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Politicians must send the right signals on ‘green’ jobs

There is an iron law of politics in the age of climate change: every time you discuss your plans to reach net zero you must also mention jobs, preferably an impressive-sounding number of them, ideally with terms like “well-paid”, “blue-collar” or “heartlands” attached. Britain’s opposition leader, Keir Starmer, toed the line on Monday, promising his party’s green policies would create half a million “good” jobs.

It’s easy to see why political leaders emphasise a green jobs boom. It’s an obvious way to excite or appease voters who might be unsettled by — or even hostile to — your plans to decarbonise the economy. But, so far at least, green jobs in the UK don’t seem to be booming at all.

There are various different ways to define what makes a job “green”, but none of them shows “massive growth over time”, says Anna Valero, a senior policy fellow at the London School of Economics. Innovation agency Nesta, which scrapes job adverts from the internet, has found the number of green jobs “does not seem to have increased” in recent years. “There’s so much interest in green jobs and everyone wants them . . . [but they] don’t seem to be materialising,” says Nesta’s Andrew Sissons.

A report by the Resolution Foundation think-tank last year said there had been “little change in the relative size of green and brown occupations over the past decade”, with a “small net growth” in green jobs driven mostly by professional roles such as marketing directors.

What’s going on? Is there a lack of demand from employers and consumers, or a lack of supply of workers? In many cases, it’s a bit of both. Consider just one green job: heat pump engineers. There are only about 3,000 qualified heat pump engineers in the country. Nesta calculates there will need to be another 5,000 to 7,000 every year if the UK is to reach the government’s target of 600,000 heat pump installations a year by 2028.

But policymakers haven’t sent decisive signals to the market to back up that target. They have sat on the fence about whether hydrogen could be a different option, which creates uncertainty about future demand. And two-thirds of new homes in England are still being connected to the gas grid, according to a government-commissioned review of its plans to reach net zero.

Meanwhile, the nation’s gas engineers — many of whom are sole-traders in their fifties — are very busy installing gas boilers, which are more straightforward and for which there is still plenty of demand. Sissons says the heat pump training course for gas engineers is only a few days long, but it still means taking time away from earning money, and they’re not sure of how much work they will get afterwards. Young people starting from scratch, meanwhile, face a convoluted training route.

A three-year apprenticeship as a “low-carbon heating technician”, which would be more straightforward, is “not ready for delivery” yet.

All of which means that, when a homeowner wants to get a heat pump installed, they sometimes give up because they can’t find the workers to do it. Lack of demand hurts supply, and lack of supply hurts demand.

The problem of weak incentives to switch to green jobs applies in other sectors too. A study published this year by the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute found that adverts for “low-carbon” job postings required higher skills than comparable occupations, but they were not necessarily better paid. For a worker in the oil and gas industry, for example, it might not make financial sense to move to a role in renewables — at least not right now. “The lack of a positive wage premium in recent years despite these jobs having higher skill requirements is problematic for attracting workers into low-carbon jobs,” the study concluded.

As the HGV driver shortage showed a few years ago, these problems can be fixed with the right market incentives and enough political will. When employers increased wages for truck drivers and the government offered to cover the cost of the training, the shortage soon abated.

Valero says the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act in the US is similarly decisive — it is intended to boost demand for clean energy projects and “give markets and workers a signal it’s a big deal, so it makes sense to transition into those jobs”.

The risk of pushing too hard, of course, is bottlenecks and inflation. But as the UK shows, the risk of pushing too gently is that nothing much happens at all.


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