Students turned off by careers crucial to UK’s net zero ambitions, says WSP report

Rachel Skinner, executive director at WSP.

Future careers in sectors vital to decarbonising the UK’s economy are struggling to appeal to students, new research suggests.

A survey of nearly 4,000 school, college and university students aged 16-23 has found that sectors including construction, utilities and transport rank poorly as those which appeal to the UK’s future workforce.

The research was published by engineering and environmental professional services consultancy WSP alongside Savanta ComRes, with the survey suggesting a possible shortfall in jobs across key sectors which have an important role to play in delivering net zero.

The research showed nearly two-fifths of students (37%) would not consider a career in construction, despite the sector playing a crucial role in decarbonising infrastructure and buildings, as well as the creation of new homes across the UK.

Over a third of students (34%) would not pursue a career in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, while over a fifth (22%) would not consider a career in either utilities or transport. 

These figures contrast with students' impressions of which sectors are most important in helping the UK reach its net zero emissions targets, with utilities (24%), transport (13%) and agriculture, forestry and fishing (11%) ranking highest.

In the utilities sector for instance, which includes energy, water and power, EngineeringUK’s Net Zero Workforce report from July 2022 showed that 64,000 solar PV jobs are required by 2035 alone, as well as 90,000 jobs in offshore wind power and 44,000 in hydrogen by 2030.

Only half of students (50%) think their generation can have a high impact on tackling issues surrounding the environment and climate change and less than two-in-five (39%) were confident in their understanding of the term “green jobs” when asked.

This lack of understanding may be in part due to their school curriculum, with 75% of students agreeing that they would like or would have liked to learn more about climate, sustainability and environmental related topics at school. 

Additionally, only a fifth (22%) felt informed about the range of green jobs available to them.

Rachel Skinner, executive director at WSP, said: “For us to successfully tackle the many dimensions of the urgent climate challenge, we can’t carry on doing things the way we always have. 

“Having the right skills – in sufficient strength, breadth and depth – is essential if the UK is to seize the opportunity to boost economic growth and build new expertise through the climate transition. 

“But WSP’s new research shows this could be an uphill struggle. While today’s students have grasped the crucial importance of the engineering and infrastructure sectors in securing a lower carbon future, many of them do not view these sectors as prime targets for their own future employment.

“This leads to key questions: how can we change this perspective? What more can we do to accelerate the development of a workforce with the right skills to deliver against the UK’s net zero commitments?”  

The survey’s findings were recently presented at an event hosted by WSP at the House of Commons. Also taking part were EngineeringUK and RenewableUK.

RenewableUK’s offshore wind director Jane Cooper welcomed the study, saying: “It’s more important than ever that we engage with young people studying STEM subjects as the number of jobs in the UK's offshore wind industry is set to grow rapidly to nearly 100,000 by 2030.

“This means we need to attract a diverse range of people with skills at every level, to ensure that we ramp up the speed and scale at which we build out vital new offshore wind projects. 

“As well as creating tens of thousands of new jobs, this will deliver cheap electricity to consumers as well as taking effective action against climate change.”

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