Net zero cannot happen without know-how. We have a green skills emergency.
Existing workers who in some cases are already losing their jobs due to COVID-19 or the chronic instability in the oil and gas sector can be brought over to new industries like wind, low-carbon hydrogen and energy efficient homes. Meanwhile, young people want work which is good for them and the environment.
The pandemic forced the country, indeed the world, to slow down. This has allowed an opportunity for a clear-eyed look at green skills for the future recovery. Using colleges, apprenticeships, schools and drawing on the Prime Minister’s commitment to improving further education skills is not only desperately necessary – it is obvious.
Other essays in this collection reflect upon the wider global economic trends we are now witnessing take hold in favour of sustainability. For our own domestic transition to be successful though, we must overcome the green skills challenge.
There is a huge skills gap in the UK for net zero industries. For example, only 5% of mechanics know how to fix an electric vehicle. In 2019, there were only 3,500 workers who could install energy efficiency measures. We need to increase the workforce to 50,000 by 2030 and we have not really started. It is estimated that we need an extra 20,000 engineering graduates per year.
I meet vocational further education (FE) students all the time who want to start businesses that are actively fixing environmental issues now and for the future. Yet they often do not know where to start. Traditional careers seem safer.
Separately, there’s a challenge to reskill those who work in existing industries which will be affected by the transition. Fossil fuel production in the North Sea creates very skilled, well paid workers who are sorely needed to make a success of the transition. Yet they will require support to jump into their next jobs.
We have no time to lose. Job losses in the UK oil and gas sector have a negative impact on the local economies of North Sea oil and gas hubs, especially Aberdeen, which is home to over 80% of direct oil and gas jobs in Great Britain. COVID-19 and the oil price rout in 2020 saw 4,500 job losses. One trade union boss has predicted another 8,000-12,000 further cuts. All this came after the 2014-2016 oil price crash, from which many supply-chain companies had only just recovered.
While most of the North Sea oil and gas jobs are in Aberdeenshire, the supply chains spread across the UK. The loss of jobs, without a ‘skills bridge’ to help those affected find new employment, have second order effects. The impact is felt in Aberdeen, the North East and East of England, but also across the rest of the country. North Sea oil and gas is not just about those on the rigs. It is also about people who bring it ashore by working on the pipelines, and those in the Midlands, for example, who drive it to its destination in tankers. A lack of planning to avoid cliff edges means we will risk jeopardising our levelling up agenda. The creation of skills academies, like those introduced in 1998 for upskilling workers to meet planned expansion in exploration activities in the UK Continental Shelf, is just one method to provide those bridges.
It is worth noting, however, that a great deal of fossil fuel workers would be happy to make the move already. This is perhaps because of the instability of fossil fuel production, the rapid rise of renewable energy, or even the desire to not have to work away from home for weeks at a time. Others may wish to work in a sector which benefits future generations more. In a 2020 survey, four in five oil and gas workers said they would consider moving out of their current role and into another part of the energy sector.
Closer to home, our houses account for approximately 20% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. The desire to learn and earn from addressing this issue is vast. Having spoken to many Green Homes Grant customers and suppliers, I know the demand is also there. Training programmes are popping up - but not quickly enough following the decision to scrap the Green Homes Grant. We are now waiting on a successor scheme in the Spending Review to understand how millions of homes each year will receive the attention they need and within that, how can we ensure there are enough skilled people to meet the demand.
One of the key concerns for workers is whether jobs in the low-carbon economy will match the pay in the oil and gas sector, or even of plumbers, mechanics, and engineers. It is tough to take a leap into the unknown, particularly when you want to get on the housing ladder, feed your family and plot career progress.
Fortunately, research from the Institute for Public Policy Research has found that high and mid-level skills in low-carbon sectors will have similar levels of pay as those in oil and gas production. Within the context of the Prime Minister’s 10 Point Plan for a green industrial revolution and the huge amount of investment in renewables, there is hope. Renewable energy and clean industries are where the future lies, just as gas overtook coal before.
There is a myriad of opportunities for these workers, either to directly transfer with their current skill set or retrain. Wind power may first spring to mind due to the UK’s 40GW by 2030 target, the majority of which will be met in the North Sea.
A recent survey of oil and gas workers by Greenpeace found offshore wind was the most popular sector that oil and gas workers said they would be interested in moving into, with the right education and training. The skills required are mostly mechanical, electrical, and technical, but there’ll also be a need for those with knowledge in marine biology, geophysics, hydrography and oceanography. Prevalent oil and gas companies which operate in the North Sea are particularly interested in floating offshore wind (FLOW): they were beaten to the post in fixed offshore wind by Ørsted and Siemens, but FLOW is a new sector with lots of promise for those who invest now.
