The net zero skills issue

Bridging the gap to a low carbon workforce

This is the seventh annual Energy Barometer report from the Energy Institute (EI). It is based on survey responses from more than 400 professionals selected to represent views right across the UK energy system, from renewables to oil and gas to energy efficiency. In addition to tracking trends, this year's report hones in on the people and skills needed to reach the UK's net zero emissions target.

The backdrop to this year’s survey has been dramatic in many respects

Click events for more detail

  • April 2020

    US benchmark price for crude oil drops below zero for the first time ever due to cratering demand

  • June 2020

    UK electricity grid goes almost 68 days coal-free, the longest run since the Industrial Revolution

  • September 2020

    President Xi Jinping announces that the world's biggest emitter intends to be carbon neutral by 2060

  • November 2020

    Biden defeats Trump in the US election. New administration has re-joined the Paris climate agreement

  • November 2020

    Set up by ministers, to set the direction for the UK’s future high-skill low carbon job market

  • November 2020

    UK confirms a ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030

  • December 2020

    Government releases its long-awaited White Paper, following on from PM’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution

  • December 2020

    The UK and the EU agree a post-Brexit trade deal

  • January 2021

    The UK reaches the tragic milestone of over 100,000 COVID-19 related deaths recorded

  • March 2021

    Premature closure of £1.5 billion scheme set up as part of pandemic stimulus only six months prior

  • April 2021

    Almost 80% of power on the GB grid is from low-carbon sources over Easter - a new record

The Energy Barometer report tracks year-on-year the concerns of those working in the UK industry, and for 2021 there is no surprise that COVID-19 looms large, identified as the stand-out concern for our survey respondents. The pandemic and associated economic hiatus has caused an unprecedented drop in energy demand, with impacts across the economy, in operations and working practices. Analysis from the International Energy Agency shows that global primary energy demand dropped nearly 4 percent in 2020, the largest decline since World War II and the largest ever absolute decline – in the UK, demand dropped 12 percent.

Uncertainties as we emerge from lockdown are aggravated by the perceived continued lack of coherent energy policy, and Section 6 explores in more detail our respondents’ views on the effectiveness of that policy and ongoing concerns that long-term emission reduction goals are not yet within reach. As the UK prepares to host the UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow this winter, its ability to set and achieve climate goals will be under greater scrutiny than usual – facilitating international cooperation first requires setting a good example at home.

But first, we explore in detail the net zero skills issue – the views, hopes and fears of UK energy professionals about their jobs and the skills that are needed as the energy transition accelerates.

"The greatest challenge the UK faces in building a net zero workforce is..."

Energy policy

Energy policy

Skills gap

Skills gap

As the pandemic recovery continues, global attention is increasingly focused on the steps necessary to achieve challenging climate goals. Most often this manifests itself in discussions about the various low-carbon technologies and their relative importance, but this year’s Energy Barometer reveals concern that skills and human capacity issues are not yet being given due attention and could even eclipse technology as the biggest barrier to meeting net zero.

The following sections seek to answer pressing questions: What are the challenges facing today’s energy professionals? What will their career journeys look like over the next decade, and what can industry and government do to build the energy workforce needed? Finally, how can these efforts also help ensure the energy transition is just and fair?

Minister Trevelyan headshot

The invaluable findings from the Energy Barometer support the government’s priority to invest in the UK’s most important asset – our workforce – ensuring that people from every region of the UK have the right skills for the green industrial revolution and thrive in the jobs this will create.

The measures we’re taking to eliminate our country’s contribution to climate change by 2050 are not just good for the planet; they are also helping us build back greener from the pandemic, creating new job opportunities across the country. This report shows how existing staff are stepping up to the plate, and planning to support the next generation within the nation’s vital sectors.

-  Energy and Climate Change Minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP

Re-shaping energy careers

Net zero is already changing our working lives

This year’s Energy Barometer survey asked UK energy professionals how net zero will personally impact their careers. A quarter believe the transition to net zero will have a generally positive impact, with a further 20% specifically citing new career opportunities and progression.

