Siobhan Baillie is MP for Stroud
The pandemic forced the country, indeed the world, to slow down. This has allowed an opportunity for a clear-eyed look at the need for green skills for the future recovery. Net zero cannot happen without know-how, but we face a green skills emergency.
The emergency is twofold.
First, 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 created very skilled, well-paid workers who are sorely needed to make the transition successful, but they need a ‘skills bridge’ to retrain them for future industries.
We have no time to lose. Covid-19 and the oil price rout in 2020 saw 4,500 job losses. All this came after the 2014-2016 oil price crash, from which many supply-chain companies had only just recovered. Job losses in the UK oil and gas sector have a negative impact on the local economies of oil and gas hubs, especially Aberdeen, which is home to over 80 per cent of direct oil and gas jobs in Great Britain.
Meanwhile, renewables are becoming more cost-competitive and backed by both the private sector and government. BP recently announced a £10 billion plan to turn Aberdeen green. Last year, the Prime Minister announced that the UK will become the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind power’. There are particularly enticing opportunities for the UK to specialise in floating offshore wind; many British oil and gas companies are determined not to be beaten to the post by Ørsted and Siemens as they were with fixed offshore wind.
A 2020 survey found that four in five oil and gas workers would consider moving from their current role into new industries. This may be due to the instability of fossil fuel production, the economic trends favouring renewables, or that they wish to work in a sector which benefits future generations more. But, without ‘skills bridges’ to help those affected find new employment, they will not get there. We risk losing their expertise just as we need it most for the green industrial revolution.
The second prong of the skills emergency is educating our young people. We have a huge skills gap for our future workforce which urgently needs closing. According to Onward’s Getting to Zero report, the UK needs 170,000 more workers to qualify each year than currently do so in net zero industries by 2030. 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 don’t know where to start.
Onward found that over half of net zero occupations will require STEM skills, and they’ll be spread across the country, with the greatest opportunity in ‘red wall’ constituencies. Green skills are the glue between levelling up and net zero: they’re good, in-demand skills for young people in areas which stand to gain the most from net zero, but have historically suffered a lack of investment and consequent brian drain. Encouraging schools and colleges to specialise in STEM subjects such as maths and physics could also promote the relevant skills and develop a pipeline of talent.
The Government gets this. The Prime Minister recognises it means not obsessing about 50 per cent 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 and bringing employers further into the FE system.
In Gloucestershire, we are putting forward a superb South West backed bid to create the world’s first Fusion Power plant.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. A culture shift back which puts technical skills back on par with academic skills is required, which requires us to highlight the employment opportunities offered by net zero to the current generation and the next ones.
My challenge to government, employers, FE colleges and schools, which is articulated at greater length in the Conservative Environment Network’s new essay collection, North Sea Transition, is to make the green skills emergency central to the skills and careers agenda. The favourable economics, public and business desire, and political will for net zero exist, but we need green skills to make it a reality.