SMEs lack incentive to invest in green skills

22 Apr 2022, 6:00

Not much is in place to encourage smaller construction businesses to go green, write Andrea Laczik and Kat Emms

This week, the Department for Education published its sustainability and climate change strategy. It includes pledges such as all FE staff integrating sustainability into their teaching, and new capital projects being evaluated on whether they are net zero.

But here, we want to focus on a big industry partner for FE.

When it comes to the hugely pressing issue of climate change, the construction sector has a particularly important role to play. By some estimates, construction contributes up to 11 per cent of global carbon emissions. On Earth Day, that’s an especially sobering thought.

So, to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will require immediate action within the industry on a scale never seen before.

In our Greening Construction report out last month, we explored what green skills are required and the challenges the construction industry faces.

In partnership with the University of Oxford, The Centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) and the Environmental Change Institute (ECI), we combined a literature review, document analysis and stakeholder input.

Too much focus on STEM over soft skills

In mainstream narratives, net zero is often framed in terms of developing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills.

But Edge’s report outlines that communication, leadership and general business and administrative skills, as well as professional integrity and sustainable dispositions, are also vital to the green revolution.

Professional integrity is vital to the green revolution

In the construction industry, which already lacks regulation, this will mean a huge overhaul of the skills and training system.

This cannot happen without significant sector input.

Fortunately, organisations such as the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) – the UK’s trade body for small and medium enterprises and micro-building companies – are keen to do their part.

Lack of incentives

Greening construction poses a huge challenge to the sector, but it’s also a market opportunity worth between £3.5 and £6.5 billion a year or more.

Unfortunately, there’s currently little incentive for SMEs and micro businesses – which make up 99 per cent of the construction industry – to invest in green skills.

This is because their current skills are already in high demand. This reduces any incentive to invest in training and resources, which is challenging for smaller businesses to achieve.

There’s also a more systemic issue at play. At the report’s launch, Brian Berry, FMB chief executive, explained: “When governments introduce policies, such as the Green Home Grants scheme, and then shuts them down, small businesses lose confidence in investing.

“There’s currently no long-term government plan to working with the building industry to upskill and deliver a carbon-zero built environment.”

But the climate will not wait. Things must change now.

Diversity and employment

The construction sector’s current training landscape is patchy and confusing at best.

To circumvent this problem, many companies recruit from those they know, resulting in a shortage of workers and a lack of diversity in the sector.

Bricklayers, carpenters and other tradespeople are all in short supply – vacancies in the industry are currently at an estimated 42 per cent.

Furthermore, women constitute only around 11 per cent of construction sector employees, while ethnic minority workers constitute only seven per cent.

Brexit and the pandemic have exacerbated these problems. But developing green skills presents an opportunity to tackle skills shortages and make the industry a more attractive option for a broader workforce.

Solutions for a zero-carbon built environment

As Edge’s report emphasises, and as Berry agrees, the government needs a longer-term strategy for greening construction. Berry said: “The government has already created various initiatives, flexible apprenticeships, bootcamps and T Levels.

“But many small companies don’t know how to access these. If we’re to deliver a zero-carbon built environment, industry, government and the education sector must collaborate and pull these into a long-term strategy for skills.”

Despite the myriad challenges, there’s one positive foundation to build on. And that’s the increasing desire of further education learners to combat climate change.

With close collaboration between government, industry and training providers, it’s eminently possible to transform the construction industry into a vehicle for a more sustainable future.

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