Global net zero provides an absolute goal for our sector; that's inspiring to me and opens up exciting career opportunities.
-Survey respondent

It is clear that for many professionals, net zero will change the focus of their work, and potentially even the role they have.

My background is in oil and gas service, and I believe that many of the skills I developed are required to support the emerging offshore wind industry.

Many respondents emphasise that future roles will require greater flexibility and adaptability.

Being part of the oil and gas sector, the impact on my role will be how GHG emissions [reduction] process can be applied to ongoing oil and gas activity…future planning to help offset [emissions] in operational activity.

However, it is also worth noting that 10% of respondents expressed their concerns about the net zero changes, worrying about the negative impact on their careers or increased uncertainty. These concerns are more acute for those working in oil and gas, something discussed in Section 5.

After a lifetime in oil and gas I think net zero will have a significant impact on my career as I will be perceived (unjustly) as a dinosaur and part of the problem, not the solution.

To meet net zero targets, growth is required across a range of low-carbon sectors, including resource and energy efficiency, carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS), hydrogen and domestic heating. A large number of skilled engineers, electricians, technicians and scientists will be required to make this growth possible.

Results from the Barometer survey suggest that there will be a significant amount of internal movement within the energy sector over the next decade.

Do you expect to move to another field within the energy industry within the next decade as a result of the transition to net zero?

Excludes those who expect to retire. n=305

For those currently in the energy workforce, and discounting those who expect to retire during the period, around half (48%) expect to still be in their current sector of energy in ten years’ time. But the rest (52%) have either moved sectors already, will move, or are still considering where they’ll be. This mobility is expected to be even higher among professionals currently working in upstream oil and gas.

"Within energy, I'm most likely to move to..."

Energy and carbon management

Energy and carbon management

Wind power

Wind power

Hydrogen

Hydrogen

Carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS)

Carbon capture usage and storage

For those considering a move, commonly mentioned destinations include energy and carbon management, wind power, hydrogen and CCUS.

The inclusion of wind power is not surprising, as the UK leads the world in installed offshore wind capacity (over 10GW) and further dramatic expansion is envisaged. Respondents’ interest in the CCUS and hydrogen sectors tallies with their views about potential growth areas discussed in Section 3.

57% of respondents are pursuing training this coming year specifically as a result of net zero

A majority of respondents (57%) are pursuing training this coming year specifically as a result of net zero, and most see some effort by their employer to support them in this. However, half of our respondents are experiencing barriers to their personal development. These barriers are varied, from cost and lack of time to the lack of availability of appropriate training courses, pointing to a need for more direction and support. For example, a recent report by Platform, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace showcases the hidden costs for oil and gas workers trying to retrain and upskill; for many, this includes having to pay for training courses from their own savings when moving to a new green job.

What do you consider as the greatest barrier for you personally in continuing to develop your skill set?

"Personally, I consider the greatest barrier to developing my skill set to be..."

The cost of training

The cost of training

Workplace barriers

Workplace barriers

Unsure which skills to develop

Unsure which skills to develop

Lack of training / resources

Lack of training / resources

Oil and gas workers are the most likely to be unsure of which skills they need to develop; around three times as many respondents from this sector are concerned about this issue than those from other parts of the industry.

Nick Profile

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-  Someone who has moved sectors to a low-carbon area

A national net zero skills strategy

The energy transition requires a skills transition

[There is a] lack of any long term strategy or subsidy regime on the ground… if the economic drivers are there, investment and workforce will follow.
-Survey respondent

Our survey respondents are concerned that not enough action is being taken to build the skilled workforce that will deliver the transition to net zero. Half of respondents want to see more action from their sector, and nearly three quarters want more action from government.

50% Half of respondents want to see more action from their sector.

73% And nearly three-quarters want more action from government.

The Government’s powers include its ability to lead market reform, set the policy agenda and lend financial support to low-carbon sectors that are not yet commercially viable. With this in mind, our respondents have a number of asks for the UK government to help build long-term net zero capacity within the energy workforce.

"To help build long-term net zero capacity within the UK energy workforce, Government should introduce..."

