Sleepwalking Towards a Net Zero Skills Shortage

Article by Michael Hardisty

Michael Hardisty of EngineeringUK discusses the urgent fixes the UK needs to reliably forecast the jobs required to meet the climate crisis

A SKILLED engineering workforce is vital to the UK’s net zero ambition, but what are those skills and where are they needed? How many more engineers and technicians will the industry need to thrive? These are among the questions I’ve been asking to understand how well positioned we are to achieve net zero by 2050. That work suggests the UK could be sleepwalking towards a net zero engineering skills shortage.

Engineering and technology are and will continue to be fundamental to decarbonising transportation, power, energy, industry and the built environment. Whether we achieve decarbonisation of this scale or not will depend greatly on innovative engineering solutions and a skilled engineering workforce. The Net zero workforce report ( published earlier this year by EngineeringUK reveals there is a lack of consistency when referencing green jobs and the engineering skills needed to decarbonise key sectors of the UK economy.

Understanding the implications of job forecasts and looking at future demand

The report painted an inconsistent picture of the understanding of the future demand for engineering and technical skills needed at a national level to meet the net zero targets. The report, an analysis of existing research, highlighted key areas of action:

  • Forecasting versus back-casting. Whilst all reports analysed for our net zero workforce report used different methods to forecast future jobs, only one considered the implications for the required number of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) students in secondary and tertiary education. Without this analysis, we can’t predict the potential scale of the shortfall in engineering and technology skills.
  • Newly created versus existing jobs. Job forecasts frequently neglect to state the proportion of future jobs that are newly created (that is, due to innovation and expansion of the market) and how many jobs currently exist. Few forecasts provided an estimate of the replacement jobs expected to compensate for those leaving the sector, which makes it difficult to see the full picture.
  • Technical versus non-technical jobs. Job forecasts rarely distinguish between those requiring engineering and technical skills (meaning those that would be classified as engineering occupations) and those that may arise within the engineering industry but do not require such skills, such as procurement or HR.
  • Codes to classify jobs. The Office of National Statistics uses Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) and Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) codes to classify jobs. A key limitation of this is that these are created by coding jobs and industries retrospectively, which means that there is a risk that these may not reflect future roles.
  • Timescales. All reports used different timescales to forecast jobs, making a single, cross-sector picture difficult to produce.

Strong demand for engineering and technology skills

An ageing workforce in the engineering construction sector means the industry expects to lose 20,000 employees per year over the next 6 years. Other sectors face steep re-skilling and recruitment forecasts due in large part to the UK decarbonisation target, for example:

  • By 2050, the energy sector will need to fill 400,000 roles. 260,000 of these will be new roles, equating to 10,000 each year.
  • In the buildings sector, retrofitting would require the training of 45,000 technicians each year at its peak in 5–10 years’ time. This equates to 30,000 each year in fabric improvement and 15,000 each year in heat pump installation.

Another thing worth mentioning is that the UK’s plan to be net zero by 2050 is predicated on removing around 60m t/y CO2 from the atmosphere. This is around 10% of the UK’s current emissions, building this capacity rapidly from the late 2020s. However, no report appeared to cover the skills needed and jobs supported by the new bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology that will be necessary to achieve most of these removals.

All the above issues mean that it’s impossible to develop a national forecast of STEM-based jobs that the UK needs to fill to reach its net zero ambitions. This needs to be fixed urgently so that the UK can begin to identify and address any shortfalls in the numbers of STEM-skilled workers and students needed to achieve net zero by 2050, as well as other environmental targets, like air quality and recycling. Our education system also faces issues that need to be tackled: we need more young people to take STEM subjects at school and beyond, but we are lacking the teachers and the infrastructure to make this happen.

More needs to be done to encourage and enable young people across the UK to take up STEM-based qualifications with a view of tackling the climate crisis. If we don’t have enough young people studying chemistry and physics now, for example, it could lead to a shortage of chemical and electrical engineers, which means we will not have the necessary skills in the future workforce.

Engineering and technology are and will continue to be fundamental to decarbonising transportation, power, energy, industry and the built environment

Supporting the existing workforce

Re-skilling and upskilling the existing workforce needs to happen in parallel to bringing in new talent. The transition to renewable energy and the race to net zero will create opportunities for companies in the sector but crucially, should also offer the chance to leverage transferable skills from across the oil and gas workforce. If, as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) states in the North Sea Transition Deal, “many of the skills present in the sector are also transferrable across the wider energy sector” and offshore renewables “will rely heavily on many of the current skillsets in the oil and gas industry”, then employers have a significant role to play in ensuring the just transition from a skills point of view.

