How the built environment can bridge the green skills gap

Posted on: 1 April, 2024

Here are 8 ways governments, organisations and individuals can work together to close the skills gap.

Making net zero a reality by 2050 will require an enormous effort from businesses, governments and individuals. As well as transitioning from environmentally-damaging processes to innovative, sustainable alternatives, new workers with green skills and expertise are needed to make this shift a reality.

However, the number of green workers required to achieve this has been greatly underestimated. According to research from Bain & Company, four million green roles are required in the next ten years to make the most of the UK’s net zero transition. The UK isn’t alone in this either – Japan is just one of the many other countries struggling, as it faces a shortage of 1.3 million skilled construction workers due to low birth rates and an aging population.

Learn more: What is the green skills gap (and why does it matter)?

There are various factors that have contributed to the green skills gap in our sector, from a lack of awareness and an aging workforce to disillusionment and the perception of industries like construction as male-dominated.

This article details 8 recommendations for how the built environment can tackle the skills gap across three different dimensions of influence – government, organisations, and individuals.


1. Offer grants and initiatives to encourage upskilling

It’s crucial that the government continues to invest in upskilling and reskilling that aligns with the competencies needed for a net zero future. Along with training in the latest technologies and sustainable innovations, interpersonal and communication skills like leadership and management need to be prioritised in our educational provision.

In 2023, the UK government launched a £165 million fund to transform local skills and deliver new courses in subjects such as green construction and carbon capture. Similar funding, loans, grants and meaningful incentives can help upskill industry professionals and teachers, align apprenticeships with the green skills shortage and further integrate sustainability into the education curriculum.

2. Continue to champion apprenticeships

A third of the UK’s construction and trades workforce is aged over 50 and expected to retire in the next decade. Apprenticeships will be an invaluable resource for developing the next generation of talent and play a key role in helping the built environment adjust to a mass exodus of professionals from the sector in the coming years.

Aligning apprenticeship standards and Level 1 to Level 6 qualifications with sustainability competencies can help to close the talent gap and ensure green skills are a bedrock of future skills development. Crucially, interpersonal skills like communication and leadership need to have as much emphasis as more technical areas like sustainability literacy and digital proficiency to ensure green practices aren’t confined to niche areas and can be imbued across teams, organisations and industries successfully.

Learn more: Why sustainability literacy is in such high demand

3. Further publicise the need for green skills and sustainability expertise

One of the biggest challenges our sector faces in overcoming the green skills gap is the lack of awareness of the issue. Research by Public First identified that terms like net zero ‘remain poorly understood’ among young generations, and that there’s ‘little sense’ of how net zero will transform the economy and actually create jobs.

Conducting further research, both into the urgent need for green skills and the opportunities and roles that will be available, will give businesses, job applicants and students a clearer idea of how they can get involved and what career pathways they can pursue. What’s more, using more direct, jargon-free language that goes beyond net zero will help to increase interest among younger generations that aren’t familiar with governmental and sustainability terminology.


4. Increase hiring diversity

Despite accounting for half of the UK’s population, women remain a minority in the built environment – just 13% of professionals in the sector are female. It’s not just in gender that industries like construction are lagging behind, either – just 6% of people in the construction workforce come from ethnic minority backgrounds, with this figure even smaller among specialisms like landscape professionals (0.6%).

Learn more: Giving the construction industry a second chance – a Q&A with UCEM Apprentice Jodi-Ann Morgan

Clearly, there’s a wealth of talent that businesses are failing to capitalise on. Adopting more diverse hiring practices that eliminate bias, championing the success stories of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds and putting forward professionals for senior positions of influence can increase the level of diversity and representation in the sector and subsequently the breadth of the talent pool.

Similarly, conducting outreach activities to schools and increasing awareness of the built environment can help more individuals consider a career in areas like construction and surveying.

5. Offer upskilling and training opportunities

The priorities of the modern workforce have changed. In the aftermath of COVID-19 and The Great Resignation, today’s employees care as much about experience and development as they do salary and benefits. According to a survey by Pew Research, 63% of employees who left their jobs in 2021 pointed to a lack of career advancement opportunities as a reason for their departure. To put this into context, the same percentage (63%) in this survey cited salary.

The modern workforce is also less loyal to their employers, with a Joblist survey finding that 73% of employees would consider leaving their jobs if the right offer came along – even if they weren’t looking for a job.

Opportunities for development, progression and advancement are key to improving retention, and upskilling is an effective way to facilitate this. Aligning these with the needs of a net zero future will give employees transferable and in-demand skills that can secure their future career and employability for years to come, whilst simultaneously helping organisations plug skills deficits.

Learn more: How apprenticeships can upskill your workforce for the future

6. Be open and transparent around green practices

Just as today’s workforce place emphasis on development opportunities, they also value transparency and environmental action.

Rather than trying to exaggerate the impact of their initiatives or the scope of their actions, organisations should aim for transparency when it comes to publicising and sharing the sustainability practices they take part in.

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) initiatives are complex undertakings that often fail to meet expectations – businesses would be better served setting realistic and achievable goals rather than creating lofty ambitions that, while intended to impress young generations, fall foul of greenwashing.

Learn more: 8 types of greenwashing (and how to spot them)


7. Pursue education in green skills

Climate change and the environment are crucial issues in the mind of today’s customers, job applicants and young generations. A career in the built environment is an opportunity to make a tangible difference in how we achieve net zero and both mitigate and adapt to the impacts of a shifting climate.

For individuals that want to play a part in achieving net zero, exploring courses, apprenticeships and professional development opportunities in industries like construction and real estate can be the key to having an impact. These skills are not only in high demand among employers but are also transferable, and can open up opportunities in their existing career.

Similarly, if employees have access to learning and development opportunities, focusing on green skills and sustainability training can provide opportunities for career advancement and development, both in the short and long term.

8. Seek out companies that have a good sustainability policy

Sustainability is just as much a commercial movement as an environmental one, and it can provide a raft of benefits for businesses, from an improved bottom line and cost-savings to greater customer and employee attraction and retention.

Organisations have recognised how much importance today’s workforce in particular places on sustainability. Research from Deloitte found that 40% of Gen Z would go as far as switching jobs if they had concerns over the environmental activities of their employer.

Learn more: Making a business case for sustainability: why now is the time to act

Today’s workforce must continue to be discerning when it comes to choosing the employers they want to work for. Reviewing an employer’s sustainability policies and credentials (and keeping an eye out for any examples of greenwashing) will reward organisations that genuinely want to make a difference to the environment. These businesses will also likely offer opportunities to develop green skills and sustainability expertise.

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want to inspire and action change in your career, UCEM’s MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments will give you the skills you need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments – University College of Estate Management