How Can Labour Migration Help the UK’s Green Transition? Takeaways From a Cross-Sector Roundtable

The green transition is an enormous opportunity, and an enormous challenge. In the UK, 135,000 to 725,000 net new jobs could be created by 2030, according to analysis by the UK Climate Change Committee. Jobs created must be filled, however, and a lack of interested and available workers will impede the UK’s ability to meet its net zero goals and reduce dependency on volatile energy sources.

Green-skilled labour migration—to the UK and elsewhere—could support the green transition, and yield major benefits for both development and carbon emissions. But what skills does the UK need? How reliable are the UK’s domestic training pipelines? What are the prospects for deliberate international recruitment? How could such recruitment be structured? To answer these questions, CGD convened a roundtable of senior figures within government, industry, and research in late September. This blog summarises six key points from the discussion.

1. ‘Green jobs’ are poorly understood

Green jobs are not easily defined, and public comprehension of green jobs and green skills is very poor. For example, polling by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) finds that 56 percent of Britons have not heard of green jobs; 62 percent don’t know what green skills are; and 65 percent have no access to green skill training.

Even when people have heard of ‘green jobs’,  they may—often due to lack of information—have a negative perception of them. There are doubts, sometimes unjustified, regarding the quality of the jobs—fears, for example, that the new sectors will only be temporary. Reliable industrial strategy, allowing firms to make major investments and commit to retaining staff, can mitigate this to an extent, but it will remain a challenge.

2. People are unlikely to transition into green jobs

Political discourse promises the creation of large numbers of highly paid, highly skilled green jobs. Yet, this is unlikely to be the case. Currently, many green projects are in their early stages, when research and development and planning (higher paid and skilled roles) are in demand. Green jobs are not highly paid because they are green: once work moves to the project and implementation stage, salaries will drop off.

It is assumed that many of these roles will be taken up by people currently working in the fossil fuel sector, or ‘brown’ jobs. Again, this is unlikely, for several reasons. Firstly, there are fewer brown jobs than green jobs; most people entering green sectors must come from the wider population. Secondly, ‘brown’ jobs are normally more highly paid than green jobs, especially given the tight labour market and high oil prices. Thirdly, they are normally highly concentrated in areas of the country where green jobs are unlikely to be developed. Finally, many people in these roles are close to retirement age and may not want to retrain. 

Beyond salaries, the day-to-day work of green jobs is often perceived to be relatively unattractive. Many young people are understood to be relatively uninterested in the manual labour of, for example, insulation installation and roofing.

3. UK domestic training pipelines are inadequate

Most new domestic workers for the green transition will come through apprenticeship and training schemes. Several issues were identified.

Firstly, many felt that the UK Government didn’t have a good sense of business needs in this sector and didn’t integrate skill considerations into wider decision-making. Apprenticeships were often announced without consultation, reducing uptake and leading to a perception that the system was “broken.” Shifting government policy and investment strategies made it hard for training providers and firms (who offer on-the-job training) to know whether to invest in skill development. 

Secondly, many training colleges lack the incentive to offer new or expand existing future-facing green courses or new qualifications. This may be due to a lack of knowledge regarding the technologies that will be needed. Ground-source heat pumps, for example, need different skills at installation than air-source heat-pumps: it is currently unclear which will be prioritised, and how widely the two kinds of heat pump will be used. Even when courses are available, they are not always filled (in Manchester, some relevant programmes are reported to be only a third filled). 

Thirdly, existing programmes were seen as too rigid to respond to changing demand. Workers in relevant sectors should be supported in becoming ‘hybrid’ workers, able to go from brown sectors to green and then back as oil prices rise and fall and as projects and opportunities open and close. Reforms and updates are needed to allow this. 

Finally, many key labour areas in the UK’s green transition, such as housing retrofitting, suffer severe gender imbalances. In some subsectors, men make up over 90 percent of the workforce. This shrinks the pool of possible workers, making it harder to scale up training. While it will be key to attract new entrants to green sectors, this may not always be feasible to the extent required.

The balance between domestic up-skilling and immigration was the largest point of contention during the roundtable. Some participants argued that relying on external workers would undermine needed apprenticeship and training reforms. Others argued that, given the time required for reforming the system and scaling it up, immigration would be vital for meeting workforce needs in the short- to medium-term. While there is not a binary opposition between migration and domestic training, there is a risk that this narrative cascades.

4. ‘Green’ immigration is not new, and is feasible

Many jobs necessary for the green transition are relatively short-term and therefore a good fit for shorter-term visas while the UK attempts to improve its domestic training pipelines. This is not new. For example, in the 1990s UK Power Networks (an energy company) worked with City and Guilds (a vocational training and standards body) and Apex Training to train workers in Harare, Zimbabwe, to British standards. Workers then moved to the UK through the then Skills Visa, often staying several decades and contributing to grid development as electricians.

In the construction sector, immigration has been a major contributor to skill stocks for decades. Following the departure from the European Union, however, a key pool of workers has been lost; Polish and Romanian builders had dominated the installation of external wall insulation. The British construction industry has limited experience in undertaking active overseas recruitment, but this is expected to change.

Recently, the UK placed an increased number of relevant jobs on the Shortage Occupation List, allowing easier access to the UK labour market. Even following these shifts, however, firms have still found recruitment difficult. Partnerships are needed to allow international recruitment. One such partnership is between Scotland and Talent Beyond Boundaries, connecting qualified refugees already located in Scotland with green jobs through their Displaced Talent Programme.

5. ‘Green’ immigration can be challenging

Polling suggests that the UK public is welcoming to international workers arriving to fill labour shortages. But several participants felt calling it ‘green-skilled migration’ was “political poison”. Both migration and the green transition are increasingly controversial in UK domestic politics, and connecting the two may invite a firestorm. If immigration is to be a policy tool to support the green transition, it should not be presented as green-skilled migration, but instead as migration of necessary electricians, builders, etc. 

Recruiting relevantly and equitably may be challenging. Many roles needed for the green transition (such as roofers installing solar PV, or housing retrofitters) are relatively low skill. This makes it easier to find migrant workers able to fill them. In the longer term, however, this may do an injustice to the workers recruited: they may be limited to a narrow role, and to roles with a limited lifespan and limited options for advancement. A narrowly skilled solar PV installer may have a hard time finding work once the solar PV market is saturated. While this is far from an immediate problem, it does suggest that ideally, the priority should be to train and recruit fully qualified electricians, or to provide workers with modular training opportunities for continuous learning.

6. The UK will operate in a competitive international environment

The UK will be competing against other high-income countries to recruit green-skilled workers. Germany, for example, is recruiting solar workers from India, and the Australian Government has concluded that Australia will be “heavily reliant on effective migration settings” to achieve its energy transition. These countries will also seek to entice the UK’s limited green workforce; an engineer based in the UK can reportedly earn 20 – 30 percent more working in Taiwan. The UK will need to make itself more attractive and competitive in this global market. 

The takeaways from this roundtable are encouraging but also sobering. The UK’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) is committed to publishing a report on the government’s green transition workforce plan by 2024. Migration must be integrated into it, complementing the domestic workforce and filling gaps where training shortfalls cannot be avoided. Acting on these plans, when established, will need cross-departmental collaboration, and a careful consideration of qualification harmonisation, development impacts, language, and workers’ rights. There is very little time to lose. 



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.

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