Plug the gap: retrain for net zero
Image credit: Getty Images
Workers at all levels need new skills for the green economy. Government and employers must act now to build a coherent strategy and invest in training.
There are just 29 years to net zero – a commitment enshrined in UK law. A steady drumbeat of disasters caused by extreme weather has highlighted the peril we are in, from deadly floods to blazing landscapes to rising seas.
Amid all the talk of urgency and an impending ‘green industrial revolution’, many people in the engineering and tech sectors are asking what they can do. From renewables to domestic heating to electrification, specialist knowledge will be in demand.
When thousands of engineers and technologists first trained, ‘green’ careers weren’t really an option. Even now as the clock is ticking, there’s been a dearth of guidance and training for professionals who want to leapfrog into the green economy and direct their skills to combat climate change.
There’s a pressing need for engineers and technologists in both new green technologies and also to clean up traditional dirty industries. “We don’t yet have a coherent strategy for skills for net zero,” says Thomas Gunter, education policy adviser at the Royal Academy of Engineering. Skills reforms in the pipeline will help change this, he says – a government-convened Green Jobs Taskforce published its report in July, which will inform an official net-zero strategy due later this year.
Opportunities lie in the UK’s strengths – in electric vehicles, offshore wind and emerging renewables, hydrogen technologies, carbon capture and more. Carbon-cutting renovations will require buildings to be retrofitted. And there will be roles to help decarbonise industrial giants such as aviation, agriculture, steel, manufacturing, and construction. Today, just the 12 most carbon-intensive industries make up 62 per cent of all UK carbon emissions and 21 per cent of current UK jobs, according to Onward Research.
Start searching for opportunities – or funding – to retrain and there’s currently a bewildering array of pricey postgraduate courses, and only the larger companies have the resources or clout to reskill employees in a structured way. And for a mid-career professional in a secure role, a change in direction can be a financial risk – much of the guidance targets those starting out in their careers.
While half of engineering employers say they have a sustainability strategy, according to the IET’s 2020 Skills for Net Zero survey, fewer than one in ten say they have all the skills they need to reach their goals. Six in ten say they’ll help train their employees and 38 per cent say they plan to hire new skills. “Engineering employers understand their responsibility to tackle climate change and are taking steps to improve sustainability,” the report says, but they’re held back by a series of challenges. Four in ten (41 per cent) of employers say time is the greatest barrier to engaging with education.
Pressure to cut costs is another blocker, while 57 per cent of employers say financial incentives for new greener technologies would encourage them to do more to lower their environmental impact. Long-term government support in these skills is essential, says the IET. “Industry must have the confidence to invest in infrastructure and skills in order to work on major projects.”
Part of the problem, says Gunter, is that there’s currently no national coordinated career structure for professionals working in science, technology and engineering. “That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities when you look for them, but we’d like to see a more strategic approach,” he says. “What’s lacking is a bigger picture – a kind of ‘this is how you do it’ advice,” he says – help to navigate different courses and to understand what kind of roles might be emerging.
The Green Jobs Taskforce recommended that education, business, and government work together to help create skilled roles for the road to net zero, with the ambition to support 250,000 highly skilled green UK jobs by 2030. These include some 60,000 jobs in offshore wind, 40,000 in zero-emission vehicles and 50,000 in decarbonising UK buildings. There’s a need for green careers advice and clear routes in to “good” green jobs, the taskforce reported.
For the entrepreneurially minded, now is a good time to get involved. Investment is forecast to flow towards companies that fight climate change rather than cause it, particularly after one of the world’s most influential economists, Mark Carney, flagged reaching net zero as “the greatest commercial opportunity of our time”.
There is also a rise in climate tech initiatives – this July saw the launch of an international non-profit accelerator to combat climate change. This is Subak – named after an ancient Indonesian irrigation system – which aims to harness the power of data to help cut carbon emissions. As a network, Subak unites individuals from technology, business, policy, and environment.
Founding member companies include Open Climate Fix, which helps use weather data better to predict how much solar electricity will be created each day, potentially cutting generation from fossil fuels. Transport research group New AutoMotive tracks how electric cars are used around the UK – data that can help local authorities plan charging stations and services to boost take-up.
Founders of Subak – whose first group of start-ups have already raised £8.5m in funding – include environmental pioneer Baroness Bryony Worthington, author of the Climate Change Act, and tech veterans and entrepreneurs. They hope some 500 members will join its international network in the next five years.
For Chris Ballard, who’s worked in data science and artificial intelligence (AI) for more than two decades, climate tech has become a natural home. “I’ve become increasingly concerned about the climate crisis and I’ve seen at first hand the impact of flooding in India and the UK. I decided this year was the right time to make a move.” He’s now chief technical officer at early stage start-up Climate Policy Radar, a Subak founding member.
Climate Policy Radar uses machine learning and AI to analyse climate policies around the world in a bid to support more informed decisions and investment. “It’s been exciting to see how much my data science and technical skills have been directly transferable,” he says. “I’ve a lot to learn about climate change and climate policy decisions, but the chance to develop is exciting.”
An optimist, he believes tech can help do things better and faster. “The obvious application of technology is to replace the systems we already have in place,” he says. “Such as building net-zero energy and transport systems, creating solutions to reduce the impacts of extreme weather events, and enhancing food production. But it can do more than that – it can help us make better decisions... we can now model worldwide emissions, track deforestation and understand which policy decisions work.” But these insights must then be communicated to people in power, he adds.
