Reaching Net-zero: Green upskilling and the retrofit opportunity

In 2019, the UK government made a commitment to reach net-zero by 2050. The shift towards a green recovery has been accelerated by the pandemic. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently outlined his ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ in which he pledges £12 billion to create and support 250,000 green jobs. This follows similar schemes such as £6.9 million to train tradespeople to retrofit homes through the Green Homes Grant and £40 million to stimulate jobs in nature recovery and conservation among others.

Meanwhile, it’s estimated that 2.6 million people will be unemployed by spring 2021. Many will be forced to consider completely new careers. In the first six months of 2020, more than two million people changed occupations – of which over half moved into entirely new industries. 

In Manchester, theatre workers laid off as a result of the crisis, have been using their skills to retrofit homes in the region, installing insulation, fitting windows and upgrading heating systems.

Could this become a bigger opportunity to reskill people for the green economy? That is the hope. 

However, as Nesta’s Going Green: Preparing the UK workforce for the transition to a net-zero economy shows, to mobilise millions of workers to deliver a clean future, funding only goes so far. It requires a major reskilling effort and a coordinated approach that inspires consumers, employers and educators to take climate action.

Improving our homes is key to the government's 10-point plan and thus, building a green workforce. Whether it’s for self-isolation or work, we’re spending more time at home than ever before. Our living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms are now offices. We’re using up to 23 per cent more residential energy on those working from home days. 

Yet homes in the UK are old and draughty. Over a third were built before 1946 and more than half were built before the 1965 Building Regulations introduced the first requirements for thermal insulation.

The planet’s health (and therefore ours!) is at stake. The UK will not meet its net-zero carbon emissions target by 2050 without a major improvement in housing. That’s 26 million homes that need retrofitting, or three houses every two minutes.

The whole house retrofit is a jobs and skills opportunity

The best way to retrofit a house is to do it holistically. For example, if you install double glazing, but disregard ventilation you can end up with damp problems. As anyone who has done work on a house will testify, fixing multiple issues simultaneously requires careful planning, coordination and execution. Crucially, people who want to do this through the government’s £3 billion Green Home Grants (GHG) need to find accredited installers. 

This is where the opportunity for jobs lies. Tradespeople can get accredited to become GHG installers through various routes

One of the key routes is (BSI) PAS 2035, the Specification for the Energy Retrofit of Domestic Buildings. Launched in 2019 and backed by the government, it sets out a range of standards concerning issues like the quality of retrofits, the professionalism of traders and, crucially, a commitment to making whole houses energy efficient (not just bits).

Because of this, the PAS 2035 has resulted in the creation of a range of roles that need to be filled by tradespeople: retrofit coordinator, advisor, assessor, designer, installer and evaluator. With the right training and accreditation this can result in more opportunity for both existing and future architects, installers, engineers and many other tradespeople. 

Unfortunately, the current reality is that installers are hardly signing up to get this certification, leaving thousands of households without access to the green home grants. Tradespeople are finding it very difficult to navigate a web of training providers, accreditation organisations and the heavy admin burden associated with getting into the system.

Delivering the skills needed

In order to boost the numbers of installers signing up to get certification, BEIS has launched a Green Homes Grant skills training competition. The objective is to increase the number of workers capable of delivering green homes and support the roll-out of the GHG scheme. Delivering training and support that is fit for purpose will require some key design considerations: 

Signing up and completing training needs to be worker-friendly. If individuals and businesses find it too cumbersome to navigate the system, they won’t deem it worth their while. When designing these programmes, organisations need to make it easy to sign up and the benefits need to be clear and obvious. 

It also takes time to skill up in these areas. The deadline to sign up to the GHG grants was originally March 2021; too narrow a time frame for busy builders and installers (this has now been extended by a year). Online bootcamps like the ones offered by the Retrofit Academy address this by balancing flexibility (making it online) with time effectiveness (making it short and intensive). 

Engage workers through influential partners. One of the key lessons we learned from delivering the FutureFit programme is that it’s easiest to engage workers through employer organisations, unions and associations. It’s harder to get buy-in from individuals unless they see that key players in the industry support the initiative. 

Make it social and supportive. The construction industry is unique in that a very high proportion of people are self-employed, working on very specific projects. Training programmes need to enable builders and installers to learn together and support each other through a community. Whether it’s through buddying schemes or peer support groups, training initiatives that incorporate peer learning have higher engagement levels and completion rates. The initiative Retrofit Get In is a good example of a community of workers retraining together in order to upgrade homes. 

Seize the opportunity to boost diversity. The sector is heavily dominated by men. Similarly, as our previous research shows, despite being more highly educated, the pay gap is double on average for women in green jobs than women compared to highly polluting sectors. If we are to truly build back better, this is an opportunity to boost diversity. Programmes from other sectors like Integrify in Finland and BeCentral in Belgium offer inspiration. They are trying to boost the talent pool in the tech sector by attracting and recruiting a more diverse workforce.

A larger, more sustainable ambition

As it stands, simply not enough people are choosing low-carbon energy for their homes. In order to achieve a true Green Industrial Revolution the industry needs to be promoting and selling the value of decarbonisation to consumers… and consumers need to demand it.

Perhaps there is a critical role to play for the ‘green tradesperson’ here too. With the right skills, they can help consumers navigate a confusing landscape of schemes and solutions and help increase the takeup of low-carbon options. 

As Andrew Glassford, who set up the Manchester scheme, says: ‘I am really proud and pleased with what we have achieved, just for the fact that I have been able to get my friends work that is meaningful, that helps them but also helps tackle the climate crisis.’

With the right support and opportunities, tradespeople can truly lead the way in building back greener and better. 

Find out more about FutureFit – a major training intervention that is upskilling and reskilling workers in Europe. Our recent work also includes Going Green: Preparing the UK workforce for the transition to a net-zero economy; Purpose over profit looking at the shift to ethical employment in the wake of the pandemic; and gender and the green transition exploring diversity issues related to green employment.


Chrystalla Kapetaniou

Chrystalla Kapetaniou

Chrystalla Kapetaniou

Principal Researcher, Future of Work

Dr Chrystalla Kapetaniou is a Principal Researcher.

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Olivia Chapman

Olivia Chapman

Olivia Chapman

Senior Programme Manager, Future of Work

Olivia Chapman is a Senior Programme Manager at Nesta.

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Beatrice Bekar

Beatrice Bekar

Beatrice Bekar

Assistant Programme Manager, Future of Work

Bea is an Assistant Programme Manager.

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Juan Casasbuenas

Juan was a Curriculum and Content Manager supporting the Future of Work team. Before joining Nesta, Juan was a training coordinator in the science communication sector, working in scie…