Energy policy

Energy policy

Skills strategy

Skills strategy

As ever, respondents call for long-term, stable energy policy. This generates a pull: creating commercial drivers to develop the workforce that will bring forward key technologies.

But there is also a particular desire to see a national net zero skills strategy at the heart of the Government’s long-term plans. Such a strategy could create a push: Government working with industry to identify the skills needed to reach a net zero future and focusing on their development, from school onwards. This could help to plug any leaks in the STEM pipeline, as discussed in Section 4. The survey respondents also call for a detailed action plan – practical measures that give substance to the strategy.

Put in place [a] regulatory framework which will show long term commitment, thereby providing certainty and an incentive to industry.

The industry requires regulatory certainty and financial incentives to make large-scale changes. For example, establishing a clear framework and timeline for regulated energy efficiency improvements could provide the certainty businesses need to train the engineers, electricians, builders and glaziers who will work to insulate and improve housing stock in the years ahead.

Creating an integrated approach from how we educate, train and develop [a] skilled workforce, to policy, financing and investment to ensure the projects, technology and innovation happen in the UK.

The Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution sets out ambitious targets by 2030 for several low carbon sectors, including development of the energy workforce. Job creation must be targeted in net zero-aligned areas that can provide secure, well-paid roles. According to our respondents, there is scope for significant job creation in hydrogen, energy storage, transport decarbonisation, energy and carbon management, and CCUS.

"The low carbon sectors with greatest scope for jobs growth this decade are..."

Hydrogen

Hydrogen

Energy storage

Energy storage

Transport decarbonisation

Transport decarbonisation

Additionally, the UK already has significant skill and knowledge bases in offshore wind, CCUS and energy and carbon management. These sectors have strong export potential and could support other countries as they pursue their own greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

The people pipeline

Long lead times from schools through to workplaces

[The challenge is] a loss of existing talent due to a baby boomer retirement crunch and limited numbers of young people choosing STEM qualifications.
-Survey respondent

According to the National Grid report Building the net zero energy workforce, the UK energy sector will need to fill 400,000 roles between now and 2050, with the majority of these being new roles. This encompasses a broad range of jobs, including “engineers, data analysts, machine learning experts and skilled tradespeople”.

The long lead times involved in building new power plants are often discussed; however, the lead times required to bring on these sorts of skilled workers are often even longer.

Steve Holliday headshot

A laser focus on policies and initiatives to drive the development of low carbon technologies is vital, but it must not eclipse the equally important need to support and develop the net zero workforce.

The Barometer is clear that decarbonisation won’t happen at the necessary speed and scale without the assembly of a mass skilled workforce, and so we are encouraged by signals from ministers that this will be an integral part of the UK’s net zero strategy.

-  EI President Steve Holliday FREng FEI

Respondents to our survey single out five clear priorities for action:

First and foremost, the people pipeline needs to be filled to capacity: given many of these roles need to be filled by talented individuals who have a strong grounding in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), our respondents recommend supporting school programmes and apprenticeship schemes to ensure that there is a supply of suitably skilled workers entering the industry. This reflects the reality that many roles in the net zero economy will be skilled vocations not necessarily requiring a university degree.

Support STEM from a young age with a view of destigmatising current views (including apprenticeships) and gender norms.

Second, respondents stress the need for industry leaders to work on enhancing the perception of STEM subjects and careers. There is strong competition for new STEM graduates, and concern that promising young talent may pass over energy jobs in favour of other sectors such as digital and finance. To understand how to plug this leak in the people pipeline, we asked respondents what they think new joiners want from their roles in the energy industry. The result suggests a roughly comparable focus on the industry needing to provide good job security and good pay, as well as jobs that show commitment to tackling climate change.

It is not an industry that pays well compared to finance and IT. Engineers do get the value of these other trades… people are ultimately driven by money and yes they also want rewarding work.

Third, our respondents recommend the industry should collaborate with educational institutions to improve curricula and careers information. This could help to ensure that students in the STEM pipeline arrive in energy jobs with the crucial engineering and technical skills required.

