Retrofit: Solving the Skills Crisis

Practical steps for a locally driven retrofit skills revolution

Executive summary

We will not be able to tackle the energy crisis and climate emergency without decarbonising our homes at scale – starting now. To do this we need a retrofit skills revolution.

Thousands of people need to be trained in retrofitting techniques such as installing high quality wall, floor and roof insulation and installing smart renewable energy systems. Yet, at present, there is no detailed national skills plan to make our homes fit for the future. Current forecasts show that we will fall far short of training the estimated 400,000 retrofit professionals required to achieve this.

Ashden believes that a local, place-based approach should be at the heart of retrofit skills development, but this can only be achieved with supportive national policy. This briefing highlights actions for local and national government to help achieve the target of retrofitting over 19 million homes by 2035. It draws on practical examples from Ashden’s UK work to accelerate transformative climate solutions. 

These include Portsmouth City Council’s ambitious partnership to create a NetZero Training Hub and the work of B4Box and Stockport Homes Group in an area badly affected by fuel poverty, to make homes more energy efficient, create multi-skilled green jobs and improve living conditions.

Conclusions from the briefing show that it is essential that councils set out long term retrofit plans to instil confidence within local supply chains and education providers of the future jobs that retrofit will guarantee in the coming years. Existing government funded schemes, such as the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, provide an initial pipeline of work but represent less than 5% of the funding needed to decarbonise social housing. Much more policy certainty from national government is needed, including financial incentives, regulation, public engagement and a major programme of investment.

In the short-term councils should develop and publish evidence setting out the local skills gap and opportunities for retrofit jobs and should identify quick wins such as training councils’ home improvement agency and handyperson teams so that they can improve homes this winter.

Councils must also forge partnerships with their local colleges – who train over 160,000 construction workers each year and the briefing case studies provide practical examples of how local government is working in partnership with the FE sector, which could provide a template for a co-ordinated national roll out. Construction apprenticeships need to be overhauled to cover retrofit skills, and not just new build, and to be more flexible so that it is easier for small and micro-businesses to take on apprentices.

Communities and grassroots organisations also have a role to play in supporting initiatives and inspiring young people to pursue career paths in green construction.

If action is taken now an innovative retrofit skills revolution will enable a rapid scale up of energy efficiency work – a triple win – boosting local economies and jobs, tackling the climate emergency and cutting energy bills.

 

The need for action on retrofit skills

The poor state of UK homes is a major factor in the country’s energy crisis. Cold, draughty properties heighten the impact of rocketing fuel prices – and the UK has the worst insulated housing stock in Western Europe.

Action to upgrade (or ‘retrofit’) these homes is needed now more than ever – both to reduce carbon emissions and to protect the public, particularly people in fragile health and those on low incomes.

A national retrofit strategy to retrofit over 19 million homes by 2035 would create wide-ranging benefits: creating jobs in every part of the country and saving residents thousands on energy bills in the years to come.

It is estimated that over 400,000 builders and skilled retrofit professionals are needed, but just 200,000 people currently work on maintaining and upgrading existing homes. There are currently under 1,000 retrofit co-ordinators – people trained to oversee the management and design of all retrofit measures – but forecasts suggests that 50,000 may be needed by 2030. Just 3,000 heating engineers are trained to install heat pumps, less than 5% of the total plumbing and heating workforce.

This briefing sets out how central and local government can create high quality training opportunities that overcome the current lack of skilled installers.

It draws on insights from Ashden’s award process – a rigorous annual search for pioneering climate innovation – as well as over 40 case studies of council climate action prepared with Friends of the Earth. It is also informed by the experiences and views of councils in Ashden’s regional local authority learning networks, and its partnerships the UK Green Building Council, London South Bank University and Nationwide Building Society and others.

Ashden's work with local authorities

This briefing shows policy makers immediate and long-term actions that can spark a retrofit skills revolution, with clear examples of proven innovation. It offers solutions, backed up by case studies of local authorities and others boosting green skills training and strengthening local supply chains to deliver retrofit programmes.

Action on retrofit skills delivers a ‘triple win’ – decent, well-paid jobs in communities across the country, high quality retrofits that protect people from high energy bills, and rapid decarbonisation.

Conversely, the risks of inaction are incredibly costly. Carbon emissions will stay high, and the government may face an open-ended commitment to support energy companies. And a key opportunity to create jobs and improve livelihoods in all areas of the UK will be squandered.

The following case studies and recommendations show solutions to the retrofit skills challenge do exist. The UK government must act now to support local government, education providers and employers to deliver a green skills revolution.

