Diagnosing the green skills gap: 5 factors fuelling the shortage

Posted on: 27 March, 2024

The green skills gap is holding back the built environment’s sustainability efforts. Here’s where it’s come from, and why we need to solve it.

The built environment is about to enter a crucial new era. By 2031, it’s predicted that a staggering 41% of the current construction workforce is set to retire. These professionals will take with them years of invaluable knowledge, experience and expertise, and with their departure create a massive shortage of talent.

At the same time, the priorities of the sector – and with them the skills and expertise required from its workforce – is also changing.

In line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out by the United Nations, the built environment is working hard to address its impact on the planet, and businesses in the sector are increasingly looking for green skills and sustainability literacy to help them accomplish this.

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

What this means is that the retirement of close to half the construction workforce is set to exacerbate a major skills deficit that already existed in the built environment.

In order to fully understand the skills gap and how we can overcome it, we need to identify where it came from and what factors have led to this talent deficit.

5 factors that have fuelled the green skills shortage

Here are 5 key issues that have left the built environment short on sustainability talent:

1. Lack of awareness

Engaging in sustainability is a non-negotiable for any organisation that wants to attract and retain both talent and customers. According to research from Deloitte, 40% of Generation Z would consider switching jobs if they had concerns about the environmental activities of the company they worked for. Put simply, young people care about the climate change and want to make a difference.

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

The green skills gap is arguably one of the most critical issues we face, with potentially serious ramifications for the environment, and the many green roles that are available can empower workers to have a direct impact on our ability to achieve net zero. Despite this, awareness and interest in green roles and the deficit of green skills and expertise is low.

A report by Public First that ran a national poll of young people aged 16-25 found that terms such as net zero ‘remain poorly understood’ and most young people ‘have little sense of how net zero will transform the economy and what kind of jobs it will create’. Even more worryingly, the same report found that young people ‘are less likely to be interested’ in the green jobs that will be most needed in the coming years.

Businesses in the built environment need to address this by championing the impact of green roles and the work of sustainability professionals in the sector. Regardless of an organisation’s place in the building life cycle, every business in the built environment has an impact on sustainability and, in turn, every professional has the ability to make innovative and environmentally-conscious decisions that can have a positive impact.

2. Age

The predicted retirement of so many professionals, along with the fallout of Brexit, means the UK will need 937,000 new recruits in construction and trades by 2032. This is a significant issue, but it wouldn’t be so significant if the battle for new talent wasn’t so competitive.

Across industries like building surveying and construction management there simply aren’t enough new professionals currently entering the industry, and even then, the likelihood they’ll be trained or upskilled on green skills is often slim. Of the 937,000 new workers needed, 244,000 need to be qualified apprentices in order to plug the skills gap appropriately.

To make matters worse, the built environment isn’t the only sector competing for young workers with sustainability skills, a passion for the environment and new, innovative perspectives. Professions like quantity surveying and building control are often placed against the likes of law, business and technology – career roles with far more awareness among younger generations and, often, more competitive salaries.

The built environment would do well to continue to align itself with sustainability  to overcome this. As discussed above, incoming generations of workers and consumers favour companies with environmentally-friendly practices and beliefs. A career in the built environment is a career of opportunity and variety, where professionals can play an active and significant role in helping the UK reach net zero.

What’s more, sustainability isn’t just an environmental initiative – it’s a commercial one, too. Adopting environmental initiatives and principles, be it green building certifications or environmental, social and governance (ESG), can have very real financial and commercial benefits for organisations. And with more and more businesses taking note of this and reaping the rewards in recruitment, customer acquisition and revenue, from a competitive point of view businesses can’t afford to miss out.

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

3. Social class, background and gender

A common perception of green jobs is that they are only achievable for people who have gone through university, but this isn’t the case. This perception means young people and those from lower social classes/education levels feel less confident that they can be recruited for these positions, limiting the number of applicants from these backgrounds and, thus, the volume of talent available for green roles.

The gender gap is another well-documented issue in our sector. Just 15.8% of the UK construction workforce is female, with the built environment often still perceived as a ‘male-dominated’ area to work in. However, while industries like real estate have a far better gender split, the green skills gap could actually perpetuate this disparity across the sector.

Public First found in their poll that young women ‘are less aware of’ and ‘less interested’ in green jobs. A shortage of female talent in the sector means a shortage of green skills, sustainability expertise and professionals to upskill in the latest sustainability standards and practices.

Learn more: How higher education can encourage and support more women into the built environment

Just as awareness of the green skills gap and the wealth of sustainability roles available is still low, the built environment doesn’t share the presence of industries like law, IT and business – especially among younger generations and in schools. Conducting outreach to children at young ages and championing the success stories of professionals from underrepresented backgrounds in the sector can help create opportunities and increase awareness, whilst simultaneously diversifying the built environment’s talent pool.

4. Niche

Another factor that has led to the green skills gap is a focus on technical skills that fails to capture the complex demands of sustainability.

Every stage of the building lifecycle from design and planning to surveying, construction and demolition/refurbishment has an impact on – and subsequently the ability to address – the carbon footprint of a project, be it operational or embodied carbon. While the focus in the built environment has been on technical skills derived from Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects in order to take advantage of emerging and innovative technologies, these aren’t the only sustainability skills needed throughout the lifecycle. Just as important as technical skills are competencies like leadership, communication and critical thinking that can help make sustainability happen at different organisational levels.

Similarly, sustainability skills can’t just be restricted to lone professionals – they need to be imbued throughout an organisation and its various functions. Implementing sustainability in solos will limit the scope of green literacy across functions and, thus, the environmentally driven mindset and decision making in an organisation.

Learn more: Why sustainability can’t exist in silos

Making a success of sustainability initiatives requires an organisation-wide approach, so businesses need to focus on personal, administrative and business skills and embedding sustainability literacy across their workforce, rather than solely investing into silos to unlock the potential of new innovations. Change and innovation require buy-in and effective change management, and without the appropriate skills and understanding across departments, sustainability initiatives will likely fail.

5. Disillusionment

Sustainability needs action on the part of all individuals, organisations and governments, but the fear of climate change and the anxiety it causes can often lead to inaction and disillusionment.

Learn more: Eco-anxiety: what is it and how can you combat it?

News coverage of climate change and its impact is often extremely bleak, and can lead people to feeling powerless, hopeless and resigned to the planet’s fate. These fears and doubts can deter people from pursuing a career in sustainability, as they feel like they can’t make a significant difference.

The truth is that we still have a chance to reverse some of the damage and avoid the biggest consequences of climate change. What’s more, as a sector responsible for around 40% of global CO2 emissions, the built environment provides a very real opportunity to make a difference.

Learn more: How the built environment can bridge the green skills gap

So how can we plug the growing green skills gap?

Yes, overcoming the green skills gap and weathering the exodus of professionals in the sector is an enormous challenge for the built environment – but it’s also an opportunity. There’s significant pressure on industries like construction and surveying to take action and address the sustainability of their methods and processes, but far from being an insurmountable obstacle, instead it should be perceived as an exciting chance for young professionals and people with a passion for the environment to make a difference.

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