Skills deficit needs to be urgently tackled to get to net zero


In its latest briefing out today, Upskilling the UK workforce for the 21st century, the Aldersgate Group calls for urgent action to plug the deficit in skills that currently undermines the growth of low carbon supply chains across the UK economy. The Group calls in particular for a new low carbon skills strategy that embeds sustainability across the national curriculum and teacher training standards, supports higher and further education institutions to better meet the needs of local employers and updates apprenticeship standards and mid-career reskilling qualifications to equip the workforce with the skills needed in a net zero emissions economy.

The UK economy has long faced significant challenges in terms of skill shortages and regional inequalities, with some 91% of businesses recently saying they face a skills deficit [1] and the economies of Yorkshire and the Humber, the North East, and the West Midlands growing at less than half the rate of London’s economy between 1998 and 2016 [2]. The COVID-19 crisis has amplified these challenges and brought with it a huge increase in unemployment and in particular, youth unemployment. Against this backdrop but also recognising the significant job creation potential provided by the transition to a net zero emissions economy [3], the Aldersgate Group argues today that low carbon skills provision must become a national policy priority.

Building on the Government’s recent announcement to expand post-18 education and training, the Group calls for a comprehensive low carbon skills strategy based on five key recommendations:

1. Environmental sustainability and the net zero goal should be fully embedded in the national curriculum across all stages of the education system from primary to tertiary education. This should include a requirement on Further and Higher Education Institutions to put in place skills’ action plans to ensure students are provided with the right practical skills when they leave and to address the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in STEM subjects that will be increasingly key in a net zero emissions economy;

2. This focus on sustainability should be fully reflected in teaching qualifications and the governance of the education system. With 75% of teachers saying they haven’t received adequate training to educate students about climate change [4], the Aldersgate Group calls for teaching standards and the Initial Teacher Training Content Framework to be updated to equip teachers with the right knowledge. The briefing also argues that regulatory bodies such as Ofsted should be required to place greater emphasis on the quality of sustainability teaching as part of their assessment of schools and other educational institutions.

3. Higher Education and Further Education Institutions should be supported and encouraged to tailor courses, training and qualifications that more closely match the needs of local employers and low carbon job creation. The employer-led STEM education and training curriculum put in place by the Newcastle College Energy Academy, which is training future engineers and technicians in the renewable energy sector, provides a good example in this regard.

4. Funding, research and development support, and business partnerships need to be increasingly targeted to educational institutions that are not located in the ‘Golden Triangle’ between Oxford, Cambridge and London and which have received less support to date. This is essential to ensure that education institutions across the country are well equipped to provide the low carbon skills required in their area. Businesses in the offshore wind sector which have regularly supported local University Technical Colleges and universities in the areas they operate provide a good precedent for other businesses to follow.

5. To have an effective net zero education system, the UK needs to reform its approach to apprenticeship standards and mid-career reskilling. Apprenticeship standards should require and incentivise businesses to provide their apprentices with core low carbon skills that go beyond a business’ immediate and short-term priorities. Recognising the complexities of mid-career reskilling, government policy should support Higher Education Institutions to develop new, short-term training and qualifications on low carbon skills to make it easier for those already on the job market to transition towards employment opportunities in a net zero emissions economy.

Beyond putting in place a comprehensive low carbon skills strategy, the Aldersgate Group calls for progress in two complementary areas that are essential to growing low carbon supply chains:

6. Building on recent policy announcements in areas such as offshore wind, the Government should progress work to put in place a comprehensive policy plan that will put the UK on a credible pathway towards its net zero target [5]. A clear suite of policies will be essential to grow demand for low carbon infrastructure, goods and services, with a positive knock on impact on job creation and demand for low carbon skills. This should include rapid regulatory and fiscal policy decisions to grow private investment in ‘low-regret’ areas such as buildings, surface transport, power and waste. It should also include an accelerated innovation programme to trial critical technologies to cut emissions in more complex parts of the economy such as heavy industry, agriculture and long-distance transport.

7. Local bodies must be better empowered to support low carbon investment, job creation and skills provision in their areas given that they are often better placed to understand local needs. Building on the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, local bodies should be provided with greater policy autonomy as well as multi-year funding to support investment in critical local projects such as low carbon transport and energy infrastructure. Creating a National Investment Bank – with a mandate to grow low carbon investments in regions most in need of economic regeneration – and setting up a National Skills Commission to co-ordinate the development of the UK’s skill strategy between national government, businesses and local bodies could play a key role in growing low carbon supply chains and skills across the country.

Nick Molho, Executive Director of the Aldersgate Group, said: “Skills policy has been a missing link in the UK’s clean growth ambitions for too long. The move to a net zero emissions economy comes with a significant job creation potential which is matched by growing public enthusiasm to play an active role in this transition. Together with putting together a comprehensive policy plan to put the UK on track for its target, government must prioritise the development of an ambitious and carefully co-ordinated low carbon skills strategy and ensure that education institutions across the country are supported in this process.”

