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Breaking down and addressing the challenges posed by the decarbonisation agenda, our owner Derek Horrocks sat down with Construction News editor Colin Marrs in the first 2024 episode of the publication’s official podcast, ‘First Site’. Here, we’ve pulled out Derek’s salient points from the discussion, for which he was joined by chair of London’s Skills for a Sustainable Skyline Taskforce, Keith Bottomley, and Speedy Hire’s ESG director Amelia Woodley.

To listen to the full podcast, visit here:

Opening the talk, the onus was first put on the shift seen in the past few years around the importance of sustainability and net zero goals. While ten years ago sustainability was only a legal obligation, now all kinds of stakeholders from employees to investors are actively interested in climate change and our efforts to preventing it.

While the construction industry has been characterised as behind the times when adopting new technologies and ways of thinking in the past, decarbonisation is a standout in the momentum that has been built up. Now the issues are being addressed proactively, energetically, and in a forward-thinking direction.

What are the skills that are needed to address the gap?

The skills required are completely new and require essential retraining if someone with traditional qualifications wants to become retrofit proficient. This is true in all roles in retrofit decarbonisation.

Government intervention includes PAS2035 and PAS2030 standards that must be adhered to. This means that each property is individually assessed, and proposed improvements tailored, evaluated, and designed on a property-by-property basis. On projects containing hundreds or even thousands of houses this becomes a big task. While this is great for the householder, it means that even if you’re an assessor or designer with years of experience in your field, retraining is still required because retrofit standards and roles have changed and evolved so much in the decarbonisation sector.

Therefore, in order to retrain, people need to have access to the opportunities and courses required for specific retrofit qualifications. The Retrofit Academy is doing an excellent job of providing these courses, but mass take-up is simpler on paper than in practice.

What is the balance needed between new entrants with the skills already, and upskilling the existing workforce?

New entrants are critical, there’s no two ways around that. However, upskilling and retraining the existing workforce is likewise massively important.

In terms of attracting new entrants the challenge we must overcome is attracting the new generation into construction. There is still a general consensus and stigma around construction that all work in it is manual, labour intensive, and possibly dangerous. Naturally this puts the next generation off even considering it as a career path to begin with.

What we’ve found has worked is shifting our offering from construction-led, to being solutions providers. When we position ourselves as such for some of the biggest issues in the UK at the moment – fuel poverty, the health crisis, energy security, and the climate crisis – we’re finding it really resonates. Young people want to see, feel and be part of societal change through what they do for a living, and making a real impact to the Net Zero revolution.

But again, it’s the same for retraining people already in adjacent roles. The main difficulty is helping them to find the courses and funding that’s available. Even for SMEs who want to bring an apprentice on or upskill one of their team, it’s not always viable for them to find their way around where and who to go to for the courses and funding. We need a platform that sets it all out in one place. Simply – we need to remove the barriers to access so that it can be taken up much more easily.

Would a change in government make a difference to the skills gap and green agenda?

There is potentially cause for concern. The supply chain has to be given the long-term room to develop, grow, and invest. A continuation of the sustained growth and funding would be good, but what would be better is cross-party infrastructure so that any concerns are quelled before any politics could cause them to arise.

Furthering the green agenda is popular, and because of this has the potential to become highly-politicised – but does bring with it funding from government. With this, it is important to be aware what damage to the agenda could come from over investment. A sudden step change that requires too much change, too quickly, from a supply chain point of view, may do more harm than good. In short, over investment risks the industry not being ready and able to deliver.

The supply chain must be able to grow and breathe naturally. Otherwise, if headline grabbing figures are promised, there is a danger of the money going to waste, or worse, the wrong type of businesses coming into the industry.

Finally, if there’s one thing businesses need to do to change the skills agenda, what is it?

Believe and invest. Businesses need to get hold of the issue, put time, resource and investment in it. We cannot solely rely on the government to further it for us, we need to rely on the industry to drive it ourselves.

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