Opinion

Training is our greatest green challenge

9 June 2011

Cat Hirst, UK-GBC

Construction is largely sold on the idea of sustainable buildings, but there’s a lack of knowledge about the subject at all levels

Whether the industry is prepared or not, the UK construction sector is on a journey of transformational change in response to the sustainability and carbon agenda.

But to get to grips with sustainability — so often a lazily applied buzzword — we must move away from the blame game. Rather than waiting around for targets to be established, reviewed, refined, and watered down (eg zero carbon homes), let’s start “doing”!

The Green Deal, for example, will go live from October 2012 — in theory anyway — and this programme has the potential to revolutionise the energy efficiency of properties in the UK, and create a market for low-cost, low-carbon housing. However, to ensure that the Green Deal delivers, the advisers, providers and installers will have to be trained.

When the Green Deal initiative was first announced, energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne posited it as an opportunity, saying up to a quarter of a million jobs would be created as part of a “third industrial revolution”. In March this year, it was announced that the government would fund more than 1,000 “green apprenticeships”, under the Green Deal. While this will go some way to upskilling industry, as the figures indicate, organisations will be expected to play a leading role in training their employees.

Initiatives such as the Green Deal inevitably require change — arguably not something the construction sector has always embraced with open arms — but there are number of benefits to taking a more proactive approach in developing green skills, rather than simply reacting to policy changes.

Yes, a certain amount of leadership will inevitably come from government, but there is also space for innovative, forward-thinking organisations to become experts in embedding sustainability principles in construction projects. We are currently seeing a very reassuring movement towards sustainability-focused leadership, which is a real start. In a study completed by consultant Accenture last year, 93% of CEOs said they believed that sustainability issues would be critical to the future success of their business and 88% said they should be integrating sustainability through their supply chain. Yet there is still a knowledge gap, even at the CEO level. In research commissioned by the UK-GBC, we found that more than half the executives we surveyed felt they needed further training on sustainability. 

But while industry leaders are crucial to driving the issues forward, it is a collective task. Our research found that there was an appetite for training at all levels, but in terms of job function, the perceived biggest need was for the “doers” — the middle managers and project managers. We also saw a huge demand for foundation level training, and beyond that a progression route to more technical training courses.

There are a plethora of courses that claim to address the needs of the construction industry on sustainability issues. However, of a sample group of 552, we found that two thirds respondents felt that existing provision was “below par” and “could be better”. One of the comments we received was that there are “too many unaccredited trainers with no directional goal, giving their individual thoughts on sustainability with no quality assurance of content”.

There is high-quality training out there, but the signposting to it is desperately lacking. This means that locating the most appropriate training courses for yourself, or your staff, is still a difficult task.

A huge part of my role at the UK-GBC is to collaborate with industry to work through this confusion, and create a clear roadmap for employees and professionals to understand their needs and then identify the most suitable training/education. This will be facilitated through the establishment of a Sustainability Lifelong Learning Framework which aims to create a matrix of training opportunities and qualifications right across the built environment from “mailroom to boardroom”. Hopefully this will go some way to preventing the inertia around green education.

This doesn’t have to be a bank-breaking exercise. At a national level, the costs of funding green jobs, training courses and education could be offset by carbon and energy savings (and thus reduced penalties), and let’s not forget those less quantifiable factors that are rising up the agenda, such as health and well-being. At an organisational level, companies adopting a proactive stance to sustainability training and education will gain a competitive stance in terms of market position.

In March the EU pledged €8m (£6.9m) to the BUILD UP Skills initiative to help countries train their workforces to reach the European 2020 energy targets and establish national qualification platforms and roadmaps. It calls for a consortium of partner groups to guide and inform on best practice in education and training. The deadline for proposals is 15 June.

So, let’s not leave it to government, and let’s get moving on putting into practice what we know will work.

Cat Hirst, sustainability training and education programme (STEP) manager, UK-GBC

It’s a matter of course

One of UK-GBC’s aims is to create a clearer training and education landscape and to get the built environment sector speaking a common language in terms of sustainability. Its Introduction to Sustainability in the Built Environment course is an online foundation course, and the new Sustainability Leadership in the Built Environment programme was launched at the University of Cambridge in March. This programme is the first of its kind designed for senior business leaders working in the built environment. More information from http://step.ukgbc.org

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