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Staring into the retrofit skills gap

A female construction worker in a yellow high-vis jacket and helmet, standing on scaffolding and smiling at the camera
5 July 2022

Ian Preston, CSE’s Director of Household Energy Services, is reduced to despair over the government’s failure to understand where the bottle neck in the UK’s retrofit supply chain lies …

In light of the current eye-wateringly steep increases in the cost of heating, the Association for the Decentralisation of Energy (ADE) wrote to the UK government Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy demanding urgent action to reduce the energy consumption of UK homes.

The reply – which I saw last week – was very telling. The minister duly repeated the government’s position, namely that they want to see an expansion of the retrofit sector and are looking at ways of encouraging people to make home improvements or retrofit measures like wall insulation and heat pumps.

What leapt out at me was the absence of three words: “training”, “skills”, “jobs”. And this is beyond frustrating.

Because, as CSE and other organisations have repeatedly told the government, the sticking point is not at the household (demand) end of the chain but at the service (supply) end. Until this message gets through, the current retrofit log-jam will only get worse.

In sum, there simply aren’t enough skilled or qualified people to do the work across all trades and roles. Not enough builders. Not enough electricians. Not enough heating engineers. Not enough heat pump installers. Not enough joiners, plasterers, retrofit surveyors and energy assessors.

And in these circumstances, stoking the fires of consumer demand will simply drive up prices and frustrate homeowners. This is exactly what happened with the Green Homes Grant in 2021. This £1.5bn programme was abandoned just six months after its launch after upgrading a mere 47,500 homes out of the 600,000 originally planned. The Public Accounts Committee said the weaknesses in the scheme could damage future efforts to deliver net zero.

The Green Deal which preceded the Green Homes Grant was similarly disastrous.

The government needs to understand that pouring money into the supply chain via short-term grants will not translate to business growth. In their defence, that approach has succeeded in the past, for example with electric cars and solar panels where generous grants stimulated both supply and demand.

The retrofit sector is different

But both these industries are very different from the retrofit sector where thousands of medium, small and micro businesses supply the market with scores of different trades, from plumbers to ventilation fitters.

And most of them, by and large, have plenty of work. They certainly have little appetite for investing in training or taking on apprentices to service a what may be a temporary demand generated by a government scheme that is withdrawn at a moment’s notice.

So we’re staring into a skills gap – or more accurately a skills chasm. It is this issue that the government needs to address with a strategy that creates an army of ‘retrofit technicians’ – the skilled builders we need to meet the net zero challenge. And local government can help too.

And we must redouble our efforts to make learning a trade an attractive option for a broad range of school leavers. I have a vision of thousands of enthusiastic young people leaving school and training up to be joiners, plasterers, retrofit assessors and so on. Without this, the chances of the market responding in the way Government expects – money-in-growth-out – are vanishingly slim.

This article first appeared in Business Green (paywall).

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