The Green Skills Challenge

Back To Latest News

Wales has a rich industrial heritage – heavy industry still accounts for a large proportion of employment in South Wales, with around 113,000 existing manufacturing jobs.

Much has been done to bring this sector into the future, but there is still room for improvement. It’s evident that we need these industries to continue (in whichever form that may be) because, without these large-scale employers, Wales’ economy and the livelihoods of the people who work in and around these industries will surely suffer.

Massive efforts are required over the next five to ten years to decarbonise heavy industries such as steel manufacturing, cement and tarmac production, paper factories, nickel and oil refineries. So, what can we do to ensure the longevity of industry in South Wales and to create thousands of new skilled jobs by 2050?

South Wales Industrial Cluster

There are currently two sister projects being run by the South Wales Industrial Cluster (SWIC) looking to answer that question – namely, the SWIC Cluster Plan (Phase 2) and the SWIC Phase 2 Deployment Project. Both projects are made up of partners from top organisations from the academic, industrial, public, and private sectors, all committed to reaching net zero carbon in South Wales. The major industrial companies involved stretch from the Pembrokeshire Coast to the Severn Bridge, along the M4 corridor.

The aim of the projects is to develop world-leading, truly sustainable industry befitting the societal needs of the future. The Cluster Plan Project will devise a roadmap to decarbonisation, incorporating ideas on the circular economy, leading us to a smarter, greener and healthier society. Phase Two of the Deployment Project involves engineering studies to explore the routes to decarbonisation. As part of its internal governance structure, the Deployment Project has set up its own Future Leaders Group, which looks to provide scrutiny to the project and to find areas of improvement.

Being a member of this group alongside eight others young professionals from diverse backgrounds has given me a deeper understanding of energy efficiency, and what is needed to achieve a circular economy and reach our ambitious decarbonisation targets. We’re now focusing on examining public perceptions of decarbonisation, and what can be done to promote the opportunities the project will bring to South Wales – developing green skills will be a key part of this. We recognise that to change public perceptions, the public needs to be confident that investing in hydrogen technology, changing their energy providers, their spending habits, etc. will benefit their lives. Lowering people’s outgoings would be an added benefit.

Transition = Technology + Training

We need new technologies, and to train people to develop, implement and use those technologies. Given the large-scale changes required to manufacturing processes, plant and machinery in South Wales, industrial decarbonisation provides the optimal scenario to develop the green skills required.  It also provides entrepreneurial opportunities to produce those new technologies and equipment, for example, building hydrogen boilers, new engines and even producing new foods.

The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training defines “green skills” as, “the knowledge, abilities, values and attitudes needed to live in, develop and support a sustainable and resource-efficient society.” This definition alludes not just to the skills themselves, but also to the impact they will have on the wider society.

On an individual level, (re)training people in greener skills will enable them to have better quality livelihoods and a more sustainable future. This will in turn improve the health, environment, and quality of life of those around them. Having cleaner forms of energy, lower amounts of carbon in industrial processes and in the atmosphere generally will also improve the life expectancy of those working in industry and living nearby. The wider societal benefits of a just transition to green skills are clearly attributable.

Industry specialists and technical skills will evolve over time and in line with these new technologies – which is why top-up training is essential. A successful transition in the context of industrial decarbonisation will also require people with a broader skillset than engineering and manufacturing – it will need digital experts, management, and people skills.

Embracing diversity to close the green skills gap 

At present, our education system and labour market simply don’t have enough people being trained or employed with the right skills. There is a huge disparity between the current number of people with green credentials and the future job predictions for how many employees will be required. The UK Government has pledged to have two million people in “green-collar” roles by 2030, which is up from around 400,000 at present.  This is a big jump in the next nine years. A combination of a “top down” approach from Government and industry, and “bottom up” approach to the education system and promotion of green skills will be needed to close this skills gap.

Starting at school age, a paradigm shift is required towards the education of children in sciences, mathematics, design technology, IT, engineering and other STEAM subjects. We should also value and develop apprenticeships and vocational training, as well as gearing students up for university degrees.

Ensuring people have the practical skills for manual jobs, in sectors like manufacturing or construction, is just as important as developing the engineers and sustainability consultants of the future.

The green economy needs to be an inclusive space. Efforts must be made to bring women and girls, Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities and the LGBTQIA+ community into the green jobs market. This inclusivity can begin at school age, but crucially it needs to be tackled by the industries providing the jobs for that top-down approach to work. Taking targeted action to create social value in South Wales’ communities is the only way to truly achieve a just transition to a green economy.

Financial assistance

The overall message here is that there’s still a lot to be done, but a promising start has been made so far. Both SWIC projects have already been working with higher education partners, local government, the Welsh and UK Governments to plan ways to address the green skills gap, but much more funding will be required to implement the roadmaps and projects which are being developed.

To ensure that we have enough people to fill these jobs of the future, the technologies required to decarbonise and a diverse workforce to carry out the change, material investment is required from the industries themselves and from the Welsh and UK Governments.

There must be clear, structured, financial support for the implementation of green alternatives to industrial processes, services, and technologies. For this to happen, clarity is required from the Welsh and UK Government on a more detailed level for the path to net-zero by 2050. This should include new measures to invest in low-carbon technologies and to build a robust skills pipeline. Certainty and consistency in government policy are paramount to ensuring long term investment.

There is a real opportunity to reduce our reliance on imported goods by incentivising a long-term local manufacturing presence. Further offshoring of industry can no longer be regarded as a viable option for emissions reduction, we are simply sending the problem elsewhere and expecting less fortunate countries to deal with it. Having the right school education, upskilling and retraining programmes on green skills will favour job preservation, support the longevity of industries, and increase access to new jobs in South Wales.

This, in turn, will ensure the prosperity and conservation of local Welsh communities. We all have our part to play in this.

Article originally written for and published by the Institute of IWA Wales, here