The construction industry lacks the skills it needs to meet the growing demands of energy efficiency targets, the Green Deal and environmentally-savvy clients

The green agenda will transform construction. Schemes such as the Green Deal, which alone is expected to create 200,000 jobs, are set to provide millions of pounds worth of work in retrofitting energy efficiency measures into existing homes. Equally transformational policy changes are in the pipeline for the commercial and housebuilding sectors.

The question is, does the industry have the right skills to take up this work? And how do you make sure your firm is at the front of the queue?

The government is certainly creating plenty of green work. Housebuilders must prepare to deliver zero-carbon homes by 2016 and there is speculation that the government will seek to strengthen the existing Code for Sustainable Homes before this. From next year, the carbon reduction commitment comes into force, which will tax energy-intensive companies at a rate of £12 for every tonne of carbon they produce. There is also talk that the government will propose a Green Deal for retrofitting energy efficiency measures in commercial buildings. Last month chancellor George Osborne also announced the Green Investment Bank will have a £3bn fund, which will spark enormous investment in projects such as wind farms and PV.

But according to the UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC), the skills deficit is the biggest challenge facing the construction industry. “The UK’s ambitious carbon reduction targets will only be met by a skilled and knowledgeable workforce,” says John Alker of the UK-GBC. “We need people to take this increasingly seriously and for those that do there are strong market opportunities.”

So how do you get the skills to get the work? For those wanting to tap into this growth market, there is an increasing number of courses teaching sustainability. Many provide training on technical advances in areas such as renewable energy and carbon reduction technologies. But academics stress the importance of gaining an understanding of the principles behind sustainability in order to meet the demands of the market.

Dr Andrew Knight, head of construction management at Nottingham Trent University, says: “We keep track of the latest technology but the problem is that it gets out of date quickly. If you learn the environmental principles it sets you up with the right attitudes for the rest of your career.”

Alker agrees: “A lot of construction professionals have the skills for sustainable construction, but lack the knowledge. Once you’ve picked up that knowledge you can integrate it into all your work.”

Stephen Bickell, head of sustainability at the College of Estate Management, says it is taking a similar approach. Sustainability is taught in all its courses and the college plans to integrate sustainability further across its prospectus. “There are many generic skills that all construction professionals should have that are particularly important for sustainable construction,” Bickell says. “The ability to communicate among a range of professionals, to lead and integrate the needs and desires of various stakeholders and being aware of the bigger picture.”

The UK-GBC has begun running a high-level course aimed at developing green leadership skills. In partnership with Cambridge university, it has launched a two-and-a-half day programme aimed at board-level construction professionals. The first ran at Cambridge last month. “Developing leadership skills is vital to achieving transformational change,” Alker says.

He is in no doubt about the scale of the challenge facing construction. “Skills are needed at every level, from the installer who needs to know how to retrofit homes all the way up to FTSE 100 chief executives wanting to take a lead on sustainability,” he says.

And as clients become more environmentally savvy, architects and QSs are now required to specify to high sustainability criteria. “Construction professionals are having to move away from thinking just about initial capital cost to the environmental costs across the whole life cycle. This requires a whole new way of thinking,” Knight says.
Bickell agrees that specifying has been transformed by the green agenda. “The sustainability impacts of buildings are becoming more understood. There are new skill demands for low carbon, low water use and embodied energy.”

But not all courses are providing students with the necessary green skills. Bickell is dismayed at the lack of skills in the industry to deliver sustainable projects. He says professionals must seek courses with strong sustainability expertise. “It astonishes me how people can still come out of training not having these abilities,” he says.
Busy professionals should also be looking for courses that provide the maximum flexibility, Knight says. “I would be looking for those that were part-time and allowed me to integrate my work practice with the academic curriculum,” he says.

To prove their commitment to sustainability, academics at Nottingham Trent University, which offers an MSc in project management and one in construction management as well as part-time courses, have installed a 3,000m2 sedum roof on their department building. The “living roof” is covered with a plant that slows water run-off and oxygenates the air. “We felt it was important to practice what we preach,” Knight says. “Plus using a growing medium for roofing is a potential market opportunity for our students.”
If the UK is to go green, more construction professionals will need to skill up - and those that do will be able to take advantage of the rich seam of opportunities that exist.

Some sustainability-related courses on offer

MSc in Construction Management, Nottingham Trent University,
0115-848 2572,

Sustainability for Real Estate Investment short course, College of Estate Management, 0118-921 4774

STEP Leadership Programme, run by UK Green Building Council and Cambridge university, 01223-768 833