Green skills prepare to step into the limelight

Will Nichols
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Green Skills for Green Jobs summit set to highlight importance of investing in the next generation of environmental professionals

Investments in energy infrastructure and clean technology commonly dominate headlines. But investing in the people who will build and operate the wind farms, solar parks, and nuclear facilities that are key to decarbonising our economy is often overlooked.

According to government figures, just under a million people were employed in the UK's Low Carbon and Environmental Goods and Services (LCEGS) sector in 2012 - more than telecoms, motor trade manufacturing, and retail combined - and this number has grown by just under three per cent since 2010. Further growth is expected as "traditional" green sectors expand and new challenges, such as regulating unconventional oil and gas or building the first nuclear reactors in a generation, spring up.

Earlier this year, David Cameron highlighted the importance of skills in helping the UK outcompete its rivals and grab a larger share of a global green economy currently worth £3.4tr and growing at around four per cent a year.

Energy and Climate Secretary Ed Davey has also talked up the job creation potential of the Green Deal energy efficiency scheme and the boost the feed-in tariff subsidy for small-scale renewable energy has given to installers.

Research by the Renewable Energy Association (REA) this week found the market is growing fast. Its twice-yearly membership survey revealed 42 per cent of green companies expect to increase employment over the next six to 12 months, compared to 25 per cent in the first quarter of the year, while a third of companies reported an increase to employment over the last six months, up from 26 per cent in the first quarter.

Moreover, businesses in the energy industry are by no means the only ones to benefit from employees with green skills. Research by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) shows employing practitioners with the right mix of environmental skills, knowledge, expertise and leadership abilities can also save companies substantial amount of money.

An IEMA survey of 500 companies found almost one-fifth of companies employing more than 1,000 people are each saving more than £1m a year through resource and waste management efficiencies.

The effects on small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) could be even more far-reaching. According to the survey, environmentally qualified staff save more than £5,000 a year for each company - 44 per cent of which are seeing annual savings greater than £10,000. Plus, with environmental regulations becoming ever more stringent, companies need to bring in trained staff to ensure they are not at risk from fines.

However, Tim Balcon, chief executive of IEMA, says that there is a real shortage of trained executives, warning a coordinated effort between government, education authorities, and businesses will be needed to maintain and expand green staffing levels.

"I hear from businesses time and time again that they have the ambition and the foresight to place environment and sustainability at their core, but because of a mismatch between supply and demand for environmental skills - which stems right back to gaps in the curriculum and right through vocational education - they cannot access the right skills at the right scale," he says. "I want to see that become a thing of the past. We need to see some demonstration of leadership here, as without collaboration we - business, government, the environment profession, IEMA - will not be equipped to achieve our mutual aim; a robust, sustainable economy."

IEMA is not alone in reporting skills shortages - across the whole UK energy sector, around 27 per cent of the technical workforce will retire over the next decade. In addition, data from trade body RenewableUK reveals more than a third of employers in the UK's wind and marine power sector have had trouble filling vacancies over the previous 12 months, up from 26 per cent in 2010. Around eight per cent of all jobs in the sector were considered hard-to-fill last year.

RenewableUK says unless the problem is addressed, these skills shortages could push up costs and force manufacturers to look overseas for appropriate candidates.

Similarly, the Renewable Energy Association (REA) warned last year of a "skills time bomb" as increasing numbers of skilled engineers near retirement just as demand is increasing for experienced and qualified engineers and technicians. Experts are predicting a major scrap between industries and companies for the best talent.

While the government's Skills for Sustainable Growth strategy prioritises a "bottom up" approach whereby employers take greater responsibility for training and apprenticeships, the REA report says many green businesses do not have the time to invest in developing staff, or are unwilling to do so in case they are poached by competitors.

These are the kind of issues set to be discussed at the upcoming Green Skills for Green Jobs summit by speakers including Ed Davey, Professor John Perkins, the chief scientific advisor to the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS), and Jean Llewellyn, chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Nuclear.

Delegates will also hear from a number of leading businesses and colleges bucking this trend, through working with schools, colleges, communities and professional bodies to help develop the technical and management skills that they need, while at the same time boosting job prospects for trainees.

For example, EDF Energy not only has extensive graduate training in place, but has also invested £3m in an Energy Skills Centre and £1.5m in a Construction Skills Centre at Bridgwater College, which is close to the site of its planned Hinkley nuclear plant. The company has also launched its Engineering Maintenance Apprenticeship Scheme where after two years training in Portsmouth, apprentices spend a further two years working at a power station, finishing with an ONC equivalent BTEC Level 3 and an NVQ Level 3, as well as substantial practical skills.

"We are at the centre of the UKs drive for developing the right nuclear skills to support our future low carbon energy ambitions, both within our current nuclear generation fleet and our new nuclear build organisation," a spokesman told BusinessGreen. "We are also working closely with our supply chain partners to ensure together we can meet the skills challenges of future green generation needs."

Meanwhile, the city of Liverpool has recently opened a new technical and low-carbon skills college to capitalise on the Irish Sea offshore wind boom. Similarly, Leeds City Region has unveiled a green skills plan to support work to retrofit up to 12,000 homes under the Green Deal and is also aiming to encourage businesses to invest in the necessary training and education to implement it.

However, it may be that companies complaining of shortages are not always looking in the right place to fill their vacancies. Wind energy companies are starting to tap into the wealth of skills offered by ex-military personnel to fill gaps ranging from technicians to project managers. According to RenewableUK, 15 per cent of renewables companies have successfully employed former servicemen and women and the number of applications is growing.

David Hunt, business and operations director at recruitment firm Antal International, says companies can benefit from widening the net to cover candidates without direct industry experience but whose skills are easily transferable.

"The industry is relatively short-sighted in going for experience rather than people with relevant qualifications who are ready to make the jump," he says. "There are a lot of people who are suitably qualified and a lot of people are up-skilling themselves."

Clearly, there is a huge opportunity for green businesses to diversify their recruitment efforts and provide jobs to a wide range of different people, just as there is a huge opportunity for the government to tackle high levels of unemployment. But it will only be realised if business leaders, politicians and educational institutions work together to bridge the green skills gap.

Find out more about the significance and impact of green skills development at the Green Skills for Green Jobs summit on November 27th.

BusinessGreen is a commercial partner of the summit.

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