Professional groups and bodies are mulling how they can support members who want to make the leap. The government’s 2020 ‘Ten Point Plan For A Green Industrial Revolution’ gives a broad overview of jobs but doesn’t go far enough, say campaigners and industry groups. There’s a wider lack of awareness of career opportunities, says the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), and individual businesses need guarantees of longer-term support and strategies from government before committing.
Then, as industries make the transition, employees will need help to retrain. For some the switch will be relatively simple, with skills slotting neatly across sectors. “Moving across from construction to renewable energy was fairly easy as many of my skills were transferable,” recalls Tom Ransley who’s moved back to the UK from Austria. “It’s just the nuts and bolts that are different.” He now works at renewable energy firm SunGift Solar in Devon; having worked on trams in Vienna, he didn’t fancy a return to roadworks – “not a good fit for my principles... if it’s something you want enough and your ethics are aligned it’s easier to secure a job than by just having the right qualification. If you want to make the jump enough, you’ll make it happen.”
While the Royal Academy of Engineering is pushing for better training and investment in skills, the construction sector is working hard behind the scenes to identify the technical skills required for net zero, and plans to launch an energy transition leadership scheme later this year for the up and coming.
The ECITB (Engineering Construction Industry Training Board), which is part of the government’s Green Jobs Taskforce, has published a list of available training for individuals and companies in areas such as hydrogen, offshore and renewable energy, as well as energy transition leadership. Innovation champion Nesta calls for a series of clear jobs labels to help clarify which roles will be hit by the climate crisis, as well as funding to help individuals switch out of ‘brown’ jobs.
There are thousands of people working collaboratively to address world challenges including climate change at the moment, says Fran McIntyre, director of the Knowledge Transfer Network, which links individuals from business, industry and research to work on projects aiming to have a positive impact. Some of these include innovation in battery technology, applications for hydrogen, low-carbon jet fuel, electric vehicles and their infrastructure, and negative emissions technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere. And then there’s work to decarbonise traditional industry too, she says. “There are live projects to improve hubs where carbon emissions are high, such as industrial clusters, harbours and ports in developing countries.”
Of all potential sectors, energy offers some of the best opportunities to retrain and it’s where there will be plenty of vacancies, says Claire Scott, employment law legal director at Pinsent Masons. “There are many industry-led events, and a number of universities are looking at energy transition qualifications,” she says.
Schemes such as STEM Returners – which help employers to recruit and qualified people to re-start their career – could also help find roles linked to decarbonisation and sustainability, if an individual requests it.
This June saw the launch of the Tech Zero task force to rally support for climate action across the UK tech sector. With members ranging from Starling Bank to Olio, the task force aims to have 1,000 members by the start of COP26. The initiative has produced a toolkit to “demystify climate jargon” and help companies set and meet net-zero targets.There are hundreds of specialist Master’s degrees targeting different sectors from energy through to sustainability – and traditional management postgraduate degrees now incorporate skills for net zero.
Gunter, though, sees a need for more accessible, shorter, and cheaper ‘micro-credentials’, supported by a local further education college and over in a matter of weeks, which would be suitable for mid-career individuals who don’t want the expense of a postgraduate route. “The training and upskilling landscape needs simplification,” he says. Further education – once a natural hub for adult retraining – has seen a 20 per cent fall in funding over the last decade, but the government is hoping to revitalise skills training with a series of reforms.
In May this year, the Prime Minister’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee was a central part of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. And the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill aims to make it easier for adults to get into higher education by offering finance and creating shorter courses in engineering. In England, new Institutes of Technology, run as partnerships between further and higher education and employers, have begun offering short modular courses with an aim to boost local technical skills, though these don’t overtly focus on net zero.
And of course there are the open online courses offered by FutureLearn and Coursera, which allow users to dip their toes into green sectors (see box). Many are designed for professionals and last a matter of weeks.
Employers could do more to keep their staff up to date, says Gunter, and retrain rather than hire new staff to meet skills shortages. Could they offer digital, modular training tailored for those in their mid to late career stage? He calls for investment and better anticipation of what skills will be in demand and when.
“There are hundreds of jobs in these fields, available right now,” says McIntyre, “and we’re just scratching the surface. The planet is in desperate need of technical experts and engineers to help fight climate change, so now is most definitely the time to make the jump if you’re already thinking about it.”
The IET Academy
As we countdown to net zero, the IET Academy is looking to help engineers at all levels gain the green skills needed to help meet a sustainable green agenda through our online training.
Our courses provide learners with the opportunity to upskill and develop their knowledge in key net zero topic areas, with courses such as Implementing Net Zero Carbon in Practice and Introduction to Wind Energy.
Find out more about how we can help you to take a leading role in the drive towards a sustainable future.
■ Online learning platform FutureLearn offers short courses suitable for professionals – with some 100 Nature & Environment courses and 200 Science Engineering & Maths Courses.
■ The ‘Systems Thinking for Sustainability: Complex Systems Analysis’ ExpertTrack is designed specifically with career-minded learners, to help them gain new skills for the sector.
■ The Open University also has two micro-credentials, ‘Climate Change and the Polar Regions: Tools for the Climate Crisis’ and ‘Tackling the Climate Crisis: Innovation from Cuba’, also designed to give professionals flexible, accredited and bite-sized learning.
■ Samsung’s recently launched ‘Designing for a Sustainable Future’ course is specifically targeted at those in or looking to get into the tech sector.
■ ‘Green Travel and Climate Change: An Introduction to Low Carbon Road Transport’ course by Cenex.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.