Green skills for a greener economy

Posted on 5 May 2009 by The Manufacturer

Writing exclusively for The Manufacturer following a lecturer to members of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) and the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing (The Skills Academy), Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya KB CBE, director and founder of Warwick Manufacturing Group, outlines his view of the challenges facing manufacturers as the UK faces up to climate change.

The challenge of climate change has produced a convergence of political priorities, economic needs and the hope of scientific breakthrough that gives us a once in a lifetime opportunity to put engineering at the heart of what it is to be British, using engineering and manufacturing to grow the economy and transform our workforce.

In a recent speech the Prime Minister compared the scientific challenge of creating a green economy to that of sending a man to the moon. Just last week, reporting on the Government’s latest green initiative, The Independent called it a new “industrial revolution.” These are useful comparisons. Yet the challenge of reducing the carbon imprint of our entire economy is far bigger than the space programme.

The Committee on Climate Change has set out the level of change we need to make in the next decade. It proposes that UK greenhouse gas emissions be reduced by 21% compared to 2005. Last month, the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University published a response saying that this target would not keep global temperature rises below two degrees celsius.

If you say you plan to lose a third of your body weight, and your wife then tells you that’s not going to be enough, you know that’s there’s going to be a tough few months ahead.

Meanwhile the CBI has pointed out that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 120 million tonnes over the next eleven years. So in the next decade we must double the rate of emissions reductions we achieved with the dash for gas, the decline of British manufacturing, the end of coal mining and all the improvements in environmental technology across areas like adipic acid emissions.

So when you try to list the manufacturing sector skill sets that will be needed to reduce carbon emissions, it is easier and simpler just to say “All of them”.

To stand a chance of meeting these targets, engineers must lead the way. Today, we are a long way from where we need to be.

At the degree level, only around 13% of graduates leave university with the most valuable science, technology, engineering or maths degrees. This needs to rise to at least a quarter if the UK is to match the growth in jobs ministers have talked about.

We must put building engineering skills at the heart of our environmental strategy.

We need new Brunels, new Bazalgettes, new Armstrongs and new Lucases – and since our world is now global, we will need to recruit the skills and inspirations of new Kalams and An Wangs too.

Only by working together
Companies should see this as a great opportunity, rather than tiresome bureaucracy and an extra tax burden. We need to recruit, train and educate a small army of green minded engineers to lead the changes we need in businesses and corporations.

To achieve all this we need a compact between government, industry and academia.

Government must provide better science education in schools and a stronger vocational skills system at NVQ levels 2 and 3 while making careers in Industry more accessible. We need an immediate programme of funded graduate internships in areas such as low carbon vehicles, aerospace, electricity generation and material technology.

Next, government must transform its attitude to applied technology. The Technology Strategy Board has a budget of £700 million over three years. I believe it needs to be £1 billion a year if we are to see a real transformation in applied environmental research in this country.

The Japanese Government recently announced an extra £10 billion pound (¥1.6tr) investment in environment technologies. We need to be thinking in that scale.

Of course, government cannot bear this burden alone. Business must join with them.

If British manufacturing companies do not invest in research in exciting new technologies, companies overseas will.

If British manufacturing companies do not offer good reward packages to graduates and talented workers, they will work for companies that do.

British companies should adopt silicon valley style reward packages for top engineers, giving those who create value a stake in the businesses they build.

If British companies do not invest in the skills of their workers, we know companies in China, India, Brazil and South Africa will develop the skills of theirs.

If the Government must offer core STEM education throughout peoples lives, then business must offer workers the chance to learn the skills they need to succeed.

If we do all this, then British companies in sectors from aerospace, nuclear, automotive and engine technologies, to batteries, renewables and construction will be able to build both the technologies to drive green growth and the skilled workforce to fuel that expansion.

Many observers think this is daunting task. Can we meet the challenge ahead?

In the words of the new American president: “Yes, We Can”.