Herald Article March 2021
If like me, you have been thinking recently about what exactly green skills are, then maybe also like me, you need to get out more – don’t we all? Even if you haven’t thought about this, you may have noticed the phrases ‘climate emergency’, ‘zero carbon and net zero among others are now commonplace, along with the question of what skills will we need to be part of the solution, rather than standing on the side-lines watching.
At the end of last year, Skills Development Scotland undertook the task of rapidly developing a response to this question through their Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan (CESAP), and Scottish Engineering along with other stakeholders were happy to be asked for input. The insight we offered came from conversations with industry, especially those firmly operating in the green zone, with responses that maybe shouldn’t have surprised, but did. Those discussions pointed out that while the technology of a hydrogen fuel cell turning gas into electrical energy is a fairly tricky concept, as a physical machine it’s a high-pressure gas system with pipework, compressors, valves, instrumentation and controls. Similarly, whilst electric vehicles contain battery systems of much higher voltage than standard vehicle electrical systems, the motors, power distribution and protection still represent the principles and components found throughout electrical installations. And the gearbox and generator in a wind turbine may be designed for a harsh life and levels of reliability needed to make economic sense, but they are still a gearbox and generator, and we have skills in those, plus high-pressure gas systems and high voltage DC power too.
It would be a lazy (and wrong) conclusion to surmise from this that we already have the necessary green skills, with the only question being do we have enough of them? (We don’t, but let’s come back to that.) What it does encouragingly illustrate is that we are certainly not starting from scratch and that in fact, we have an existing workforce already at varying stages of readiness. The core hands-on skills – whether that be hands-on a keyboard or hands-on equipment – exist and can be adapted for the specific system or product knowledge, so what else needs to be added?
For a detailed answer, I’d recommend a read of the CESAP report I mentioned, but if like me your attention span is shorter, here’s the three things I would boil that down to. Firstly, you must have a grasp of the importance and principles of de-carbonisation, why it matters and therefore why we need to move away from the way we used to do things. Secondly, possessing digital skills is an enabler of a circular approach and at the heart of successfully making this transition, so if there is a gap, it needs to be closed. And thirdly, we need meta skills such as leadership, communication, critical thinking and agility of thought to go quickly, efficiently and effectively whilst ensuring that safety and reliability are never compromised.
So, we need good hands-on skills, plus net zero understanding, digital skills and meta skills, and this is the point where I can ask: name me a sector that wouldn’t want that shopping list for its skillset? Why do green jobs need these particular skills any more than others? Perhaps the answer is that this isn’t a revolution or a re-invention, it’s a progressive adaptation of science and engineering to meet the climate challenge, and as in a pandemic, or other global crisis, the big difference is the urgency and scale of the challenge.
On scale, if you have any doubt of the size of the challenge, take just one example based on de-carbonising Scotland’s passenger rail network by 2035, a task that will require nearly 60% of our current network to have an electrification solution in the next fourteen years. If that sounds like a lot, and it sounds expensive, then hopefully it also underlines why that will need innovative solutions to achieve it at a faster rate and lower cost than ever, and that can only be achieved by approaching the challenge with a very different mindset. Apply that scale of change to every other aspect of our consumption that needs to change – domestic gas boilers spring to mind – and think about the other side of the volume equation: skilled people in the necessary numbers to carry out all this change and maintain these new technologies.
Countries that have a healthy cultural attitude to technology and engineering will be those who benefit most from de-carbonisation, those who don’t will always be trying to fit square pegs in round holes and wondering why the jobs went overseas. The Covid pandemic might have been the accelerator of net zero focus, but its economic impact has been counterproductive, with a 50% reduction in new engineering modern apprentices in Scotland since the start of the pandemic. More than ever, we need to pull school leavers to a STEM career pathway, alongside upskilling and reskilling greater numbers of those already in employment, and perhaps here we have an opportunity? Our sector has long wrung its hands in concern that our image as an attractive career could be better, but who wouldn’t want to join an industry that literally has the goal of saving the planet for future generations?
Chief Executive, Scottish Engineering