Fourth, a critical ambition is improving the diversity of those in STEM subject roles, particularly engineering. A recent Engineering UK report on gender disparity reveals that just 14.5% of total jobs in engineering are held by women – and perceptions play a part in this too.

The view of engineering as a “masculine profession” excludes women from areas of opportunity, and the industry misses out on a huge pool of talent as a result. This perception must change, not just for the sake of the industry but also to find solutions that benefit the entire population and bring about the societal and behavioural changes called for by net zero.

"To work towards a diverse and inclusive workforce, UK Government and industry leaders should focus on..."

Family-friendly / flexible working

Family-friendly / flexible working

Diversity and inclusion awareness

Diversity and inclusion awareness

Engage with and support diverse workforce

Engage with and support diverse workforce

Government and industry must work harder together to break down barriers to diversity and inclusion, with a focus on practical measures. While there is barely any support (3%) among survey respondents for quotas to improve diversity, there is strong support (42%) for family-friendly, flexible working arrangements.

Extend and equalise government-funded parental leave… that will enable men to take more leave, increasing liquidity in senior jobs and focus on returning to work.
[There is] a wealth of returner talent (returning after extended career breaks) that could be attracted into the area… with flexible work, this creative and very able talent could… benefit the energy sector.

Finally, in terms of the specific skills that will be most in demand, a majority of respondents (57%) are clear that their own organisations are still going to require engineering and technical skills above all else. But this is followed closely by whole-system thinking (43%) which reflects the increasingly integrated nature of the energy system, critical thinking and analysis (35%), and project management (34%).

"The skills most in demand by my employer over the net zero transition will be..."

Engineering and technical skills

Engineering and technical skills

Whole-system thinking

Whole-system thinking

Investment in skills can drive a just transition

Avoiding stranded professionals and communities

The government need to generate excitement in communities most affected by the change to net zero... that isn't easy if most of the net zero technology is being imported from abroad.
-Survey respondent

The energy industry is a major employer in communities across the UK: for example, the oil and gas sector in Aberdeen, offshore wind in Grimsby, and nuclear power in Sellafield, Cumbria. Despite this, fewer than one in five of our survey respondents feel that they or their communities are involved in key decisions related to net zero that affect local livelihoods.

With regards to the UK's journey to net zero, to what extent do you feel you and your community are involved in decisions that affect local livelihoods?

This disconnection is a red flag for sustaining public support for the increasingly difficult journey towards net zero, in particular as regards regions with high levels of employment in carbon-intensive sectors where change will be most pronounced.

The hardships caused by the loss of thousands of coal mining jobs throughout the latter stages of the twentieth century are still felt keenly in parts of the UK. There is a clear danger that the pace envisaged by the low carbon transition could leave some professionals and some communities stranded. The right investment early in low carbon technologies and the related skills required can help drive a fair and just transition. In particular, when asked how government and industry could help to realise the positive economic impact of net zero on communities, over half of respondents cited the need to invest in upskilling and retraining of workers.

51% of respondents cited the need to invest in upskilling and retraining

There is also strong backing (57%) among our survey respondents for support specifically for skills and retraining to avoid oil and gas professionals being left stranded. As the nature of the energy industry changes, this particular workforce’s required skill set will change too, calling for upskilling (refresh or development of skills) or retraining (learning a new vocation or set of skills).

Rob Gross headshot

A national net zero skills strategy equally needs to focus on parts of the existing highly skilled workforce facing the most change. In the transition over the coming decades, roles in energy intensive industries, fossil fuel production and their supply chains will change markedly, so it’s vital for the reskilling to keep pace.

Energy Barometer respondents see this as central to a just transition, and one of the most effective ways of securing the buy-in of communities up and down the country.

-  UKERC Director and EI Trustee Prof Rob Gross FEI

Our respondents do not want jobs to move abroad, and stress that local communities should benefit, not suffer, from the upcoming changes. While the UK offshore wind industry has been a huge success, many jobs in the manufacturing process and supply chain have been outsourced to other countries such as Norway and the Netherlands.

There is strong support (46%) for investing in decarbonising carbon intensive industries so they can continue to operate in the UK, supporting employment and benefitting local communities. This includes the development of CCUS and hydrogen, and helping commercialise low-carbon cement and other industrial processes. Six major industrial clusters (Grangemouth, Teesside, Humberside, Southampton, South Wales and Merseyside) currently account for half of all industrial emissions in the UK and are mentioned by the Government in the Energy White Paper as targets for decarbonisation.

Rhian Kelly headshot

If we are to achieve a green recovery and make progress on tackling climate change, we need the right skills and people in place. Our research shows hundreds of thousands of these green-collared roles will be needed across every nation and region of the UK, presenting a huge economic opportunity.

Government working together with key industry representatives such as the Energy Institute, businesses, educators and trade unions will mean we can put in place meaningful and accessible training opportunities, help repurpose existing skills in the current energy workforce, and build a strong talent pipeline.

-  Rhian Kelly, Director at National Grid

While the connection between communities and industry needs to be further developed, the net zero commitments made by leading energy companies are encouraging. One-in-five respondents report that their organisation is already implementing a net zero action plan, up from around one-in-ten respondents in our 2020 report.

To what extent has your organisation incorporated the UK's net zero target in its business strategy?

n=309, 'Not sure/other' excluded

Wider trends

Tough decisions are needed to align with climate targets

Each year the Energy Barometer survey asks respondents to identify the biggest challenges facing the energy industry, allowing us to monitor concerns over time.

Rank Challenge Movement
1 Covid-19 up 3 places
2 Energy policy =
3 Sustainability and climate change (includes net zero targets) =
4 Investment and cost up 3
5 People and skills up 4

After a year in which the pandemic profoundly impacted public health, the economy, and day-to-day life, it is no surprise that our respondents cited COVID-19 as the greatest challenge facing the UK energy industry.

The impacts of COVID-19 tie in to all of the other challenges in the top five. For example, there has never been a bigger need for investment in low carbon projects and technologies, but the slowing of the global economy, coupled with high government spending as it supports the country through the pandemic, poses a challenge to this.

Global economic slowdown due to Covid-19 and increased government borrowing sucking up available capital needed to fund emerging technologies.
-Survey respondent
Ongoing pandemic: shifts in consumption (fewer offices, more home-working)… increase in car transport/reduction in public transport.

In line with the theme of this report, respondents also perceive people and skills as a major concern for the industry, elevated several places compared to last year and entering the top five for the first time ever.

Retraining workforces towards new priorities. Attract, nurture, mentor and sustain young people into the industry. Accept changes in industry priorities and new methods of working.

Low carbon energy, which was identified a year ago as the biggest challenge, dropped this year to sixth on the list of concerns. It is still on respondents' radar – some of their concerns about decarbonisation and development of renewables this year were merely refocused on reaching net zero.

After winning a large majority in the 2019 general election, the Conservative government has outlined its plans for the energy industry with the publication of several key policy documents. This includes the Energy White Paper, the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, preparatory documents for the fourth Contracts for Difference auction and the North Sea Transition Deal. The Government also drafted legislation to adopt the CCC’s recommended 6th carbon budget, which entails a 78% reduction in emissions by 2035.

With these developments in mind, our survey respondents are cautiously positive on policy advances. Over two thirds feel that UK policy has had a positive effect on supporting renewable electricity and emerging technology research and innovation.

The survey results also show that respondents are feeling positive about policy support for hydrogen and CCUS. In 2016, Barometer respondents ranked the effects of UK policy on CCUS as more negative than any other area; this year, almost 50% viewed CCUS policy as having a positive effect.

What effect do you think the UK's energy policy has had on each of the following areas in the last 12 months?

'Not sure' removed, results ordered by weighted net score

Government action is seen as less successful on fuel poverty (18% positive), new nuclear power (36%) and energy efficiency (42%). The approval ratings for energy effiency policies have been slowly falling each year - over 40% of respondents feel current policies are not having any impact. The recent scrapping of the Green Homes Grant, just six months after it launched, no doubt contributed to worries around a lack of long-term plans for efficiency improvements.

Given the UK's net zero target, how do you feel about granting permissions for new UK developments in...

‘Not sure’ removed

The recent IEA Roadmap to Net Zero asserts that no further investment in new fossil fuel supply projects are needed if the global net zero goal is to be achieved. Notably, our survey finds that UK energy professionals who support new licencing of fossil fuel production and use in the UK are now in a minority. New coal mining attracts the least overt support (12%), followed by shale gas development (25%), offshore oil and gas (36%) and new gas fired power generation (43%).

Respondents working in the oil and gas sector are still supportive of new offshore projects and gas-fired electricity plants, but only 39% support new onshore projects, and a mere 17% are in favour of coal mining in the UK.

How optimistic do our respondents feel about meeting emissions targets? The UK’s 5th carbon budget sets a target of 57% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 (from 1990 levels). When asked if this is achievable, there is a fairly even split between those who believe the UK will meet or exceed the budget and those who believe the UK will fall short. Levels of optimism about meeting the 5th carbon budget has remained steady since the 2019 survey, despite the impacts of COVID-19.

The 5th carbon budget (2028-2032) requires greenhouse gas emissions to fall by 57% (from 1990 levels). By 2032, given current UK emission reduction policies, do you expect emissions reductions to:

Respondents are less confident about the UK meeting its 2050 net zero target, with just 12% thinking the UK will meet or exceed it. However, it is important to note that the adoption of the more ambitious target in 2019 (up from an initial goal of 80% reductions by 2050) has shifted the perceptions of what is achievable. In 2015, fewer than one-in-five energy professionals expected the UK to achieve at least a 78% reduction in emissions; in 2021, four-in-five do.

The 2050 UK climate target is to reduce all greenhoue gas emissions to net zero. By 2050, given current UK emission reduction policies, do you expect emissions reductions to:

Thank you for your interest in the 2021 Energy Barometer

What stood out to you from this year’s findings? Join the conversation on social media using #EnergyBarometer.

Have a comment, or a suggestion for next year’s Energy Barometer? Send it to us at barometer@energyinst.org

To view previous Energy Barometers and see media coverage of the report, visit the project landing page.

For more detail on the results from this year’s survey, the full data set is available for download here

And for your own energy training needs, please explore the Energy Institute's extensive range of training courses here.

Methodology

The 2021 Energy Barometer is the seventh in a series of annual surveys of the EI college, a group of EI professionals and pre-professional members. The College includes three EI member grades: Fellow (FEI), Member (MEI) and Associate Member (AMEI). This process was deigned to ensure that a diverse range of sectors, disciplines and seniority levels were included in the sample.

A total of 418 College members fully completed the survey online in March/April 2021. The responses were analysed by the EI Knowledge Service (EIKS) to assess key findings and identify themes from the results. The survey included multiple choice as well as free response questions. The answers to the free response questions were coded and mentions of codes were counted across responses.

Responses to both types of question are presented as percentages of respondents, unless stated otherwise. This can lead to percentages adding up to more than 100%, in the case of multiple choice questions where respondents were allowed to choose more than one option, or in the case of a free text question where a single response may have been assigned more than one code.

The 2021 Energy Barometer report was written and produced by Deane Somerville, Daniel de Wijze and Kinga Niemcyzk, with assistance from Martin Begley. Web development by Nick Corden.

References

BEIS (2020), Energy White Paper

BEIS and UK Prime Minister (2020), Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution

BEIS (2020), Contracts for Difference

BEIS (2020), Green Jobs Taskforce

BEIS (2021), North Sea Transition Deal

Climate Change Committee (2020), Sixth Carbon Budget

EngineeringUK (2018, with 2020 update), Gender Disparity in Engineering

International Energy Agency (2021), Global Energy Review 2021

International Energy Agency (2021), Net Zero by 2050

National Grid (2020), Building the net zero energy workforce

Platform, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Greenpeace UK (2021), Training & Tickets, The Hidden Costs For Offshore Oil & Gas Workers