From education to employment

Ready for Retrofit? What new ministers can learn from the 2023 LSIPs

Charlotte Ravenscroft Exclusive

Charlotte argues new ministers must prioritise home retrofitting for net zero, emphasising skill development through FE. She finds Local Skills Improvement Plans inadequately address retrofitting needs. Charlotte recommends a national strategy to coordinate industrial and skills policies, involve diverse stakeholders, and prepare a 250,000-500,000 strong workforce for this critical task offering multiple societal benefits.

Retrofitting and Skills Development for Net Zero: A Priority for New Ministers

Next week, new ministers will arrive at government departments with their manifesto commitments in mind and keen to make their mark quickly. Retrofitting the nation’s homes – including switchover to low-carbon heating – should be a high priority for several of them. Getting it right on retrofitting has the potential to reduce household energy bills, improve the nation’s health, reduce NHS expenditure, create new good jobs in every community, and get the UK back on track towards net zero. The Climate Change Committee has said it is essential to decarbonise virtually all buildings.

The Role of Further Education and Local Skills Improvement Plans

What new ministers must not overlook is the vital role of the FE sector and wider education system in developing the skills to do this. Over the past year, I’ve analysed the 38 Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) created across England and what I’ve found tells me that much greater focus on skills is needed and that there needs to be a more joined-up approach across Whitehall, especially between the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) and Department for Education (DfE). Otherwise, big manifesto commitments – not only on retrofitting, but also on scaling up renewable energy, upgrading the national grid, housebuilding, and more – will falter due to the lack of – or competing demands on – available skilled workers.

Readers of FE News are likely to be familiar with LSIPs already, but incoming ministers across Whitehall may be less so. They were introduced in the Post-16 Education and Skills Act 2022 and rolled out nationally in 2023. In each of 38 areas of England (roughly following the old footprint of Local Economic Partnerships), an employer representative body (ERB) was invited to lead the process of drawing up a LSIP. It was intended as a way for local employers to express their priority skills needs, which FE colleges would then be compelled to respond to when planning their provision. In an nutshell the idea was: if local construction companies need more scaffolders, they would say this in the LSIP, and FE colleges would then put on scaffolding courses and encourage learners to attend them.

Challenges in Addressing Net Zero Skills Needs

However, my research findings show that this process hasn’t worked well for net zero skills needs, like retrofitting. There was wide variation in the extent to which LSIPs mentioned retrofitting (and related terms like ‘heat pump’). While a few said it was an urgent priority; many others didn’t mention it at all or only once in passing. Where retrofitting was mentioned, it was often to say that construction employers had been asked (presumably by ERBs) and expressed their views that there wasn’t much customer demand for it and that it therefore wasn’t a priority for training. Even where employers would consider training, their preferences were for very short introductory courses.

As Liverpool’s LSIP says:

“When asked about Green Skills for the future most businesses (95%) highlighted recycling as a priority skill… [Actions] that require higher investment…came much lower in their priorities.”

In the course of my research, I also interviewed several skills experts, including two enterprising FE college principals, and I asked what they made of these findings. They agreed that take-up of relevant courses was low to date, but being quite switched-on to policy developments, they were investing in creating new training facilities and recruiting tutors so they’d be ready when demand inevitably ramps up. But not all FE colleges were taking this kind of action. Understandably so, given LSIPs have sent mixed messages about need, tutors are hard to recruit, and courses with low take-up run at a loss. As a country though, it means we risk not having the skills, nor having the capacity to quickly develop these skills when we eventually realise how much we need them.

Other expert interviewees said that it highlighted the disconnect between what ministers have been doing in different parts of Whitehall. In the past couple of years, DESNZ has been developing and rolling out a much-needed multi-billion pound Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, while the DfE has been taking quite a hands-off approach to skills planning: leaving it up to local employers to say what they need in LSIPs.

It’s not to say that local employers shouldn’t have a voice, but it shouldn’t be the only voice guiding skills planning. Not least because the scale of the skilled workforce needed has been estimated at between 250,000 – 500,000 people. The few LSIPs that had included quantitative estimates of retrofit skills needs locally (based on number of homes) arrived at even higher figures than implied by these national forecasts. Other ERBs looked at existing research and found it wanting: too often, future skills forecasts simply extrapolate from past industry trends, whereas mass retrofitting lies ahead of us (to their credit, several ERBs identified this and committed to undertake further consultation or research).

Meeting this scale of skills needs will necessarily involve recruiting learners from a wider demographic pool than has been typical in the construction sector to date. And therefore primarily asking existing construction employers what kind of training should be provided won’t necessarily identify what kind of training and career routes the next generation of would-be retrofitters will be seeking or how best to appeal to them. They should also be consulted. But as a starting point, basic retrofitting and building physics content urgently needs to be added to all construction-related qualifications such as T-Levels, so that it begins to raise awareness among those already pursuing them.

Recommendations for a National Strategy

How can incoming ministers get on top of all of this? Ideally, they would develop a national strategy for decarbonising homes, that places a high priority on developing the right skills. Such a strategy needs to better coordinate industrial policy with skills policy – to ensure that interventions like the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund that boost demand, are coordinated with interventions that boost skills supply. It also needs to raise quality standards for the construction sector and introduce accountability mechanisms, so that employers will be prompted to take-up training and households can have increased confidence in the quality of retrofitting on offer. At a local level, local authorities, housing associations, the growing number of community retrofit organisations and local residents need to be involved in planning for mass retrofitting – and thus also have a greater say than they’ve had to date through LSIPs in determining what skills will be needed and how they’ll be developed locally.

I’ve worked in and around policy for 18 years. I know there is no silver bullet for the climate situation. But when I decided to pursue a MSc in Sustainability & Adaptation, the course that led me to do this research, it was because I wanted to look in depth at which policies could make a real difference. Retrofitting the nation’s homes is as close as I’ve found to a win-win-win investment: it would make sense on health, economic and energy security grounds, even if reducing emissions wasn’t a top priority for the next government. I hope that whoever wins next week is ready to do this – and puts skills at the heart of their plans.

By Charlotte Ravenscroft, Author ofReady For Retrofit? An Analysis Of Local Skills Improvement Plans In England

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