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Do Schools Need a Green Wake-up Call?

21/01/2014 11:37 GMT | Updated 23/03/2014 09:59 GMT

An independent YouGov poll, released by environmental behaviour change charity Global Action Plan, shows that schools are not providing young people with the skills to secure employment in the fast growing 'green economy'. The survey found that 50% of teachers in Great Britain think their school is not preparing students for growth in the number of green jobs. While 63% of teachers think their school is not doing anything specifically aimed at developing the skills needed for green jobs.

There is a gaping hole between what pupils are currently learning and the rapidly changing skills that businesses - and society - will need in a more sustainable economy. Political rhetoric about the benefits of growing the green economy is increasing - with Prime Minister David Cameron expected to make an announcement on this issue early this year. Despite this, there is precious little substance to this talk. This lack of activity is perverse as robust policy in this area could address three fundamental challenges facing the UK economy - youth unemployment, future skills shortages, and the need to hit legally binding carbon targets.

1. Youth Unemployment

Youth unemployment in August 2013 was the highest it has been for two decades - last year it cost the Exchequer more than the entire education budget for 16-19 year olds. According to the Prince's Trust this high level of unemployment is one reason why as many as three quarters of a million young people in the UK feel they have nothing to live for. The Trust warns that if we fail to help these people there is a real danger that they will become hopeless as well as jobless.

One potential area of work for the young unemployed is the green economy. According to the CBI, even in difficult economic times, the green economy has continued to grow. It currently employs close to a million people, with 25,000 new jobs created last year and is expected to roughly halve the UK's trade deficit next year.

Importantly, work in the green economy is of interest to young people. Global Action Plan has consulted with 3,500 16-24 year olds and they have told us that sustainability is important to them because they are seeking rewarding jobs that have wider benefits to society.

2. Meeting future skill shortages

A shift to a lower carbon economy will require employees with different skill-sets. The energy sector is one that will be particularly affected. This industry will need a range of new skills including renewable energy experts and potentially a new workforce capable of building the next generation of nuclear power stations. These new skills are needed urgently as the sector has an ageing workforce with 50% of gas employees over the age of 45.

But leading businesses are predicting that future green jobs will not be confined to the green energy sector. Sainsbury's have told us that; 'if we are to increase our reliance on low carbon technologies, there will be an even greater need for skilled designers and service engineers with access to the relevant training."

Totally new jobs will also be created. It might sound like a load of old rubbish, but landfill mining could be the next resources idea to sweep Britain. A number of companies are examining the viability of mining landfill sites to free up much needed space and tap into the value of recycled metals which can be recovered

3. Hitting legally binding carbon targets

The government has a legally binding carbon target and its' independent advisor, the Committee on Climate Change, has set out a map detailing how this target can be met. The 80% reduction target by 2050 is highly challenging and it is clear that meeting it requires a workforce with new knowledge and skills.

Linking education and the green economy

The green economy clearly provides opportunities to help take young people away from unemployment and into jobs that have a wide benefit to society. Yet most young people are unaware of the opportunities provided in this changing economy, which is not surprising looking at the results of the YouGov survey.

There needs to be closer collaboration between education providers and employers to help young people. This need not be complicated. Global Action Plan recently interviewed 12 unemployed young people about the job market and their expectations. All the young people were unaware of job opportunities within the green economy and none of them knew how to get their foot in the door.

We trained the young people to undertake energy audits in households. Since the training course, nine of the twelve participants have gone on to secure full time employment in the green economy. One participant said:

"I was lost and wanted direction and to get some specialised knowledge in a sector and see where that would take me. The training really helped me focus my thoughts on sustainability and it opened my eyes. I wouldn't have got a job without it."

It is only a small drop in the ocean, but it does go to show what can be achieved by providing practical support to young people and by directing them to an area of the economy that is growing.