Case study: NetZero Training Hub – stimulating Portsmouth’s green economy

Portsmouth City Council has ambitious plans to retrofit its housing stock, but lack the skilled local supply chain to improve the fabric of homes and deliver heat pump installations. To overcome this, the council has supported the City of Portsmouth College in the creation of the NetZero Training Hub.

This will equip local people with the skills to work in the green economy across four areas. These are fabric (insulation and ventilation), heat (heat pumps and heat batteries), power (solar energy and battery storage) and electric vehicles (maintenance and charger installation).

Retrofit training at the hub will be linked to a pilot project delivering whole-house retrofit to up to 30 charity-owned homes. This pilot will create direct employment for graduates at the Hub, with the plan that this newly developed capability is used on both social and private homes.

Portsmouth City Council’s investment in retrofit skills training, and leadership on skills development demonstrates its long-term ambition around retrofit to local SMEs – which encourages them to upskill their staff. This is crucial to developing a resilient local supply chain that is ready to deliver retrofit.

The hub aims to bring a wide variety of groups into the green economy. It will deliver entry-level courses for local people not in employment, education or training (NEETs), as well as construction apprenticeships with additional retrofit components. Courses will also accredit builders currently in the trade to PAS2035 standard – the benchmark for domestic retrofit work in the UK.

The council is using existing partnerships with local job centres and community groups that work closely with NEETs to take on new learners at the hub.

Engagement with schools is also part of the council’s long-term plan. The authority is working with curriculum leaders to support the inclusion of green skills on curriculums, and talking to final year primary pupils on careers in the green economy.

 

 

Case study: B4Box and Stockport Homes Group – encouraging diverse communities to train in retrofit

B4Box is a construction training provider in Stockport, with a focus on social value. The social enterprise carries out work to bring unoccupied homes back into use, through a close relationship with housing association Stockport Homes Group. The contract between the B4Box and Stockport Homes Group casts the two as partners, rather than client and construction provider.

Through an innovative social value procurement contract, Stockport Homes Group is buying local skills training and employment from B4Box, in a construction work setting. This flips the typical process of purchasing construction work with skills training and social value as additional elements. This approach gives B4Box with a secure pipeline of work that allows it to deliver a varied set of onsite training services.

B4Box’s integrated model allows it to deliver up to 90% of a whole-house retrofit project with only two staff and one or two apprentices, cutting costs and time significantly compared to other approaches. 

B4Box delivers training through multi-trade skills apprenticeships that build hands-on knowledge in areas such as joinery, plastering, tiling and roofing. Training at B4Box functions as an on-site college, where apprentices gaining multi-trade qualifications learn how to deliver the varied requirements of a whole-house retrofit in actual homes. This equips them with retrofit expertise, while local homes are become better insulated against the cold. 

B4Box will only train up people that live within five miles of one of their construction sites, ensuring that they deliver targeted benefits to communities. Through creating partnerships within the community, such as through local schools, employment services and probation services, B4Box attracts trainees from backgrounds that commonly face barriers to employment.

B4Box learners become part of the company’s full-time workforce, with more than 85% of B4Box’s employed full-time workforce coming from disadvantaged backgrounds including ex-offenders, care leavers, and those far removed from the job market.    

Case study: Low Carbon Academy’s Retrofit Skills Hub – upskilling builders in Greater Manchester

The Low Carbon Academy’s Retrofit Skills Hub is upskilling construction workers with a range of free courses. The initiative has been commissioned by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and is delivered in partnership with Manchester College, Oldham College, The Retrofit Academy and carbon literacy trainer Fabric CIC.  

The hub launched in September 2021 and aims to train more than 1,000 people by 2023, with 400 participating so far. Courses are offered online and face to face, and have been developed with employers to make sure the skills taught match the demands of the industry.  

The initiative is also upskilling local tutors through the ‘Train the trainer’ programme, where college tutors review their current apprenticeship offerings with Low Carbon Academy and work together to identify areas for adding additional training. This builds retrofit skillsets across multiple pre-existing qualifications – offering a critical reflection and clear direction for how a college can rapidly enhance its retrofit offering. 

Uniquely, GMCA’s procurement process for this programme allows training to be adapted throughout delivery, meaning the upskilling on offer can meet the needs of local SMEs. 

By getting involved in such a wide-ranging partnership, housing providers can help secure a pipeline of skills in their area – but also ensure strategic developments around retrofit take their needs into account. 

Case study: The Retrofit Academy – partnering with local authorities to deliver retrofit skills and employment programmes

Working in partnership with local authorities across the UK, The Retrofit Academy (TRA) is helping to facilitate the upskilling required to reach the targeted decarbonisation of UK housing stock to ensure warm, healthy, sustainable homes. With more than a decade of experience in retrofit, TRA provides in-depth advice and support for local authorities, social housing providers and major retrofit employers on all aspects of delivering their retrofit targets.   

