Editorial: Skills key to a low-carbon transition

David CarrIn the 2009 ENDS environmental careers guide, as the recession was really starting to bite, we said: “The environment sector is likely to do better than others, even in a recession.” A year on, we have been proved correct. As unemployment has hit 2.5 million, the numbers employed in UK ‘green jobs’ has risen further, to the current level of about 900,000.

And as we illustrate on pp 13-18, the range and scope of such jobs is widening all the time. Moreover, with talk of 400,000 new ‘green jobs’ being created in the UK by 2020, it seems there has never been a better time to embark upon, or progress within, a ‘green’ career.

Indeed, those already in green roles appear largely content. One of the most encouraging findings of our survey of more than 2,000 environmental professionals (see pp 4-11) is that almost 90% said they either ‘really enjoyed’ their job, were ‘content’ or were ‘neutral’ about it. And, while their pay lags that of their peers in other sectors, most are keen to stay put. Only 12% cited ‘career change’ as a reason why they might leave their job: evidence indeed of broad contentment among the UK’s ‘green collar’ workers.

But these positive findings obscure some uncomfortable truths. The UK is lagging behind its competitors in nurturing green industries, underperforming in boosting the workforce’s ‘green’ skills and failing to deliver sufficient political and financial clout to secure the employment benefits of the shift to a low-carbon economy.

And despite a number of widely welcomed policy announcements, the UK is likely to stumble in the green jobs race. Like so many times before, it is skills shortages that will prove to be the main hurdle. Those in engineering in particular will be key to meeting the UK’s emissions reduction and renewable energy goals. But it is here where the problem lies.

Perhaps the comments of Alistair Hutson, director of energy risk management at consultancy Utilyx, sum it up best: “It’s the core science, technology and engineering skills that are needed, but we have a shortage of skills in these areas anyway, and thinking that we’re suddenly going to find all these extra engineers is pie in the sky,” he says.

If any more were needed, it’s certainly food for thought for government, businesses and training providers, as they seek a successful transition to a low-carbon economy, and the growth in green jobs that should go with it.

David Carr

Environmental Careers Guide

A special report, sponsored by RPS(energy and environmental consultants)