-training or upskilling. They invested £200M in colleges and universities to offer courses for green skills in key industries. Again, there is little effort to support on-the-job training from the government to the private sector. Frequent changes to policies and targets have likely inhibited this.

On the Whole

The UK is behind many of its European peers for green skilling its workforce. This rings true in numerous other areas, too – like its efforts to introduce interim targets in 2040 to ensure they’re on the path to achieve net zero in 2050. The UK government’s interest and attention is on other matters, and when their agendas do meet the climate collapse, it’s mostly to hand out licences for gas and oil drilling in the North Sea, delay the ICE car ban, and tighten environmental standards on British farmers while importing low-cost food to undercut those British farmers.

The green transition is a complex beast. However, it goes without saying how necessary it is. Private businesses and the UK government have to put the workforce in the best place to make it possible.

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