Through the UK Government Funded Community Renewal Fund (CRF), TRA has been working with several local authorities, including Devon County Council and Essex County Council, to deliver programmes designed to kick-start the development of a competent retrofit workforce in each county. These programmes include conducting an analysis of each area’s housing stock, carrying out in-depth supply chain research to understand the “as-is” picture of retrofit skills, upskilling housing providers in retrofit and supporting SMEs to enter the retrofit sector, as well as large-scale funded training provision. Through CRF programmes in Devon and Essex, TRA has delivered courses to over 400 learners.  

TRA has also been working with training providers in Devon and Essex to establish their first franchised training partners, to ensure that retrofit training can be delivered locally in the future. The aim is to leave a legacy in each region by teaching local trainers who can, in turn, train a local retrofit workforce able to deliver safe, high quality retrofit projects. 

 

Actions for local authorities

Train up home improvement agency and handyperson teams

As an immediate first step, councils should ensure that home improvement agency staff and handyperson teams are able to install simple energy efficiency measures such as draughtproofing and topping up loft insulation. Many councils, including Epsom and Ewell and Oxfordshire, are offering basic energy efficiency measures to older residents.

Develop and publish an evidence base setting out local opportunities for skills development

Working with employers and local colleges, determine current retrofit capacity, where the skills gaps are and is the level of local training provision.

  • West of England Combined Authority carried out a Retrofit Skills Market Analysis, identifying the potential for new jobs, mapping existing retrofit skills gaps and identifying opportunities for the Authority accelerate skills development.
  • Hampshire County Council is mapping out the demand for labour in low-carbon construction against supply to identify shortages and skills gaps, working with local colleges and the supply chain.  
  • A partnership of local authorities in London has worked with London South Bank University to investigate the opportunities and obstacles for local skills development, leading to the launch of the LSBU Green Skills Hub. 

Train council staff across departments

A key early step to developing a council-led retrofit strategy that boosts local skills provision is training council staff themselves. Planning and delivering a retrofit programme requires collaboration across multiple departments, particularly teams that may have no prior experience in delivering energy efficiency projects at scale.

  • Consider providing basic retrofit training, alongside climate literacy sessions, to the following groups:
    • Councillors, senior management and decision makers
    • Procurement and finance
    • Planning
    • Housing, repair and maintenance
    • Education
    • Economic growth
    • Building Control 

Use the spending power of the council’s own retrofit programme 

UK Councils spend over £1bn annually on repairs and maintenance of council-owned homes, and a further £1bn on government-funded retrofit projects. This means that strategic procurement developed by local authorities offers significant potential to influence skills training, supply chains and retrofit delivery – pumping money into the local economy whilst creating jobs. 

The first step for councils is to set out long term plans for retrofit, giving confidence to the local supply chain and education providers that there will be local jobs in retrofit in the years ahead.

  • Lewes Council has identified that £1bn will be spent by 2030 on the repair and maintenance of 40,000 homes across seven local authorities in Sussex. The authority is now looking at aligning retrofit measures to this existing work stream, and developing a long term training programme with colleges and contractors.  
  • Use social value clauses in the procurement of retrofit and repair/maintenance programmes, to require skills development and use of local SMEs. Social value has been used extensively in new build construction procurement, and offers opportunities for retrofit too. Councils can work with neighbouring authorities and housing associations to aggregate retrofit project pipelines, creating sufficient scale to create significant training opportunities.  Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark’s tri-borough partnership is re-writing its social value statement so all government funded retrofit work, such as that done under the Social Housing Decarbonisation Scheme, will require contractors to train and engage local SMEs. 
  • Consider innovative ways to use social value, as Stockport Homes and construction company B4Box are doing through a social value procurement model, to allow home refurbishments and retrofit to be the setting for skilling up and transforming the livelihoods of local, unemployed people.
  • Use the RE:FIT procurement framework, run by Local Partnerships, which includes skills and employment objectives.
  • Training council staff on sustainable procurement that delivers local skills and jobs. Use guidance from The Local Government Association, or a new short course on Procuring for Net Zero Buildings from London South Bank University.
  • Use procurement to push construction firms to engage young people in sustainable building careers. Design, Engineer, Construct! engage 14 to 16-year-olds on green construction, partnering local firms with schools to educate young people and demonstrate what low-carbon construction career paths can look like.  