Lexie Jones, CEO at Change Agents UK, said: “We strongly support the call for a national skills strategy that integrates efforts from government, business and the education sector to focus on the delivery of the challenging targets for Net Zero and the Sustainable Development Goals. Young people who were already facing a precarious future have seen this further compromised by the COVID19 pandemic – we must act now to ensure they have the skills, knowledge and experience they will need to succeed as we enter this most challenging global period.”

Iain Patton, CEO at EAUC, said: “The Higher and Further Education sectors have been taking steps towards Net Zero and slowly bridging the skills gap for many years. Recently, we have seen a huge step forwards in this sector on the Net Zero agenda, with a new education Climate Commission creating climate action roadmaps and the sector working collaboratively to ensure education is ahead of the curve. The skills disconnect now needs to take a similar sized step to ensure young people are receiving future-proofed qualifications, and those in work and unemployed are upskilled to maximise the opportunities a  low carbon economy will bring.”

Iain Patton added: “The suggestions made by Aldersgate Group in this policy briefing, which we have fed into, chime well with our own findings (‘Future Graduate Skills: a scoping study’ is released on 14 October). We must redress the decades long disconnect between skills provision from education providers, and the skills required by employers. Post-pandemic recovery and the race to Net Zero have created the impetus to do just this. We will be working with the education sector on skills action plans, the embedding of sustainability into all courses and a new skills-based kickstart scheme. We will also work closely with business, and push the Government to create the skills strategies and Commission required to make this a success nationwide.”

Professor Aled Jones, Director of Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, said: “The Aldersgate Group highlight the vital work that is required to upskill the UK workforce to ensure it is resilient to the changes that are coming over the next three decades. By transitioning our economy to net zero the UK will unlock a swathe of opportunities that we will only be able to realise if we have the skills needed to deliver. At Anglia Ruskin University we have embedded sustainability across all our courses through our academic regulations, but this needs to happen right across further and higher education so that we remain world leading.”

Mark Essex, Director of Skills at KPMG UK, said: “We echo the call for a low-carbon skills strategy. The skills needed to deliver a net-zero economy are vital to help boost productivity and reduce unemployment. This is particularly important for those entering the job market today, facing an uncertain future.  Whether in manufacturing for the renewable energy supply chain, or converting our stock of housing to net-zero heating and cooking, these are nationally distributed, high-skilled jobs.”

Professor Mary Ryan, Director, Transition to Zero Pollution Initiative, Imperial College London and Professor Martin Siegert Co-Director Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, said: “To transition successfully to a net-zero carbon society within the next three decades will require profound adjustments in business, behaviour and policy. Those in education today will spend the bulk of their careers within this transition. It is essential that we equip them with the skills and knowledge needed for the challenges they face. Coupling knowledge of climate change with more traditional subjects like economics, chemistry, engineering and medicine, and many others, will ensure that future leaders can appreciate how to build a successful, sustainable and clean economy, and why this matters to the future habitability of the planet.“

Michelle Hubert, Acting Head of Public Affairs and Policy at National Grid, said: “We’ve made real progress towards our decarbonisation goals, for example, last year, we saw zero carbon electricity outstrip fossil fuels for the first time. This is really exciting but there is still a long way to go. At National Grid, we’re innovating and investing to help with that journey. But the only way we can do it is if we have the right people on board. We need a diverse workforce across the energy sector, with a diverse set of skills if we’re going to deliver on the UK’s ambitions.”

Olivia Whitlam, Head of Sustainability at Siemens Plc, said: “We welcome Aldersgate Group’s briefing on skills, which rightly highlights the urgency of tackling skills gaps across the country. Siemens has a long history of promoting skills development in the UK. As we look to the future, it is imperative to develop an inclusive and long-term approach to deliver the green skills we will need to enable us to decarbonise, and to build a fairer society.”

Larissa Kennedy, NUS and SOS-UK President, said: “According to the Local Government Association, in 2018 there were 185,000 full-time workers in England’s low-carbon and renewable energy economy, but that could rise to 694,000 by 2030, and 1.2 million by 2050, but only if we close the skills gap. Covid has hastened the decline of jobs in high carbon sectors, so we now urgently need the Government to take action and support our further education sector to provide reskilling opportunities and deliver a just transition for people across the UK. This important report provides a road map for immediate action.”

