The energy transition skills gap is growing. A February report from the European Investment Bank found the growth of green technology in the EU is being hindered by a lack of skilled workers. The survey of more than 12,500 businesses and 685 authorities revealed that more than 80% of companies and 60% of local authorities believe the skills shortage, particularly in engineering and digital, is preventing climate change projects from progressing. This poses a major challenge for the EU, which wants to increase support for clean technology to compete with the US for green investment.

The UK is not exempt. Its government target for 600,000 heat pumps by 2028 hardly seems possible considering the absence of a workforce that knows how to install them. In the UK, only 18% of installers are currently installing heat pumps and 44% do not know where to go to get trained, found a January 2023 survey of 350 installers commissioned by household plumbing supplier City Plumbing, part of the Highbourne Group, a UK heating and plumbing company.

Nevertheless, UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s 2023 Spring Budget, published in mid-March, does not include a plan to address the energy transition skills gap.

“The chancellor’s thinking needs a rapid upgrade – just like [the] 19 million homes in the UK that need retrofitting,” said Cara Jenkinson, cities manager at climate solutions charity Ashden, in a press comment. “By laying out measures to boost retrofit demand and create a generation of skilled retrofit workers, he could have not only generated savings for struggling households, but also given businesses the confidence needed to generate over 200,000 new energy efficiency jobs. A missed opportunity, that UK households, workers and businesses will keenly feel in years to come.”

One organisation working to address the energy transition skills gap is Engineers Without Borders UK (EWB), a non-profit focused on upskilling engineers beyond just technical skills. Energy Monitor sat down with EWB’s UK CEO John Kraus to discuss what holistic upskilling looks like and why it is just as important as technical upskilling.

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By GlobalData

What does Engineers Without Borders do?

There are around 60 Engineers Without Borders organisations around the world. We are the UK [branch]. We're working to upskill 250,000 people by 2030, which is when the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are supposed to be met, and we're aiming to upskill those people to reach a tipping point in the engineering sector. The tipping point we want to reach is the point beyond which engineering meets the needs of both people and planet. Our focus is across all 17 SDGs – not just climate change. We are looking at how engineering has an impact on them all. How can we not only minimise the [negative] impact that engineering has, but [make sure it is] regenerative and make the world a better place.

Our work is primarily with undergraduates, master’s students and professionals – particularly young professionals – who have chosen engineering as their path. We also have university [societies] all around the country – about 25 of them – made up of undergraduates who go to schools and talk to students about engineering, what excites them about it and why engineering could be a force for good.

So, it is about systems change.

I think that's a good way of putting it. We're trying to [address] the skills, the knowledge and the mindset you need as an engineer – that you can overlay on the technical skills that you get. We're trying to take all those great technical skills and apply them in a way that has an optimal benefit for people and planet.

How would you define systems change? What does it look like?

We want to transform education in universities in the UK and beyond so that global responsibility is embedded throughout the curriculum. At the moment, if you’re studying for an engineering degree, you might have nothing on sustainability throughout your three or four years at university. We're trying to mainstream sustainability throughout the curriculum, so every module is approached from a sustainability viewpoint.

What challenges do you face?

Very often educators, who want to put sustainability right through the curriculum, have limited resources and time to do so. [Also], very often as educators, their real job, as it were, is not to educate students but to carry out research. With all those pressures, it's hard for educators to find the time, space and tools to make the kind of change we are trying to achieve – but we have an answer for that: something called a 'reimagined degree map'. We are being sponsored to create that by the Royal Academy of Engineering. It is going to be launched publicly in September.

The idea is that once we have this reimagined degree map [which will explicitly introduce sustainability thinking], we will be able to go to educators with the map and a set of tools to support it, some training support, to get universities to really change how they teach engineering. That would be the systems change we would like to achieve in education.

Outside of education, there is a massive energy transition skills gap in the workforce. How can that be closed?

A report done by the IETF [Institution of Engineering Technology] about 18 months ago said 93% of companies in the engineering sector that have a sustainability strategy do not have the people to make that strategy a reality. So, in other words, [just] 7% of them do.

The rest say they do not have people with the right skills. One aspect of that is the technical skills; of course, you need people to be trained in the very technical things of how to measure carbon, for example, and reduce [emissions].

We have developed a competency framework – the Global Responsibility Competency Compass – that looks beyond purely technical skills at what a modern engineering professional needs. Just like the degree map will look at what students need to learn, the compass looks at what practitioners need to do. It says: “We know you've got your technical skills, but this is how to overlay them in a way that allows you to apply those technical skills in a way that's as responsible as possible.” It's meant to be a way of helping professionals navigate the sustainability landscape. [The Global Responsibility Competency Compass] is endorsed by the Engineering Council. We are going to be launching it in June.

EWB is upskilling people for a 'just' energy transition that is as much about demographics and inclusivity as the environment, correct?

Exactly. It would look at all those aspects. [We want engineers to be] thinking about being inclusive and looking at issues of diversity when thinking about climate action.

You're not trying to create something that's technically brilliant just for the sake of it. You must think about what the outcome of that is in all its aspects – its use of resources, its compatibility with the circumstances where it is being deployed, and so forth.

We've just done a “design challenge” month. We call it 'Reshaping Engineering' and we ask people to come together from all around the world in teams. Over the course of a month, they are asked to come up with ideas for how [they] would reshape the teaching and practice of engineering. How do you use technology responsibly?

Do you find that students already recognise a gap between technical engineering and broader considerations, or are they surprised by this other dimension?

Our Engineering for People Design Challenge, the main one we do, gives students a very detailed brief on an underserved community somewhere in the world, including people profiles. There may be videos of those people speaking to highlight the context of what the environment, economy, culture and history is like there.

It's new to the students, to think: “Okay, so I'm not being given a brief that says make a car that goes as fast as possible on one gallon of petrol. I'm being given a brief which says, 'Understand these people, understand the place they live and then think about how engineering can help'.”

It's not a specific brief with a single answer. One of the things a lot of the students take away from this is the realisation that there is not a single right answer. In engineering, you can often think there is a perfect, or at least an optimal, solution to a problem – like if something works more efficiently than something else or lasts longer, but that's not how life is for people. What might be a great answer for one underserved community might not be the right answer for another underserved community the following year.

We get a lot of students coming to us saying, “I'm learning to be an engineer. I can make a difference in the world, and in three years, nobody's mentioned the climate. [Lecturers] just keep telling me how to put down more concrete.”

John Kraus, CEO, Engineers Without Borders UK

What is perhaps not surprising for students – and is very frustrating for many of them – is that they know we need a sustainable future, and they know we are in a climate and biodiversity crisis. Then they are sitting there doing their course for three or four years, wondering why it is not mentioned.

It is an outdated system and that is what we are starting to change. The Engineering for People Design Challenge is something we currently deliver across around 35 universities in the UK, half a dozen in South Africa and half a dozen in the US and in Cameroon. That is starting to change things because it is giving students an experience they are just not getting otherwise.

Lots of students from Africa and South Asia are also joining a [worldwide] design challenge called 'Efficiency for Access'. That's for master’s students to come up with a prototype for an off-grid appliance; for example, solar-powered baby incubators for a hospital in Kenya. Again, it gives them a chance to make a difference.