Forge closer, long-term partnerships with colleges on retrofit

Colleges play a fundamental role in skills development, with strong links to schools and their local communities. However, a lack of long-term policy certainty has deterred colleges from acting comprehensively on retrofit and low carbon heating skills training. 

Local authorities can work directly with colleges and local employers to enhance retrofit skills training, providing long-term support that builds trust amongst colleges to invest further in developing facilities, and upskilling staff. 

Local Skills Improvement Plans, now being rolled out to more areas across the country, should prioritise the retrofit skills gap.

  • Convene employers and colleges to agree a retrofit skills development plan. These plans have driven the hubs in Portsmouth and Greater Manchester profiled earlier in this briefing, while Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership (LEP) is partnering with the West Yorkshire Consortium of Colleges to offer free retrofit construction skills training. 
  • Use shared prosperity funding to support development of retrofit training by colleges and other local education providers. West Yorkshire Combined Authority has received funding for their retrofit hub through the UK Community Renewal Fund, and other authorities such as East Devon are including retrofit skills development in their shared prosperity bids.  
  • Encourage local colleges that offer construction-related apprenticeships, but don’t yet cover retrofit training, to enrol on Low Carbon Academy’s ‘Train the trainer’. This helps colleges bolt retrofit training elements onto existing apprenticeships.  
  • Link trainees to council retrofit work, and other local energy efficiency work (such as retrofit measures delivered under the government’s ECO scheme) so they have jobs to move onto. 

Work with your community 

Local schools, businesses and grassroots organisations  are useful partners in developing retrofit and low carbon heating skills. Local authorities can help raise awareness of career prospects for school students, work with local SMEs to take advantage of the economic opportunities, and upskill local enthusiastic community groups to achieve retrofit goals. The construction sector lacks diversity, with only 12% of construction workers being female, and less than 7% from diverse backgrounds. To develop a more resilient workforce to meet the challenge at hand, skilling up underrepresented groups is essential, and working with schools, local businesses and community groups is a key way of achieving this.

  • Work with schools to engage young people. Schools can inspire people to follow a career in green construction.
    • Deliver green jobs careers fairs for secondary school pupils and work with local sustainable businesses to go into schools to raise awareness of the variety of green career pathways that exist, as The Greater London Authority are now doing. 
    • Encourage local stakeholders with retrofit expertise to engage young people. Retrofit Action for Tomorrow combine an active educational programme with professional retrofit expertise and deliver engaging workshops with primary and secondary schools. 
    • Consider forming closer relationships with careers advice organisations, as the West Yorkshire Combined Authority have done with community group Future Goals 
  • Partner with grassroots organisations. Grassroots groups can play a key role in supporting local authorities on retrofit, as a trusted presence helping councils reach local communities, including diverse groups.  

    • Form partnerships with organisations trusted and embedded within communities, to engage underrepresented groups on green jobs. Not-for-profit Procure Plus work with local authorities to identify unemployed people from diverse backgrounds and arrange pre-employment training to diversify local construction supply chains 
    • Raise awareness of the importance of soft skills within the retrofit sector. Generation UK are working with young, unemployed people, encouraging them to become retrofit advisors through a 10 week course. See their impact through the story of newly qualified Retrofit Adviser Omosola Osobajo.  
    • Create greater community knowledge of retrofit by encouraging local groups to become retrofit champions and support them to skill up. This can help raise awareness of the benefits of retrofit within the community, and in particular encourage homeowners able to afford their own retrofit projects. Plymouth Energy Community are encouraging local residents to become a retrofit ‘Member’ to support the local authority’s retrofit work. 
  • Guide local builders towards training. Over half of installers currently engaged in retrofit programmes are SMEs – this retrofit backbone helps councils with immediate construction knowledge and labour.
    • Direct SMEs to training opportunities (including those listed in below), and support them to partner with Tier 1 contractors on council retrofit schemes.
    • Consider subsidising training for SMEs (using Shared Prosperity funding, for example) to help them obtain retrofit NVQs and other qualifications. 

Training providers

Recommendations for central government

Local government action on retrofit skills can only succeed with supportive national policy, and the UK government must make retrofit and low carbon heat top priorities for its new Green Jobs Delivery Group. The government has made a start with the time-limited Home Decarbonisation Skills Training Competition announced in September 2022, but so far policy initiatives have been piecemeal. New ministers responsible for energy, levelling up and education must work together to deliver joined up action on retrofit skills development.  

Long term policy commitment

Councils, education providers, and installers need long-term policy certainty on retrofit – too many stop-start government schemes have undermined investment in training. The UK needs a national retrofit strategy with financial incentives, regulation, public engagement and a major programme of investment – see our recent retrofit briefing for more details. 

