OPINION: Why tackling the green skills shortage is vital

by Cara Jenkinson | Ashden
Tuesday, 19 October 2021 14:40 GMT

Drew Carr of John Gilbert Architects stands in a traditional tenement flat being refitted to a higher energy efficiency standard in Glasgow, United Kingdom, July 23, 2021. Carr hopes the techniques used could be applied to similar buildings throughout Glasgow and across Scotland. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Dan Phillips

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To add heat pumps, we first need the people trained to install them

By Cara Jenkinson, Cities Manager at Ashden

Today’s release of the government’s plans to decarbonise home heating and help the UK meets its 2050 climate targets, is a welcome baby-step forward when we need a bold leap.

Efforts to switch the country’s 23 million homes from gas and oil heating, which account for 20% of the country’s total carbon emissions, to renewable forms of energy, such as heat pumps, mark a positive move ahead of COP26, the international climate negotiations in Glasgow in just two weeks.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy is offering around £5,000 to households to install heat pumps, and pledging to invest £60million in heat pump innovation to reduce costs. This is welcome, but only goes part way to solve the problem. The majority of UK homes must first be made more energy efficient before gas boilers are replaced, otherwise electricity costs faced by households will rocket. After several false starts, government must set out long-term policy to encourage such home insulation.

According to the Climate Change Committee, nearly 11 million homes need to move from gas to renewable heat sources by 2035. The government has set a target of installing 600,000 heat pumps each year by 2028 – whilst the number installed is increasing, a fraction of that number - just 60,000 - were installed last year in UK homes.  A major long-term ramp-up of both retrofit and heat pump installation is needed. But we just do not have enough skilled builders and heat engineers to meet this challenge.

There are just 1,000 heat pump installers, compared to 96,000 gas engineers and only a small fraction of the UK’s builders are accredited to retrofit homes. We have to invest in a long-term  skills boost if we are to change the way we heat our homes intime.

An ambitious retrofit programme could create hundreds of thousands of jobs for skilled tradespeople across the country – carpenters, plasterers and electricians. We will also need a workforce of 36,000 retrofit coordinators to ensure insulation work is carried out to rigorous quality standards and avoid Grenfell-style disasters. At present, we have just 2% of the number needed.

That upskilling depends on schemes running longer than the three years announced today and must start now by investing in further education and updating apprenticeship standards. That needs a national policy framework while also recognising that local government is uniquely placed to convene employers and colleges to ramp up training, and ensure that local people benefit from new opportunities.

We know, through the rigorous discovery process for the Ashden Awards, that there are inspiring organisations across the country showing that it is possible to boost skills in retrofit and renewable energy installation. For example, The Kensa Group, a coalition of businesses manufacturing and installing ground source heat pumps is adopting a street-by-street approach, featuring split ownership models and individual networked heat pumps in a bid to increase uptake. Kensa have been rapidly upskilling gas engineers who can see that the future of heating is renewable.

The fuel poverty initiative Warmworks Scotland has created over 140 apprenticeships with big plans to retrofit over 20,000 homes, creating 2,500 jobs.   And The Retrofit Academy is accelerating retrofit co-ordinator training nationwide, currently working with 800 trainees. These are the innovators who are showing the way forward and are constrained by barriers under current policy.

There is a gulf between what the government has announced today and the reality of what is actually needed to plug the skill shortages gap. We have a pressing need for longer term, clear policies backed with adequate finance to encourage both retrofitting and heat pump installation, as well as investing in skills development now.  

Done right, the transition to low carbon heating will provide additional benefits. Women and those from Black, Asian and other under-represented groups should be encouraged to seek careers that help build a greener future. They will be needed from Plymouth to Perth, boosting local economies. With warm, efficient homes heated by renewable energy, families will no longer need to choose between heating and eating, and will enjoy better mental and physical health.

More major investment and bolder action by government could help us slash CO2 emissions and change the way we heat our homes. The positive effects will be felt far and wide helping us to build back greener for people and the planet.