Dr. Adam Read, External Affairs Director at SUEZ, said: “At SUEZ we welcome this Aldersgate Group briefing and fully support the call for UK government, businesses and the education system to work together in equipping our future workforce with the right skills to build an inclusive and competitive low carbon economy. At SUEZ we have been helping to develop the resource and waste sector’s thinking on future services, infrastructure and solutions as we progress green recovery, the circular economy and strive to meet the changing demands placed upon us from EPR, DRS and consistent collection reforms. We will be putting our own asks and offers to Government early in 2021 along similar lines to those proposed by the Aldersgate Group.”

Adam Read added: “In June 2021 I will become the President of the CIWM, and my presidential theme will be all about the skills needed in a circular economy, one that delivers decarbonisation and green recovery over the next 30 years. I will be launching a new suite of services through CIWM to attract new talent, upskill existing members and build new career paths with transferable qualifications and skills to support the huge number of opportunities that will arise from changing consumption patterns and customer demands from our services and products. We must all work together, with Government, academia, schools and businesses to ensure we are ready for the transition, with new courses, on the job opportunities, apprenticeships and academies in place to support this new skills agenda, and the hard work must start now.”

Bevis Watts, CEO, Triodos Bank UK: “With the Covid-19 crisis and the shortcomings of our current economic system, it is clear that we need to shift to a net zero economy to address the climate emergency. While this transition will see the loss of employment in some sectors, the growth in established sectors like renewable energy and energy efficiency retrofit – and the emergence of new opportunities like sustainable transport and nature-based investment – will create huge demand for skilled new jobs, which can lead a green and more resilient recovery. We must ensure that government, industry and education institutions work together to ensure the right training and opportunities are in place to meet this challenge”

Prof Dave Reay, Chair in Carbon Management & Education at University of Edinburgh, said: “These recommendations could not be more timely. Education is right at the heart of realising a green recovery and this report shows just how vital investment in skills will be in securing livelihoods today and a safer climate tomorrow. Aldersgate Group has here set out a truly climate-smart strategy for skills and education in the UK; one that acknowledges local and regional priorities and that addresses head-on the inequalities that COVID-19 is magnifying. These rapid and concerted actions would make the UK an exemplar in its approach to COVID-19 recovery and underpin our sustainable transition to net zero for decades to come. This is cool thinking in a multiple emergency.”

John Weir, Talent and Skills Lead at Aura, University of Hull, said: “We at Aura and the University of Hull welcome today’s briefing by the Aldersgate Group, and its recommendations which come at a most opportune moment, following on from the recent government announcement of an additional £160m of funding for the low carbon sector. We support the call by the Aldersgate Group for government, industry and the education system to collaborate in designing a “fit for the future” talent development pipeline that will engage people and be effective in delivering a successful low carbon economy. As a leading University delivering on the government’s Offshore Wind Sector Deal, these recommendations will both support our ongoing commitment to offshore wind talent development and help tackle the challenge of trying to grow and diversify our workforce.”

John Weir added: “We here at the Aura Centre for Doctoral Training already offer fully-funded PhD scholarships in offshore wind energy and the environment, providing a home for the world’s brightest minds to develop environmental and engineering solutions for the offshore wind industry. With the support of Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, Aura also offers an MSc Apprenticeship in Offshore Wind Energy Engineering through the University of Hull, and recently launched a CPD course in offshore wind to provide ongoing work based professional training to employees from across the industry.”

Julia Barrett, Chief Sustainability Officer at Willmott Dixon, said: “We warmly welcome Aldersgate Group’s new briefing on upskilling the UK workforce. At Willmott Dixon, we have just announced what we believe are the construction industry’s most ambitious sustainability targets because we believe that putting net zero and green growth at the heart of our business is core to our continued business growth.  We are confident that this will provide long-term and viable jobs in construction, while also helping to tackle social inequality and safeguarding the health and wellbeing of future generations. A low carbon skills strategy that embeds sustainability and net zero delivery across the whole education system including apprenticeships, will support us and our supply chain partners in helping the UK become a world-leading, competitive and low carbon economy.”

Jim Coleman, Director – Head of Economics at WSP, said: “To date, the skills agenda has been an under-developed element of the low carbon and net zero economic story. Recovery will only be possible with significant planning around skills enhancement, the access and inclusion that comes from this, and our ability to create a specialised, low-carbon labour force for the future. This Aldersgate Group briefing is a very valuable and necessary contribution to the debate.”


[1] The Open University (July 2018) Business Barometer 2018

[2] UK2070 Commission (February 2020) Make No Little Plans –Acting at Scale for a Fairer and Stronger Future

[3] For instance, according to National Grid (January 2020) Building the Net Zero Energy Workforce, the transition to a net zero emissions economy is anticipated to require 400,000 roles just in the energy sector.


[5] The Aldersgate Group launched a report Building a Net Zero Emissions Economy: next steps for government and business, setting out some of the key policy decisions that need to be taken in this parliamentary term to put the UK on a credible pathway to building a competitive, net zero emissions economy. The report is available at: