The Green Transition Needs More Skilled Workers. Here’s How Europe Could Use Migration to Meet the Demand.

It’s easy for countries to state bold “net zero” or “green transition” objectives. But to make these plans a reality, they’re going to need skilled labour – and lots of it.

In this piece, we explore how training combined with mobility could play a big role in creating the required skills needed— and we offer recommendations to policymakers to pursue this two-pronged plan.

Grand objectives, yet little skilled labour

Take the United Kingdom (UK), for example. In 2021, it set out the goal of meeting “net zero” emissions by 2050 via a host of intermediary targets including the electrification of vehicles and the construction of major offshore wind capacity.

Meeting these targets could create a lot of new employment. For example, the UK could sustain nearly 80,000 jobs in the production of electric vehicles. And there are knock-on effects: PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) suggests that for every green job created, an additional 1.4 jobs might emerge elsewhere in the economy. But where are the skilled workers to fill those jobs?

An extra 230,000 skilled workers are needed to meet insulation targets and 26,000 are needed to quadruple the UK’s offshore wind capacity (as the government has pledged). At least 50,200 heat pump installers will be needed by 2030, yet the UK only had 800 in 2021. The UK net zero strategy acknowledges the problem in passing, noting that “there are urgent and emerging skills challenges across the green economy,” but it is short on solutions.

This issue isn’t confined to the UK. The European Union (EU), in its European Green Deal, also declares it will be carbon neutral by 2050, and has earmarked €72.2 billion for the period 2025-2032 to help make that a reality. But it won’t just take money to get to net zero, it will take people.  Estimates are uncertain, but around 400,000 more “scientific and engineering professionals” will be needed in the EU by 2030, and around 250,000 more building-related trades workers.

Increasing domestic supply

So how could this shortage be met?

Training young Europeans and retraining older ones should help fill the gap. Every year the UK and EU produce hundreds of thousands of educated workers. But in some key areas they don’t produce enough to meet current demand, let alone provide skilled workers for new sectors.

In the UK for example, where apprenticeships schemes are considered a possible answer, there are not enough apprenticeships for people who would like one, and not enough of these apprenticeships focus on delivering green skills. This needs to change, but altering this system, recruiting apprentices, and bringing them up to the required level will take time.

When it comes to engineers, crucial to many green sectors, the UK has a shortfall of 20,000 graduates per year. And demographic forces are acting against rapid expansion of both graduates and apprentices: in 2010, 13.1 percent of the UK population was in the 15-24 age group, but by 2025 that will drop to 11.3 percent.

Finally, people already working in “brown” sectors (such as fossil fuels) can and should be retrained, but once more, this won’t be enough especially given many of those workers will be retiring and not looking for new jobs. Within the UK’s energy and infrastructure sectors, an estimated 760,000 positions need to be filled by 2032—of which 600,000 are to replace retirees.

Compared to the UK, the EU has been faster to recognise that its skills shortage cannot be tackled without help from outside. In an April 2022 communiqué it announced that it sees migration as a necessary part of the green transition. Migration is “an investment in the economy and society as a whole,” allowing the skills needed for a “restructuring of our economies and labour markets.”

The green skills shortage is a global problem that needs a global solution

The green skills shortage is global: no country houses an excess supply of wind turbine engineers, heat pump installers or electric vehicle mechanics. That means simply shifting existing workers will do very little to reduce global output of greenhouse gasses. The world as a whole needs more green skills if the world as a whole is to slow climate change.

That is where the Global Skill Partnership model provides a solution. Global Skill Partnerships integrate training in countries of origin with job placement in countries of destination. As a result of this partnership, migrants find well-paying employment and their countries of origin receive remittances – and both countries see an increase in skilled workers, which helps boost their economies while avoiding “brain drain.”

These partnerships already work to provide skills from tourism and hospitality through agriculture and manufacturing. For example, Belgium’s PALIM trains ICT workers in Morocco to work both in Belgium and Morocco. Germany has also built construction partnerships with many countries worldwide. Linking skill building and migration has been recommended for the UK as well.

A green global skills partnership would combine green skills training schemes in countries of origin with job placements in countries of destination that need more skilled workers to meet net zero commitments. When it comes to the green transition, the model provides a quadruple win:

  • Trainees would get access to better pay and opportunities;
  • Countries of destination would receive the skills they need to mitigate climate change and meet commitments;
  • Countries of origin would also receive such skills as well as remittances that could support climate adaptation efforts; and
  • All countries, whether participating or not, would benefit from a more stable climate— enabled by the renewable power, energy efficiency, and green transport that a growing global workforce of green engineers and mechanics will build and maintain.

But why stop there? A green job is a global public good. No matter where it is located, it benefits everyone, everywhere. The UK and EU could fund the expansion of green skills and mobility between low- and middle-income countries as well, an approach especially needed in sub-Saharan Africa.

This will take work, and it’s not easy. We need data as to the scope of skill shortages within the green sector, qualification standards would have to be harmonised, and new partnerships created.

But in a world where we lack the skilled labour to meet green transition commitments, migration offers a gleam of hope. We’re already happy with the idea that planting a tree a thousand miles away will help the planet as a whole. Why not also train a turbine engineer?


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.