Skills or competency mapping could help individuals make this transition. Existing skillsets should be examined to see what’s transferrable and where training would be required, as highlighted in The Chemical Engineer’s survey ( on the impacts of the energy transition for oil and gas workers.

The BECCS and direct air capture (DAC) sectors will be fundamental to the UK reaching net zero. Whilst the UK Government is providing funding for R&D projects through its Direct Air Capture and Greenhouse Gas Removal programme, there is not yet a jobs or skills forecast for this sector. Last year, BEIS’ Biomass Policy Statement noted that “there is also a need for a suitably skilled workforce as new jobs might need a different set of skills compared to more traditional ones” but presented no analysis of job numbers or what those skills might be. This needs to be addressed by industry and government.

Government must take action

To accurately gauge future skills demand, the Government should develop up-to-date skills taxonomies which can differentiate between:

  • “direct” and “indirect” jobs;
  • “expansion” and “replacement” jobs (as workers retire and so on); and
  • specific fields of engineering and technology (for example, chemical and aeronautical).

It should also provide regular statistics on the numbers currently employed in each role and on the workforce demand forecasts. This data should be made available to the different sectors to enable them to act on those forecasts, particularly those sectors crucial to the UK economy achieving net zero, such as engineering. The forecasts should take a holistic “systems approach” that recognises the interdependencies between different industries, and the opportunities for re-training, re-skilling and upskilling across different sectors of the UK economy.

Finally, the Government should provide regular “back-casting” to identify the number of technical and engineering students needed to be entering STEM subjects from A-level, T-level and advanced apprenticeship level onwards. This information should be used to develop an approach to STEM education that will ensure that these student numbers, and ultimately workforce needs, are met.

An ageing workforce in the engineering construction sector means the industry expects to lose 20,000 employees per year over the next 6 years

What can industry do?

Young people have a keen interest in the environment, so it is crucial that we harness this and use impactful engagement to make the link to engineering careers. The industry needs to work in unity to inspire young people about the wide range of green STEM careers that is available to them – this will be vital in securing a strong workforce skilled at meeting net zero.
Our analysis of STEM secondary school teachers ( revealed that students who think engineers are important for improving the environment are almost seven times more likely to be interested in a career that involves engineering than those who don’t. And those young people who said improving environmental sustainability was an important career factor for them were three times more likely to be interested in a career that involves engineering. This reinforces the fact that young people are interested in the environment and, alongside an understanding of tackling the climate crisis, young people are creative when it comes to possible solutions. This was evident to us during Tomorrow’s Engineers Week last year when we hosted a Schools COP which saw young people explore ways to address the COP26 challenges. And we have seen it in the projects entered into The Big Bang Competition over the years. The talent and creativity is already there, our job is to harness it and showcase to them how an engineering career can help the planet.

Employers can support the skills transition through mapping the skillsets required to meet net zero. This, in turn, supports talent retention as it identifies the transferrable skills available internally and creates a wider pool for recruitment. Employers across the engineering community should also compare the skillsets of current and future roles and offer targeted upskilling/reskilling training where appropriate, as well as look to offer T-level industry placements and apprenticeships to ensure young people have the skills and talent for the future.

Outreach opportunities

If you are an employer or professional engineering institution (PEI) running an outreach programme, or a STEM Ambassador going into schools, you can encourage school students to think about how we can reach net zero in a variety of ways. At EngineeringUK we spend time looking at what works well in inspiring young people to consider a career in engineering and we share this insight on Tomorrow’s Engineers, which is home to free resources for you to use. You might draw on the Inspiring Young People in Environmental Sustainability in Engineering guide (, which has information on knowledge and perceptions of STEM and engineering within environmental sustainability among young people as well as top tips for engaging them in this topic. Or you might use the set of four inspiring green engineering careers posters aimed at teachers to bring STEM to life in the classroom (

Understanding the real skills demand is essential if we are to ensure the diverse, skilled future workforce our net zero ambition requires. We need to know what is needed and work now to secure the talent to deliver for 2050 and beyond

And if you have committed to increasing the diversity and number of young people entering the industry by joining The Tomorrow’s Engineers Code community, you can also work with and learn from others in the sector to inspire and leverage young talent.

Understanding the real skills demand is essential if we are to ensure the diverse, skilled future workforce our net zero ambition requires. We need to know what is needed and work now to secure the talent to deliver for 2050 and beyond.

Article by Michael Hardisty

Head of Environmental Sustainability at EngineeringUK

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