Cara Jenkinson, Cities Manager, Ashden

The UK Government has pledged a zero carbon Britain by 2050. Reaching this goal demands the upgrading of over a million buildings a year, potentially creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. However, the UK has a construction skills shortage – the workforce is aging, and in 2020 there was a 28% drop in the number of EU-born construction workers. In National Apprenticeship Week, it’s time to ask: can construction apprenticeships help achieve our net zero targets?

At Ashden – a climate solutions charity – we have been showcasing sustainability innovators for 20 years through our annual awards programme. This year we’re running a new green skills award, focussing on retrofit and low carbon heat. So for the last few months, we’ve been picking the brains of sector experts to understand what training exists, what barriers exist to scaling up, and who is innovating.

Both the low carbon heating and retrofit experts told us that stop-start government policies had left further education colleges reluctant to invest in new courses – time-limited government subsidies meant that employers couldn’t be certain of demand for newly-qualified trainees, and uncertainty also reduced demand from potential learners. As a result, less than 10% of colleges offer apprenticeships that focus on renewable energy and heat.

Today’s courses don’t meet tomorrow’s challenges

Construction apprenticeships have largely been shaped by the builders of new homes, and are focussed on specialised skills like carpentry or bricklaying. However, energy efficiency retrofit requires a whole-house approach, understanding the links between insulation and ventilation and appreciating older construction techniques. Apprenticeships for heating engineers also don’t meet the needs of a low carbon building sector; learning focuses on fossil-fuelled technologies, possibly with a short heat pump module bolted on. But heat pumps and heat networks work in a very different way to gas boilers and a new low carbon heat apprenticeship standard is needed.

Government has recognised the need for new apprenticeships standards to meet the net zero challenge. Recently the Institute of Apprenticeships has established a green advisory panel, and it’s good to see that some of the retrofit and low carbon heating experts that we’ve spoken to will be joining.

Is there a demand from learners for green construction and heating apprenticeships? Encouragingly, we know that young people are eager to work in the green economy. A 2018 survey by BEIS found that over two thirds of 18-24 year olds are interested in low carbon jobs. A green makeover of construction and heating apprenticeships may help stem the falling popularity of these training opportunities. Perhaps the construction sector can take inspiration from organisations such as National Grid, who have recently welcomed in 63 ‘net zero apprentices’. Exciting new technologies such as the insulation robot from Q-Bot (an Ashden Award winner in 2018) and offsite construction of retrofit systems pioneered by Energiesprong (an Ashden Award winner in 2019) may also help attract and retain students.

New partnerships and pioneering colleges

While many further education colleges have had their fingers burnt by unsuccessful government low carbon initiatives, some are now actively re-engaging. Right now, their main focus is on adult learning, in part due to the government’s Green Homes Grant skills training fund. Dudley College is providing short courses on solar thermal and heat pump technologies and Farnborough College is providing training on insulation. Retrofit Academy are working with local authorities across the country to train retrofit co-ordinators and upskill installers with insulation skills. The Green Register, who’ve provided training to construction professionals for many years are now teaming up with Bath College to offer retrofit training.

There are some positive signs that the much-needed training revolution in low carbon retrofit could be about to take off. The government has recognised that it will miss its net zero targets unless it retrofits millions of homes in the next decade. The Green Homes Grant scheme launched in Autumn has faced difficulties due to a lack of accredited installers, which has reinforced the need for upskilling and training young people. City regions across the UK are taking the lead with ambitious retrofit plans to hit their own net zero targets, and it’s good to see them working with their local FE colleges. And to stimulate interest amongst school students, the Heat Pump Federation has been working on schemes of work across different age groups.

With long-term government policy that makes upgrading our buildings as a national infrastructure priority, there are good prospects for green construction apprenticeships, and the opportunity to scale up the good work that has recently started.

By Cara Jenkinson, Cities Manager, Ashden

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