Focus feature: Green FE teacher shortages could hold back net zero

Research and reports on green skills shortages are not in short supply - but the people needed to teach a green workforce are

Research and reports on green skills shortages are not in short supply - but the people needed to teach a green workforce are

Long read

Hydrogen maintenance engineers, solar photovoltaic entrepreneurs, retrofit advisers, and animal waste manure aggregators – these are some of the 60 new jobs the UK is predicted to need to train people in, if it is to achieve its ambition to become net zero by 2050. 

The government has set a target of creating two million green jobs by 2030, and more importantly, all other workers in the economy will also be expected to take on new green skills in their existing jobs. 

Although there is now a plethora of new green courses across the country, providers are encountering challenges in recruiting tutors for them; and in understanding the real opportunities a net zero world can provide learners.

Finding the teachers

The National Open College Network’s (NOCN) new report, Greening the UK Skills, estimates that of the 60 potential new occupations required to meet net zero, the largest share (20) is in construction. These learners will be tasked with, among other things, retrofitting the country’s 29 million buildings and ensuring they are adequately insulated.

Another 19 new jobs will be in solar energy generation, and just two in electric vehicle charging and installation.

“The challenge is, we are struggling as a country to find enough people to do these new green jobs, never mind to teach these skills to others,” a source at the Department for Education admitted to FE Week.

Henri Murison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which champions the devolution agenda for the North of England, believes some policy experts and industry heads are “risk averse in talking about green skills because training up people to do these things puts more pressure on the existing labour force”. 

“We need to get the balance right in terms of those competing tensions,” he said. “As well as jobs created there will be jobs lost in the future, so it’s about the ability to match up people whose jobs are being lost with new opportunities.” 

The risks are highest for those providers looking to offer courses in the most budding technologies. 

Eight of the new roles will be in carbon capturing and its storage, but NOCN’s chief executive Graham Hasting-Evans warns the technology is in “very, very early days” with investors only just starting to put money into projects.

And there may be new roles not mentioned in the report arising from tidal energy, which Liverpool City Region is hoping to harness on a massive scale, if it can convince the Treasury to invest.

Private sector pull

Eleven of the roles – 18 per cent of the total – are for engineers. But engineers are proving particularly challenging for colleges and training providers to recruit to training roles as they can earn significantly more money in the private sector.

In the case of aviation engineers, a college salary of £30-40,000 a year was described by one college leader as being a “far cry from the £100,000 a year they can earn privately”. 

Jan Myatt, vice principal of Birmingham Metropolitan College, told FE Week her college recently held an open day to try to attract engineers to teach there, but very few turned up.

“We can’t pay what the private sector can, and this is a real problem,” she said.

David Wilkins, vice principal of the Bedford College Group, said his college was trying to overcome the challenge by recruiting specialist engineers “just to deliver particular units, which can be challenging, but some are successful”. 

“We need to do more of that with green skills, such as heat pump instillations and PVs [photovoltaics],” he said. “The solution lies in great collaborations with industry to bring those skills into the classroom and workshop.

“Lots of colleges are proactive in advertising part-time opportunities and being innovative in how they recruit, for example using ex-forces staff. We’re trying all avenues, but it is difficult given the salary levels in the industry,” he added. 

Southgate

Mark Southgate, chief executive of MOBIE (Ministry of Building Innovation and Education), is coming across the same issue in the construction industry and told a session at the Association of Colleges conference last week of examples of housebuilders training up ex-offenders to build using modern methods of construction. 

“One of the plusses in an industry that is short people is they’re having to look in places in which they haven’t before,” he said.

Funding opportunities 

The Strategic Development Fund (SDF), which provides collaborations of further education (FE) providers with capital and programme funding to support curriculum changes to better meet employers’ needs, this year announced £92 million would go to 41 successful bids – 34 of which included green skills in their focus.

The South East Midlands, which includes Bedford College, is receiving a £2.7 million share and Wilkins says it will “enable us to put several of my staff on more electric vehicle (EV) training where we could do it ourselves”. 

“It will also pay to purchase equipment, so we can use VR headsets in teaching,” he said.

Meanwhile, South London Partnership, which includes South Thames College Group, is receiving £1.8 million for boosting green skills in construction, energy, EVs and waste management.

Its vice principal for higher education and business partnerships, Stella Raphael-Reeves, explained how her college worked with organisations including Solar Energy UK, which represents solar companies, to develop a 30-hour employability and solar skills energy course for adult learners which has now had 200 applicants.

