Business Innovation and Skills Responses to the Demand for a Cleaner Greener Future — Innovation Insider

With innovation continuing at pace towards net zero, the skills required for this cleaner greener future are constantly changing. This presents a huge challenge for businesses trying to innovate and develop and scale new products and services. It also presents a huge challenge for the education sector.

This was the topic of a panel discussion at Venturefest West Midlands 2024, sponsored by the Electric Revolution Skills Hub, chaired by their Director Deepak Farmah. Other panellists were Pamela Farries at Midlands Aerospace Alliance, Debbie Ward at Cirklo Consult Ltd, David Gaughan at WMCA, and Tony Harper at the Faraday Battery Challenge. This blog summarises the discussion.

An important set of green skills that are often overlooked are around repairing and maintenance. 45% of global emissions come from making things, rather than from energy, so it is critical that we move towards a circular economy. This requires a shift for businesses away from selling products and never seeing them again, to creating products that can be easily repaired, carrying out those repairs, and then taking back those products at the end of life to be deconstructed. Teemill provide an example of this – they print T-shirts to order rather than having an arbitrary number in stock, and all t-shirts have a QR code that can be scanned to provide information on how to send t-shirts back so they can be turned into new products. All of this requires new technical skills, and new business practices.

However, transition to a Net Zero future must be a just transition – if life is not sustainable for everyone, it’s not sustainable, period. And yet in the West Midlands region, there are 200,000 adults whose jobs may change or be lost in the transition to a net zero economy. These people know how to fit gas boilers, not heat pumps; they can fix internal combustion engines, not electric vehicles, and they are used to profit first business models, not triple bottom line accounting. In order to address this and develop a skills system that is responsive to employer need in this changing world, and make sure jobs are not lost, the WMCA skills team has worked hard to change the perception of adult learning to one that is both about moving people into work and upskilling people into new and better jobs. Work has been going on to develop new curriculums at Level 4 and 5 (post-18 education), and more and more universities and specialists in the region have developed and are delivering popular adult learning courses. Examples include Aston’s Green Advantage, and the wide range of technical and digital skills bootcamps delivered by the University of Birmingham.

Some businesses and organisations are dealing with the skills challenge directly – they need employees with new skills now, not in five years’ time. An example is the UK battery manufacturing sector. The UK has a national battery strategy for net zero which will require a skilled and productive workforce, but there are currently not enough individuals with the appropriate skills to develop, scale and industrialise battery technology. In response, the Faraday Battery Challenge commissioned a number of skills projects in 2023. One of these is a national Battery Training and Skills Academy in Newcastle, which will train 126 people with technical skills at Levels 2-4, by 2025. Another is the Digital Enhanced Battery Ubiquitous Training – West Midlands (DEBUT – WM) project which will train 30 people to Levels 2 and 3, again by 2025.

However, the transition to a net zero future can (in places) move faster than educational development can keep up. An example of this is in digital skills, where employer needs can change within the space of a year – far outpacing the ability of skills providers to design, accredit and recruit to courses. In response, the WMCA is leading discussions about foundational learning and ‘learning to learn’, in a move away from accredited learning altogether. This presents a real pedagogical challenge, and a rethink in how we deliver and recognize training, and the skills people already have. Modularization is key to recognizing training in such a face changing environment, where longer courses are likely to be out of date before they are completed, and where the process of sign-off by an accrediting body can be even longer.

The skills challenge for a cleaner greener future is real. However the West Midlands region is well placed to address it with a vibrant innovation ecosystem, and a strong educational and skills offer to support it.

Beck Collins, Sustainability West Midlands

Text reads: Locally-led Innovation Accelerators delivered in partnership with Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, Innovate UK and City Regions.

Logos include: Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, Innovate UK, West Midlands Combined Authority and Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands