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Reskilling will help support green industries recovery, minister says

The UK government has promised a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, with workers reskilling and pivoting into industries such as nuclear, hydrogen, and wind power. This could present great opportunities for those watching their sector “languishing”, the employment minister Mims Davies told E&T.

The ‘green industrial revolution’ promised by Boris Johnson hinges on engineering and technology expertise. The government’s 10-point plan for the next decade, for example, includes advancing nuclear power technologies, scaling-up hydrogen production, developing zero-emission planes and ships, and stimulating work on carbon capture among its aims.

The plan has been framed as a means of stimulating jobs recovery in an economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, while transitioning to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The government claimed that the plan will mobilise £12bn in investment (including £4bn in newly announced investment) in order to create and support up to 25,000 high-skilled jobs in green industries. Speaking to E&T, Davies did not comment on whether any of the new investment would be put towards reskilling and training workers for “green collar” jobs.

However, Davies emphasised existing Department of Work and Pensions programmes which could support entry to these industries: for instance, the sector-based work academy programme helps people apply their existing skills to other sectors, and the Kickstart Scheme supports young people on universal credit in gaining work experience through partnerships with industry.

These programmes can assist people from almost any industry pivot into industries at the heart of the green recovery, she said.

“The [green] sector has so many different areas, from car manufacturing to hydrogen and nuclear. There’s so much opportunity,” Davies said. “For young people – anybody who may see that their sector may be languishing – there’s a great opportunity. Coming into that sector or reskilling in that sector can be so good, not just for their own career, but for the recovery and to get through this pandemic.”

The government has put a particularly strong emphasis on building green industries in the UK’s former manufacturing heartlands, where Tory support surged during the 2019 election. For instance, the West Midlands and North East of England are among the regions bidding to host the UK’s first 'Gigafactory' for electric car batteries. This will support the phase out of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

“The Prime Minister is really focused on some of the previously industrialised areas to make sure that we’re supporting those areas and those sectors,” said Davies. “For example, where we’ve got strong manufacturing bases in the Midlands and the North East it absolutely stands to reason we are boosting investment there around EVs, such that where there is change in sectors we are also bringing in opportunities.”

In October, the government announced its 'Lifetime Skills Guarantee' to give adults without A-levels or equivalent qualifications the chance to take free, flexible college courses, backed by the £2.5bn National Skills Fund. The initiative will focus on boosting technical skills, including those valued in the IT, construction, and engineering industries.

In spite of the unprecedented measures put in place to protect jobs through the pandemic, redundancies are rising at record rates, and some industries have been worse affected than others. While announcing the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, Johnson gave the example of a retail worker reskilling to work in space tech or renewable energy.

It remains to be seen whether the offer of free courses will help significant numbers of people move into high-skilled jobs in new sectors, and whether there is appetite among workers to turn their backs on sectors devastated by the virus. The furious public response to a 2019 government advert which suggested that a ballerina could reskill to work in cyber security – which resurfaced at a nadir for the performing arts industry – would suggest that many would prefer for their industries to be protected from the impacts of Covid-19 than to switch to industries considered more viable.

Regardless, making a success of the “green industrial revolution” will inevitably depend on expanding expertise in areas such as engineering and technology. Davies is well aware of the need to train more engineers to lead development of the small nuclear reactors and zero-emissions aircraft Johnson has promised.

“There’s some structural gaps in our labour market, which, coming into the pandemic, were starting to show,” she said. “My job as employment minister is to make sure that these structural gaps, whether it’s engineering or digital or green jobs or the care sector or agriculture, we make sure that we plug our labour market gaps, and that we help people to pivot across into these new sectors.”

Plugging the skills gap in the long-term will involve convincing more young people that engineering can be a rewarding career, Davies said. She cites the department’s Youth Hubs – which connect young people to local labour markets – as a good way of engaging young people with the engineering community.  

“If you can’t see it and you don’t know what that [engineering] sector can mean to you, then how do you get into it and how do you understand it?” she said. “I think it’s really important – whether it’s [through] Kickstart or all these announcements the Prime Minister has made – to really understand that there’s a fantastic career [in engineering].”

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