While the SDF financing is enabling them to buy in the necessary equipment, she said “we’ve got stuck because we have no one to teach [the course]”. 

“The staff at the college are so utilized, they haven’t got the space to do it. We are having really real big difficulties. The GLA (Greater London Authority) is saying this is crazy, you’ve got this amazing course we can build up.”

Knowing what’s on offer

A pressing challenge for all providers is getting companies to tell them where the green jobs are. This provides a real opportunity for local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) in nurturing this collaboration, said Wilkins. 

Murison claims that of the combined authorities, Greater Manchester has “the most well-developed understanding” about linking green skills demand with local training opportunities, with mayor Andy Burnham “making commitments and using his convening power for this”.  

Greater Manchester has joined a consortium including West Yorkshire, London and the West Midlands to develop proposals for city-led retrofit, and its skills team have produced a skills action plan with a focus on green jobs.

Steve Morris, commercial director at the Learning Curve Group, said they work closely with trade and business organisations as well as LSIPs around the country to understand demand. 

“We need employers to tell us the specific skills needed for the specific roles they want so that we can better support,” he said. “If you can’t identify the vacancies then it is impossible to identify where the skills gap is.

“Perhaps the solution is to incorporate sustainability into all existing roles rather than trying to identify where the jobs are in green skills,” he added.

The Learning Curve Group now offers a level two course in climate change and environmental awareness and has started to develop some of its existing apprenticeships to incorporate more sustainability with, for example, a level three apprenticeship in being a sustainable team leader and a level two in being a sustainable LGV driver.

The training company also uses Lightcast (previously EMSI) which provides labour market analytics to understand where demand lies. But Morris cautioned: “You have to be very specific with what occupations you are looking for and have a depth of understanding what is a green profession, how will this job support the reduction of carbon, and meet the governments requirements.”

There are also a growing number of green skills bootcamps on offer in areas including electric vehicle charging, green heating technology, and smart meter installation, with an offer of a job interview with an employer on completion of the course, such as a ‘Route 2 Retrofit’ bootcamp in environmental sustainability in construction. 

The take up

So far, take up on green courses appears to have been patchy and providers are calling on the government to do more to help them promote them. The Skills Network has developed a level two course around the fundamentals of sustainability and green skills, designed for all workers, and is also developing a level four course for managers and teachers. 

But, its chief executive Mark Dawe admits that “take up isn’t as great as we might expect at the moment”.  

“Anything more the government can do to encourage employers and individuals – perhaps promoting sustainability as the fourth functional skill after maths, English and digital – would be great”.

Panditharatna

Wilkins said his college’s PV courses were “highly oversubscribed” particularly when the government launched a green homes grant voucher scheme in 2020. When that scheme ended the following year there were “less students on the programme”, but “now it is a steady ticker”. 

While the green skills challenge could offer opportunities to train up people currently not in the workforce, sustainability is not always high on those learners’ priority list.

The Forward Trust offers opportunities to people with drug and alcohol dependencies, and now delivers level one and two qualifications with a focus on green skills.

Its director of employment Asi Panditharatna said many of the learners have had “poor careers advice in general and we also have to embed discussions about green sector jobs, and how sustainability skills will apply to existing jobs”.  

“We also link this to things like British values. For example, we encouraged learners to think about the Grenfell five-year anniversary in terms of how more sustainable materials could help recladding in the future.”

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2 Comments

  1. One voice

    The sector would do well to be very self critical and honest when it comes to ‘green’ provision. Green washing and environmental virtue signalling is potentially very damaging in an education and skills context.

    For instance, if you teach a course on sustainability but your organisation or staff do not demonstrably follow the same principles, there is a fair chance it will diminish the impact of the learning.

    10-15 years ago, the sector was wringing its hands over IT provision as the youngsters had better IT skills than the teachers, digital natives being taught by us old dinosaurs.

    The younger generation are leading the way in pushing for a more environmentally sustainable future, so there are parallels there, just more at stake.

    For starters, the whole education sector, across all age groups, needs a comprehensive meaningful mass CPD programme, fast…

  2. Alan Green

    The difficulty in securing staff to teach these new skills is surely a matter of taking the learners to the employers who already employ the £100,000 salaried experts. I know over simplistic right? However we do need to think about this and how apprenticeships might achieve this and indeed how the model might have to change to allow apprentices to move between companies to achieve full standards and wider skill sets.

    We may even pay tuition fees to the employers who already employ the experts.

    Off the wall right? But we have to think differently if we are to move forward in a different world. Aka always do what you always did and you will always get what you always got.