Delivering skilled workers for a low-carbon future

To meet net-zero targets, the UK needs a vibrant and skilled contracting industry to deliver the technologies and infrastructure required to decarbonise the energy industry, says Chris Claydon at the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board

Reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is an ambitious and achievable goal, bolstered by recent government announcements around investment in green energy infrastructure.

The post-COVID-19 economic recovery provides an opportunity to accelerate the transition to a green economy. Encouragingly, the government’s recent Ten Point Plan, Energy White Paper and new National Infrastructure Strategy start to illuminate the policy levers that will be deployed to ramp up decarbonisation.  

Act now or miss 2050 target

However, we need to act now because on our current trajectory we will miss the 2050 target. According to a recent report from Atkins, UK clean energy projects are only at 43% of the build rate required. In addition, the UK’s ageing nuclear power fleet needs replacing, but only one plant is currently being built. News that the government has entered into formal talks with EDF Energy on Sizewell C, as well as support for Small Modular Reactors, is therefore welcome. Thirty years may seem like a long way off, but the size of the task demands greater action now both to build the infrastructure and train the workforce required.  

Skills transfer from oil and gas

The UK’s engineering construction supply chain already has most of the skills and expertise needed to deliver net zero. This network of companies designs and delivers industrial-scale projects in the UK and internationally, building clean energy generation capacity in offshore wind, nuclear, hydrogen and waste-to-energy, as well as early engineering work on carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) projects.

According to the Energy White Paper, this green energy sector could support around 220,000 jobs in just a decade. However, the economic fallout of COVID-19 will see parts of the industry experiencing workforce contraction and a significant skills outflow in the short term. Oil and gas in particular is forecast to lose up to 30,000 workers – a fifth of the workforce.

Clearly, there is an opportunity to retain and mobilise this existing skills base. The UK government has pledged four low-carbon clusters and 5GW of hydrogen production capacity by 2030, creating more  than 40,000 jobs. However, despite the commitments made in the Energy White Paper, there is a lack of shovel-ready projects to take on redundant oil and gas engineers. If these workers exit the sector for good, as many may, we risk a shortage of skilled labour by the time projects start.  

Bridging the gap

Crucially, the governments in both Westminster and Holyrood need to help bridge the gap between current and future skills requirements. The UK government’s Green Jobs Taskforce, which the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) is a part of, will address the transition of workers from high-carbon to low-carbon roles. Similarly, the Scottish government’s recent Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan will prepare the low-carbon workforce in Scotland, as well as provide new opportunities for existing workers.

In 2021 we expect the long-awaited North Sea Transition Deal, which will provide further clarity on measures to decarbonise and repurpose oil and gas operations. The UK government’s Hydrogen and Industrial Decarbonisation strategies are also promised this year and will set out more detail on the commercial frameworks necessary to drive private sector investment in CCUS and hydrogen.  

The low-carbon skills challenge

The need to retain and develop UK-based skills and the ambition to create a high-skill economy is vital for longer-term UK prosperity, especially in light of the challenges posed by the pandemic and Brexit. The ECITB’s focus is to ensure the workforce is ready and equipped to work on the green infrastructure projects at the heart of the energy transition. This work has started with partners in industry, government and academia to identify the skills requirements and deliver timely and targeted training and skills solutions – and more is to come in 2021.

Net zero is an opportunity to enhance domestic economic performance and the UK’s global footprint, but only if we retain and develop the UK engineering skills base to meet the challenges ahead.    

By Chris Claydon, CEO, Engineering Construction Industry Training Board