Apprenticeships are the key to reaching Net Zero, why aren’t we doing more?

Josh Turpin

Senior Account Manager

In 2019, the UK Government became the first G7 nation to establish Net Zero in law, legislating a target of zero emissions by 2050, alongside two interim targets for 2035. The UK was initially quick off the mark in the race to Net Zero, but momentum appears to be waning.

The Prime Minister has said that achieving Net Zero should not involve a “hair shirt” approach, whilst the Climate Change Committee has criticised the Government for its lack of urgency and ability to meet its commitments.

The Government’s inaction is incongruous with the UK public’s level of support for Net Zero, which has been broader and deeper than any other peer country. Indeed nearly half (47 per cent) of the electorate say they would be less likely to vote for a party that promised to get rid of the Net Zero target.

Role of apprenticeships

It is vital that the British economy rapidly evolves to develop the nascent technologies required. But how will the UK actually reach its environmental obligations whilst providing skilled careers for Britons?

The answer here lies in reversing the long-term neglect of technical education routes and the provision of apprenticeships. The UK has for too long overlooked further education (FE), leading to a mass shortage of skills that are vital for reaching Net Zero.

To highlight the severity of this, the energy industry needs to recruit 400,000 jobs between now and 2050. This is just for the energy industry – the Government’s aim currently is to create two million jobs by 2030, whilst the Opposition hopes to accelerate quicker than the Conservatives. But such ambition is at serious risk due to the skills constraint and a step change in urgency and the scale of response needed.

According to the Green Jobs Taskforce, decarbonisation will have far-reaching consequences for the labour market, with one in five workers projected to experience either increased demand for their skills or a need for reskilling as a consequence. For school-leavers, there must be a better pathway to those technical jobs necessary to reach Net Zero. Too many young people are choosing the academic route over vocational education, in due part to a lack of equivalence in status but also a lack of awareness of the career pathways available to them.

When we discuss apprenticeships and overcoming the skills gap, we do not just mean school leavers, but ensuring a sound environment in which people can retrain and upskill, particularly those who currently work in high-carbon industries. Eighty per cent of the 2030 workforce is already in work, meaning any Net Zero ambition must work on retraining and upskilling just as much as training new apprentices.

A lack of investment in our people and allowing the long-term decline of British industries will also cause political challenges for any Government, with factories largely concentrated in areas already seen as ‘left behind’. The Lifelong Learning Entitlement has been a welcome initiative which covers tuition costs for upskilling and reskilling equivalent to four years of post-18 education over a lifetime.

Reforming the apprenticeship landscape

There is clearly a need, as well as an appetite by industry, to improve the skills environment in order to achieve Net Zero. What is now required is a matched level of ambition and long-term planning by the Government and public sector so that these ambitions can be realised. Improving the apprenticeship landscape is one clear way in which to do so, but there are areas that need reform.

Some examples include:

  • Reforming the apprenticeship levy: There is a current inflexibility with apprenticeships and courses on offer to meet emerging demands. Reform should include increasing the proportion of funds available for SMEs and flexibility on timings.
  • Promoting apprenticeships: Government can play a key role in promoting apprenticeships as essential for a changing economy.
  • More funding for FE: Current investment in FE in the UK is badly out of step with the demands of the Net Zero transition and the required jobs – funding for these centres must be reformed, in line with a more balanced approach to promoting higher education.
  • STEM skills promotion at school: We need more young people to choose STEM subjects and to be supported in their career choices. Emphasis from a young age on the benefits of STEM as well as the rollout of T Levels, should help better prepare learners.

These are just a few policy proposals that could help transform the ability of the UK workforce to meet the challenge of Net Zero. But in order to realise its full potential, governments from now to 2050 must create enduring policies that are focused on the long-term. Coherent policy will allow companies to invest in our workers for decades and help the UK reach Net Zero.

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