Do we have the STEM workforce in place to deliver net zero?

Jul 27, 2022

The key issues that need to be addressed to have the STEM skilled workforce to deliver net zero

by Michael Hardisty, EngineeringUK Head of Environmental Sustainability


The engineering and technology sector has produced a wealth of jobs forecasts. However, the definitions, timescales and level of detail vary greatly. A lack of national forecast of the workforce needs and an understanding of the required number of students studying STEM does not exist. This means, we don’t yet fully understand whether we will have the workforce to deliver the UK’s sustainability commitments, particularly to be a net zero economy by 2050.

Key Findings

I recently reviewed nearly 30 industry reports which all investigated the future of “green jobs” in engineering and technology in the UK.  Engineering and technology are fundamental to decarbonising transportation, power, energy, industry, and the built environment. I summarised my findings using these sectors, as these will be key to delivering on the UK’s commitment to be a ‘net zero’ economy by 2050. 

You can find the full report here and my top 4 findings below.

  1. Newly created v existing jobs

    Job forecasts frequently neglect to state the proportion of future roles that are newly created (that is, due to innovation and expansion of the market) and ones that currently exist. 
  1. Technical v non-technical jobs

    Jobs forecasts rarely distinguish between those requiring engineering and technical skills and those that don’t, such as procurement or HR.
  1. Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) v Standard Occupational Classification (SOC)

    The Office for National Statistics uses Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) and Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) codes to classify jobs. A limitation of this is that these are created by coding jobs and industries retrospectively. This means that there is a risk that these may not reflect future roles.
  1. Consistency in timescales:

    All reports used different timescales to forecast jobs, this makes a single, cross-sector picture difficult to produce

    All these issues mean that it is not possible to develop a national forecast of STEM-based jobs that the UK will need to fill.

My other 3 standout findings are:

  1. Workforce pipeline: Only one report referred the number of A-level students currently taking STEM subjects. No report considered the number of engineering graduates or higher-level apprentices coming through the tertiary education system.  Without this analysis we can’t predict the potential scale of the shortfall in engineering and technology skills.

  2. Carbon removal: The UK’s plan to be ‘net zero’ in carbon emissions by 2050 is predicated on removing around 60 MtCO2 each year from the atmosphere (which is around 10% of the UK’s current emissions), building this capacity rapidly from the late 2020s. No report appeared to cover the skills needed and jobs supported by the BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) technology that will be necessary to achieve most of these removals.

  3. Strong demand for engineering and technology skills: For example, in the engineering construction sector, an ageing workforce 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:

    1. The energy sector will need to fill 400,000 roles by 2050, 260,000 of which will be new roles (equating to 65% and 10,000 each year)

    2. In the buildings sector, retrofitting will require the training of 45,000 technicians each year at its peak in 5 to 10 years’ time (30,000 each year in fabric improvement and 15,000 each year in heat pump installation

We urgently need to fix the above issues so that the UK can begin to 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, for example, air quality and recycling.

My recommendations are for government to:

  • develop up to date skills taxonomies which can differentiate between:
    • ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ jobs
    • ‘expansion’ and ‘replacement’ jobs (as workers retire and so on)
    • Specific fields of engineering and technology (e.g. chemical, electrical, aeronautical)

  • provide regular (for example, annual) statistics on:
    • numbers currently employed in each role
    • workforce demand forecasts

and make the data available to the different sectors to enable them to act on those forecasts, particularly those sectors crucial to the UK economy achieving net zero.  The forecasts should take a holistic ‘systems approach’ that recognises the interdependencies between different industries, and the opportunities for re-training.

  • 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
  • use this information to develop an approach to STEM education that will ensure that these student numbers, and ultimately workforce needs, are met
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