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Expanding the green jobs sector – a quest to upskill the next generation

The UK has a shortage of green skills. This shortfall is one of the most important – and most underestimated – barriers to reaching net-zero carbon emissions. We can’t all switch to heat pumps or electric vehicles if we don’t have enough people with the skills to make them work. The lack of green skills also holds back the economy – we know that green jobs are generally more productive and highly paid than other jobs, so there’s a strong case for filling them.

Encouraging more people to train in green skills is a challenge the Behavioural Insight Team and Nesta tried to find solutions for in our latest research.

We ran an online experiment with just over 8,000 people – half of them current or recent students soon to begin their careers, half of them people who are already in the world of work – to understand how likely they’d be to take a green training course under different circumstances. In particular, we tested the impact of different framings – how we described the green training – and financial incentives – offering people different kinds of payment or loan for taking the training.

There were two striking results from the experiment. First, a large number of people expressed interest in green training courses, with around half of all participants saying they were interested, regardless of what framing we showed them. Second, financial incentives to train make a big difference. For all three of the financial incentives we tested – a grant, a subsidy and a loan – interest in green training roughly doubled compared to our control (where no financial incentive was on offer). That suggests money is a very important factor.

Our results suggest there is a very strong case for offering financial help to people to take on green training courses. There are various ways this could be done.

One is for governments to offer payments to those who complete green training courses – either as a grant payment or a subsidy on the cost of the course. There is precedent for doing this, such as the cash payments that are often offered to trainee teachers. Focusing payments on sectors with immediate skills shortages could make this especially effective. Indeed, the UK government is currently offering subsidies on the cost of training as a heat pump engineer, a skill set the country is currently very short of.

Another option might be for employers to offer payments to those who take up green training, in return for trainees committing to work for the company for a period of time. This practice, sometimes known as a golden hello, is a relatively common tactic for industries facing skills shortages.

While offering these payments for green training sounds expensive, it may not be that large compared to other options. On heat pumps, for example, the Government is offering £5,000 for every heat pump installed in England and Wales. The subsidy for training heat pump engineers is just £500 – and each one of these trainees could go on to install a large number of heat pumps. For private companies, upfront incentive payments are likely to be small in the context of overall employment costs, particularly given the wage pressures facing the economy.

But if upfront payments are too expensive, there is another option which seems to work almost as well: loans for green training. Loans for education and training is sometimes a contentious topic, but the logic behind offering loans for green skills is strong: re-training for a green job has a good chance of increasing income, which helps to pay off the loan.

There are already companies offering loans for training, such as Student Finance, Stepex and Knoma. Our research suggests extending this type of offer into the green skills space could prove very beneficial.

Aside from the financial incentives, there are a couple of other big issues that we need to address on green skills. The first is that there seems to be a lack of green training courses on offer. There are noble exceptions, such as the Sustainability Masters at Cranfield University, but for the most part when we have spoken to organisations working on green skills, they have drawn a blank on who actually offers courses on green skills. There is not much point in incentivising people to take green training courses if those courses don’t exist. So our message to training providers of all sorts – colleges, universities, private companies – is that there seems to be a big gap on green skills where a big, lucrative market should be.

Second, we need to do more on helping people – especially young people – plan successful green careers. Many people who are interested in doing green jobs don’t know what green jobs are actually available, or what skills and experience they need to secure those jobs. You can’t easily acquire green skills if you don’t know what skills you need. There are some interesting companies taking up this task, such as Greenworkx and Connectr.

The good news is that our research shows a very clear route to tackling the green skills shortage. We need more green training courses, better green careers advice and financial help for people taking on green training. The benefits of doing this should be significant – for workers, employers, the economy and the climate – and so it’s time for government, businesses and training providers to make it happen.


Andrew Sissons

Andrew Sissons

Andrew Sissons

Deputy Director, sustainable future mission

Andrew is deputy director on Nesta's mission to create a sustainable future, which focuses on decarbonisation and economic recovery.

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