Construction skills crisis threatens UK's net-zero goals

Oscar Watkins heads up the research of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) on the UK construction sector. Here he explains why now is the time for industry to come together around the issues of green construction skills.

The UK
The UK's construction workforce is ageing. Image credit: Shutterstock
Civil engineers will play a fundamental role in defining what our recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic looks like. They may not know it yet, but in their work on transport projects, low carbon housing, new energy generation schemes and much more, they will wield the power to innovate and problem solve in pursuit of our national drive to net zero.  

It’s encouraging that, in almost every encounter I have had with civil engineers, I’ve found that among their greatest concerns are the issues of the environment and the climate crisis. However, an issue that may not be front of the mind for every civil engineer is that of skills and employment, but it should be. 
 

What are the challenges? 

The UK’s construction workforce is ageing. The proportion of workers aged over 50 now stands at a staggering 35% of the total workforce, compared to just 20% who are aged under 30. And this isn’t a new trend. The 2016 government-commissioned Farmer Review found that the industry has been ageing since at least the 1980s. And now, this construction skills crisis is threatening our nation’s drive to reduce carbon emissions and restore nature.

The government has set out a target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The construction sector will need to participate in every part of this effort, from insulating homes to building clean transport and energy infrastructure.  

Yet, analysis by IPPR shows that up to 750,000 UK construction workers will retire or be on the verge of retirement in the next 15 years. This threatens to undermine the government’s plans.  

Recent estimates suggest that just the task of making homes more energy efficient will create 200,000 new jobs. This is before you consider the mammoth tasks of decarbonising the energy system and reducing transport emissions. With the number of construction workers set to decrease, is the construction sector doing enough to create a pipeline of skilled workers to fill these roles? 
 

Putting the plans in place

The government is expected to clarify its planned investments in net-zero infrastructure in its Autumn statement, later this year. Once funding is committed to projects, the task of producing proposals for civil servants to appraise will fall to civil engineers and economists.

This is why it’s so important that every person in this profession understands the threat posed by the construction skills crisis. Civil engineers must join forces with those calling for more investment in skills and employment, to make these projects possible.  

Change is afoot. Clients, funders, financiers and contractors are changing how they value their climate impact. This month the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), a joint effort supported by leading construction businesses and the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, has launched two powerful proposals. The first is a net-zero strategy for the construction sector, titled Construct ZeroThe second is an Industry Skills Plan, covering 2021 to 2025. 

Both plans set out ambitious but achievable targets that industry will need to gather around. They explain why the climate crisis and the sector’s persistent skills crisis cannot be separated. They also show that in response to the climate crisis, industry is leading government, not the other way around. Firms are appointing Chief Sustainability Officers, investing in training, and taking action on issues like false self-employment.  
 

Collective action is necessary 

It is this spirit that marks a significant step-change in the efforts of the CLC on the climate issue, galvanised by the important role they have played in forging a collective response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Andy Mitchell, chair of the CLC and CEO of Tideway, summarised this role well in a recent article. He says that the CLC’s role is to convene and bring people together, so that the industry can plan and take action collectively.  
 

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This spirit of collaboration is what we need to turn around decades of inaction and lost opportunities in our sector.  

In its new initiatives, the CLC has adopted many of the recommendations that IPPR put forward including: 
  • Mandating direct employment in publicly-funded construction projects, to make employers more accountable for the training of their people.
  • Driving fairness, inclusion and respect in the construction workforce.
  • Conducting research to understand the future skills needs required to achieve net zero. 
More needs to be done to ensure that skills and employment interventions are priced-in to new construction projects. But the private sector is already beginning to drive this change through the supply chain, in pursuit of a more sustainable future for their shareholders and investors.  

Achieving net zero is possible. However, we can’t build back better without the builders. Every civil engineer has a responsibility to take action on the climate crisis. Central to this is recognising the significant threat posed by the construction skills crisis, and doing everything we can to identify solutions to the crisis through the projects we are designing today.  

Read IPPR's Skills for a Green Recovery report

Guest blogger: Oscar Watkins, construction lead at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
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