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Net zero: are there enough engineers?

Companies must leave no stone unturned in the hunt for green engineering talent  


Whisper it quietly. There aren’t enough green engineers to achieve the net zero transition. Many of those we have right now are eyeing up a comfortable retirement and the numbers coming out of universities to replace them are pitifully few.

Not surprisingly, it’s giving investors the jitters. An estimated 30 million new jobs in clean energy, energy efficiency and low-emissions technologies may need to be filled by 2030, but it’s not at all clear where the engineers will come from. Investors are already focusing on companies that have a net zero transition plan and are increasingly asking “how will you find the skills to deliver it?”

Governments have made net zero a priority. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Work report $1.8trn has been spent globally on green stimulus since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. This money will only translate into contracts for those companies that have the skilled people to fulfill them.

Solutions, not problems

Of course, it’s all very well pointing out the problem, but what is the solution for companies that desperately need people with green engineering expertise?

Firstly, we need to stop seeing green skills as a separate career path. Both governments and forward-thinking companies are already looking greedily at the huge existing workforce that could be upskilled to meet the needs of the transition. The most obvious examples of this are the engineers working in the oil and gas industry who could be trained to deliver renewable energy projects.

Automation could also be about to solve part of the puzzle, and not in the way you might think. It’s already starting to replace large numbers of workers who could be reskilled. These are often capable people who don’t currently work in engineering. It will take radical policies from governments and companies to give these people the skills that are needed but could also lead to more satisfying careers than they ever imagined.

Improving diversity in the engineering profession will also be important. In the UK, the recent Royal Academy of Engineering report Cultural Inclusivity in Engineering pointed to a ‘macho’ culture within the profession that alienated some engineers, particularly women. This can’t be allowed to continue. We simply can’t afford to miss out on talented people because they are made to feel they don’t belong.

“Nobody mentioned green careers”

The reskilling revolution won’t be enough, and efforts to encourage younger people into STEM careers to support the green transition need to be a priority. I recently attended the launch of the Green Skills Workforce Coalition in the UK. Supported by industry leaders such as the National Grid, it aims to close the gap between the need for a green workforce and young people in education who can learn green skills for the future.

Such initiatives are badly needed because not enough students are leaving education with specific green skills. At another conference I attended recently focusing on greening the tech industry, I was really surprised that many tech professionals said not once during their degree did anyone mention green tech.

The lack of green expertise is a worldwide challenge. EY recently surveyed 506 global Chief Sustainability Officers from businesses with at least £1 billion of annual revenues. It found that 28% see hiring talent with climate change skills as one of their biggest external barriers to achieving net zero. Similarly, 31% said that a lack of climate change expertise at board and senior management level was a ‘top three’ internal barrier.

Reimagining the workforce

The desperate hunt for talent comes as no real surprise given the scale of what needs to be achieved. In the energy sector we need people who can manufacture wind turbines and solar panels and develop energy storage systems. But beyond energy everything from the manufacturing of cars to the to the way we store data will have to change. Data storage facilities currently use a huge amount of energy as well as large volumes of water for cooling. Expertise will be needed to change the way we do just about everything in the coming months and years.

Thinking differently about the recruitment process and what can be taught on the job may open up different candidate pools for companies. Hiring candidates for their mindset and training them with the skills that are needed may well be a key approach. The financial impact on companies that don’t respond to the climate challenge is huge.

For engineering candidates, the need for green engineering expertise offers a huge opportunity because employers are likely to invest in their skills and training, and provide clearer routes to upskilling and promotion. For some, including contractors, however, it may be a nervous time. They will have to focus on their own personal development and invest in how they develop their skills to stay ahead of the changing world of green skills. Their future job likely doesn’t exist today but they need to build their skills to get ready. It will be worth the effort, there is going to be plenty of meaningful work for engineers as the world tackles climate change.

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