Blue and green hydrogen will also provide new careers. The 10 Point Plan predicts support for up to 8,000 jobs in this sector by 2030, potentially unlocking up to 100,000 jobs by 2050 in a high hydrogen net zero scenario. As an industrial sector, hydrogen would also require engineers, mechanics, electricians, builders, and planners. It is worth noting that 52% of Conservative seats are likely to require hydrogen to decarbonise their industrial base. As much of the infrastructure currently used by the gas industry will be applicable to hydrogen, it would be one of the easier sectors to transfer gas workers to.
In Gloucestershire we are putting forward a superb South West backed bid to create the world’s first Fusion Power plant. This would enable us to hold the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP), a next generation tokamak fusion reactor. Putting to one side the world leading stuff, this project would create 1000 skilled apprentices and draw on skills from across the country to break ground in 2030 and produce fusion in 2040.
However, the above is a step beyond what many already apply themselves to. Perhaps the easiest transition for many would be in carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), decommissioning, and subsea network projects. The CCUS industry, which will be tied to the hydrogen sector and a potentially valuable exporter to countries seeking to sequester their captured carbon from industry, will undoubtedly benefit from the existing oil and gas expertise in geology, drilling, monitoring, and offshore infrastructure construction. Research from the thinktank Onward found that as many as 80,000 jobs could be directly supported by CCUS by 2050. It’s an industry we can specialise in, but we’ll need the workers for it.
Meanwhile, moving forward with decommissioning of wells and deploying the existing engineering base to offshore wind projects will help to sustain workers in a way that is compatible with net zero. Not only are the skills required for both highly and quickly transferable existing roles, for Scotland this is also a substantial export opportunity. The sector is regarded as having world-leading expertise due to the maturity of the North Sea basin.
As reflected upon earlier in this essay, we must address the huge skills gap - which cannot be overcome by retraining existing workers alone. We need to train the next generation to thrive in a net zero economy.
I have long championed FE colleges and I see them playing a key role in the green skills emergency. Already at the heart of communities, they understand what jobs and careers are available. They have relationships with local employers and Local Enterprise Partnerships. Youngsters and returners can invest their time doing courses that lead to something tangible.
Encouraging schools and colleges to specialise in net zero subjects such as maths and physics and develop skills plans to fit their regions’ needs would help develop a pipeline of talent. According to Onward’s, Getting to Zero report, over half of net zero occupations will require STEM skills. This could begin happening now, although it will be necessary to support this ambition by investing more resources in further education and continuing to promote apprenticeships to show that the effort is worthwhile. We sadly know that many parents love FE colleges– but – for other people’s children. This must change.
Thankfully, the government gets this. The last time there was a skills strategy, coal powered over 40% of our electricity but this Conservative Prime Minister wants a UK that is fighting fit and delivers at pace. He recognises that this means not obsessing about 50% of folk attending university and forgetting the rest. As a result, we have serious skills-focused legislation going through Parliament right now.
The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill significantly reforms FE and colleges, including statutory underpinning for local skills improvement plans, improved teacher training and brings employers further into the FE system. The Bill strengthens intervention powers for the Secretary of State for Education and provides a flexible loans system for true lifelong learning.
I am hoping that we will hear a lot about the lifelong loan guarantee. Aiming at encouraging more modular provision, on the job training and part-time study that suits reskilling and employers, learners will be given four years’ worth of loan funding. They will be able to transfer credits between FE and HE providers too. This would transform opportunities for millions of people.
These plans will help to reduce the skills gap and may also help with brain drain. We know that people have a heightened sense of place following the pandemic. If we can provide the skills an area needs now or in the future, they will not be forced to look elsewhere for employment.
My challenge to government, employers, FE colleges and schools is to make the green skills emergency really lead the skills and careers agenda. Government is already enacting policies aimed directly at environmental change: the North Sea Transition Deal, the Aberdeen City Deal, and skills policies like the Kickstart Scheme. Most encouragingly for net zero, the new Green Jobs Taskforce, which was commissioned by government, recently published its report aims to support 2 million green jobs by 2030, with recommendations. It is researching the skills needed to unlock the low-carbon employment opportunities of the future.
There is a long way to go though. The country needs people with net-zero know-how without delay. Those in the fossil fuel industry should be helped to redeploy their skills. Those seeking to skill and reskill in every constituency in this great country can play a part in tackling climate change.
Some will always shout that we are not going fast enough, far enough and the UK is a terrible place regardless of the environmental races we are leading. We must ignore the doomsters and get on with creating change. Equipping the current and next generation to lead fulfilling and prosperous careers which benefit their communities, the country and the world is something we can excel at and export.
The enforced pandemic pause is nearly over. The desire for a green recovery is here. Now is the time to tackle the green skills emergency.