Skills gap threatens to derail net zero, warn construction leaders

New IPPR report says skills gap means UK may be unable to meet net zero targets.

With 750,000 construction workers due to retire in the next 15 years, the UK may be unable to meet net zero targets, according to a new report by the influential IPPR think tank.

A letter has now been sent by a group of leading construction industry figures and organisations calling on the chancellor to support the sector to get the green skills it needs to play a leading role in the green recovery and the drive to net zero.

From building major infrastructure projects that stem the tide of carbon emissions to improving the energy efficiency of homes, the sector is essential to this vital national project to tackle the climate crisis and restore nature, the group’s letter says.

The letter warns that the UK’s failing skills system, that isn’t even meeting existing skills needs, threatens to delay the ability of the UK to deliver a zero-carbon economy.

The group of industry leaders call on the government to consider proposals developed independently by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank. In a new report, the IPPR warns that up to 750,000 construction workers could retire or be on the verge of retiring over the next 15 years and not enough is being done to replace those workers, with just 20% of construction workers currently aged under 30.

The letter is signed by leading industry figures including Mark Reynolds, the CEO of Mace Group, along with industry bodies including The Federation of Master Builders, The Chartered Institute of Builders, British Property Federation and the Construction Industry Training Board. 

Together the group argues that initiatives to boost the number of workers with green skills in the infrastructure sector are hamstrung by a lack of coordination among firms, and a lack of leadership in government.

They argue that investment in a green recovery can create thousands of new construction jobs on projects essential for ‘building back better’. However, to seize this opportunity, the government must bring forward legislation and regulatory powers to ensure skills gaps can be filled.

The IPPR proposals recommended by the industry leaders in the letter include:

  • Increasing funding for further education and expanding apprenticeships, as well creating a new National Infrastructure and Construction Skills Demand Pipeline at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority;
  • Ensuring investment in skills is accounted for in budgets for government-funded infrastructure projects;
  • Legislating to improve pay and conditions for workers in the sector, to make construction careers more attractive to jobseekers.

The letter also recognises that the construction sector must itself make substantial changes to achieve the shared ambition of transforming the economy and reaching net zero by 2050.

Previous research by the IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission found that government investment to meet net zero and restore nature could create up to 1.6 million green and clean jobs.

Mark Farmer, letter signatory and author of the 2016 government commissioned Farmer Review of the construction labour model, said: “We need to start moving from rhetoric to action in the pursuit of net zero. This has to be about building a legacy that can deliver not just a strong economic recovery, but also a fundamental shift in climate change trajectory and the societal benefits generated from green infrastructure.

“I was commissioned by the government in 2016 to explain the skills crisis facing the construction sector, and how we can solve it. Over the past five years we have made progress on the recommendations of the Farmer Review. However, it is clear from the findings of IPPR’s research, that action is still needed. We need to invest in the skills system, and to go even further in making the rules of the game clear to firms in our industry.

“How the Treasury Green Book and Construction Playbook is operationalised in central government will determine whether we can really ‘build back better’ and maximise the opportunities of green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Oscar Watkins, IPPR construction sector lead, said: “We cannot build back better without the builders. As this letter from industry leaders and organisations demonstrates, the construction sector wants to be at the heart of the UK’s drive to net zero emissions and a low carbon economy but recognises it does not yet have the skills it will need to do this.

“In addition to the steps the industry says it will take to meet this challenge, departments across government need to come together and direct investment where it is needed most, to unlock the full potential of businesses in the sector. The government’s procurement system also needs to be made more adept at recognising and meeting skills needs.

“It is essential that the construction sector has a pipeline of skilled and motivated people coming through the system into the sector to make the green transition possible.”

Click here to download the IPPR report, Skills for a green recovery: A call for action for the UK construction sector, by Oscar Watkins and Dean Hochlaf.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email