Reviewing The Skills For A Jobs Transition

Jul 27, 2023

Solar Panels Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash

This is a new report, issued in July under the banner ‘Future Energy Skills Programme’ and produced by a collection of organisations, led by Centrica and GMB, and also including TUC, Unite, Unison and Prospect, as well as Rolls Royce and others.

The aim of the report is set out clearly in the Executive Summary: ‘we are optimistic about the opportunity we have to deliver a revolution that creates green jobs, lowers bills, meets our climate change ambitions, and secures energy independence.’  The report goes on to elaborate in some detail how these changes will occur.  In that regard it is in stark contrast to the erasure of green issues from the policy platforms of the two main parties.

The other striking point is that the report puts trade unions front and centre of the discussion.  This should not be surprising given the degree of union participation, and that much of the thinking reflects GMB policies, but the involvement of several employers shows how far we have come over the last twelve to eighteen months.  The effectiveness and public profile of recent industrial action has made it impossible, unlike the case only a couple of years ago, to not even mention workers or unions in similar types of report.

At the same time, the presence of Centrica, Rolls Royce and other employers will raise alarm bells with many, conjuring visions of ‘joint management/union statements’ that never quite seem to work out for workers.  GJA itself comprises a range of opinions about what constitutes good industrial relations, and our individual responses to this report range from welcoming to suspicious and all points between.

On the welcoming side of the equation, inevitably given GJA’s focus on green skills, the core of the report is about ensuring that the education, training and re-skilling, and also the diversity, of the future work force is fit to meet the challenge of climate change.  We support the analysis of how young people can be helped and supported to achieve that aim.  The conclusions reached on the need for more apprenticeships, reintroducing industry experience into the secondary curriculum, an increase in STEM students in tertiary education, and overcoming the inflexibility of the qualifications system are well observed.  We also like recommendation (45) about utilising older workers as ‘skills teachers.’

Worthy of note is the level of criticism of the UK government for its inaction and absence of ambition: ‘[the] Government should expand the ambition of its green investment to match the scale of plans recently set out by the United States, European Union nations and other G7 peers.’  The report calls for the UK government to provide an equivalent to the EU’s Just Transition fund to help communities diversify into alternative industries.

There is also a recommendation (11) for a ‘new strategic body’, defined as ‘a central co-ordinating body with responsibility for skills co-ordination, underpinned by a national agreement with the recognised unions.’  This sounds not unlike the National Climate Service being called for by many trade unions and campaign organisations.  The report even harks back to the way government and industry worked together in the 1960s and 1970s. 

And underpinning all else is the repeated point that it is vital to ‘avoid job losses’, to which we would only add that a true commitment to a Just Transition that meets the climate crisis would not just avoid job loss but result in a ‘jobs surplus.’ 

With these positive points in mind, what are the concerns?  We can group these into two areas:

  1. The tangible industrial areas the report promotes and the contentiousness of these in climate terms, and
  2. The political project implicit in the report, i.e. ‘capturing the agenda’ and maintaining the status quo.

On the first point, what is envisaged as the backbone of a ‘green economy’ are three pillars that are hugely contentious – hydrogen, nuclear power and carbon capture & storage.  We don’t propose to revisit the arguments around each of those here, the objections are well documented and within GJA there are differing nuances. 

What we would say, in fairness to the report authors, is that, if you looked seriously at alternatives, the basic framework for a future workforce and how to achieve it wouldn’t necessarily look that different to what is proposed in the report, it’s just that those proposals would be aimed at different, what many climate experts would deem more sustainable, purposes than those three areas. 

Nebulous statements like ‘Carbon capture, utilisation and storage and hydrogen development offer the potential to safeguard jobs in existing areas of carbon-intensive sectors’, not only suggests a future where fossil fuels continue to burn but neglects the fact that further development of low or zero carbon energy offers the same potential.  That hydrogen, nuclear and CCS are the pillars of the strategy will alienate many as well as reinforcing the view that the report is a well-disguised employer’s charter.  The sections on all three in the report describe the ‘potential’ to create ‘up to’ X thousand jobs if the right investment is forthcoming – but the same would be true of less problematic alternatives.

On the second point, there is a tension between the call for greater government intervention and the role of government as a ‘market-maker’ – the popular demand for public ownership is not present in this report.  While the report shows admirable commitment to the workforce, it is sparse on the question of ownership which, combined with references to the market, implies that such wide scale government action as is being called for result in the old ‘socialise the costs, privatise the profits’ scenario.

In that context, the criticism of the ‘new strategic body’ is in the detail about short- and long-term needs, the implication that government needs to get us through the proverbial hard times until conditions are more favourable for profit-driven industries to capitalise on the situation.  This point extends to an overall consideration of the report: a recognition that neo-liberalism is ill-serving even private companies currently and that some form of old-style ‘mixed economy’ represents their best chances of continued survival.

On workers, while explicit in the text that ‘government should use its influence to set standards and competencies in emergent industries and ensure jobs are secure, well-paid, and with the right skills provision…those jobs considered less skilled should still be good jobs with decent pay and dignified conditions’, these essential characteristics do not make it through to the 48 recommendations, unfortunately.

More concerning, the text frequently turns to the double-edged sword of ‘flexibility’.  This is a tricky balancing act, between ‘urgency’ on the one hand, i.e. speeding up qualification periods and certification in the face of the crisis the world is facing right now, and ‘cutting red tape’ on the other hand, i.e. those safeguards that protect safety and workers’ rights, and protect them so they are not put in the firing line by an absence of regulation. 

Throughout there is a theme of dispensing with ‘barriers’ that might slow down progress, but it also carries echoes of Conservative opposition to ‘unnecessary’ bureaucracy.  In the same vein, the call for tax incentives (recommendation 8) sounds reasonable within the specific context of steering the economy towards low-carbon alternatives, but in a broader sense also speaks to ‘incentivisation’ in the service of discredited trickle-down theory.

Finally, when the report says ‘If cessation of production occurs before renewables sources are capable of meeting demand, the UK will have an energy gap [and] jobs gap’ is perpetuating a misconceived ‘cliff edge’ narrative that fails to acknowledge the word ‘transition’.  If there is a cliff edge, it’s delaying the transition until we absolutely have to stop fossil fuel production immediately, so the challenge is to implement the transition as rapidly as possible to avoid that situation.  Having a guaranteed plan to protect workers should be the primary concern of unions; the speed of its implementation then becomes secondary, in jobs terms at least. The report itself acknowledges this in calling for a ‘step change in the urgency and scale of government response,’ which we agree with.

To sum up, the cynical among us may see this report as an attempt to ‘capture the debate’, and there is a clear element of seeking to maintain the dominant social and economic paradigm contained in its pages. Still, the fact that these actors feel motivated to capture it at all acknowledges that transition to a green workforce is inevitable and necessary and represents a shift in thinking in the right direction.  Whatever our viewpoint we can take heart from that and build our own proposals for practical action upon that sea change.

Tahir Latif

GJA Secretary