A detailed national skills plan for retrofit

Retrofitting our homes offers a unique opportunity to create employment in every region of the country. Ashden supports the call by the Construction Industry Training Board and others for a national retrofit training programme at the scale needed to upgrade 27 million homes. Such a programme would:   

  • define courses, standards and qualifications for entry-level apprenticeship, as well as for those upskilling from the construction/other sectors, whilst supporting training for the range of ‘soft skills’ that are required for retrofit, including project management, data analysis and customer service  
  • provide sufficient funding for colleges to recruit, train and retain retrofit skills instructors 
  • develop skills pathways to show young people how retrofit careers can progress, accompanied by a training plan for careers advisors  
  • run a national marketing campaign to attract trainees. 

Restoration of the Adult Education Budget to 2010 levels

Ashden supports the Local Government Association’s calls for the Adult Education Budget to be restored to its 2010 levels as a minimum. This should be fully devolved to local authorities and mayoral combined authorities to target and deliver short courses, enabling people to pivot into retrofit roles. 

Integrate skills development into government-funded retrofit schemes

The government has been funding delivery of energy efficiency schemes by local authorities since Autumn 2020. However, government skills development initiatives such as the Green Homes Grant Skills Training Competition have been small-scale and are not linked to local authority programme delivery. To improve skills development, government should:  

  • set minimum procurement criteria to encourage local authorities to stimulate skills development through the retrofit programmes that they commission and deliver. These retrofit procurement conditions set at a national level could include social value clauses to encourage the use of local SMEs and the provision of apprenticeships for local people 
  • require these procurement conditions to be met in government-funded programmes such as Sustainable Warmth, and allow longer delivery times to allow training objectives to be realised.  
  • specify skills outcomes for larger funding bids and allocate a proportion of funding for training programmes, taking inspiration from the Scottish government’s procurement contract with Warmworks. This mechanism for delivering Scotland’s national fuel poverty scheme sets employability and skills targets. 

 

Reform apprenticeships

Construction apprenticeships have been largely shaped by new build projects.  To deliver the right skills for retrofit, apprenticeship standards must be overhauled, and it should be easier for small and micro-businesses to take on apprentices.  

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education has started this work, guided by its new Green Apprenticeships Advisory Panel, but rapid progress is needed. The institute must actively engage both with Tier 1 contractors delivering public sector-led retrofit, and smaller general builders who service non-fuel poor households.

In relation to apprenticeship standards, government should: 

  • ensure existing trades apprenticeships such as plastering and joinery include a foundational ‘whole house’ module 
  • introduce a new multi-trade general builder apprenticeship with a retrofit focus 
  • develop a new retrofit co-ordinator apprenticeship standard 
  • explore incentives for firms involved in retrofit to participate in the ‘trailblazer groups’ that define these apprenticeship standards. 

 

To make it easier for SMEs to take on apprentices, government should 

  • support or fund shared apprenticeship schemes for SMEs, taking inspiration from Y Prentis in Wales. This scheme pools on-site construction work opportunities across multiple SMEs to offer apprentices a varied programme of work, allow participation from SMEs that cannot offer an apprentice year-round work 
  • explore the introduction of an apprentice tax credit for construction companies delivering retrofit 
  • allow unspent construction levy resources (estimated to be £3 billion between 2019 and 2022) to be transferred to upskilling training budgets for existing builders 
  • support smaller construction firms to use their levy funding and give SMEs greater control on how resourcing from the levy can be used 
  • raise the apprenticeship levy transfer cap further to encourage larger contractors to transfer more unspent resource to the smaller SMEs that make up their supply chains.  

 

Support education providers

Colleges enroll 160,000 construction workers each year, and will play a key role in the provision of skills needed to decarbonise our buildings. But there has been an underinvestment in both facilities and teaching staff over many years. The Skills and Post-16 Education Act (2022) is a good start, but fails to provide the funding needed to really ramp up construction training. Central government should: 

  • invest to allow colleges to hire experienced staff, and to upskill and retain existing instructors 
  • set up a national centre of retrofit excellence, based at a further education college with a strength in construction training 
  • establish a national partnership between employer organisations (large and small contractors who will be undertaking retrofit) and the college sector, to define actions needed to scale up retrofit (such as supporting more shared apprenticeships) 
  • provide capital funding for colleges to develop training rigs and digital resources. 

 

The challenge of decarbonising homes can seem overwhelming – but examples of proven, practical innovation show that Government and local authorities can accelerate action in this crucial area.

For councils, partnerships and collaboration with central government, community groups and other local authorities can have a huge impact on local carbon emissions and the lives of residents.

Contact the Cities and Towns team at Ashden for more information on tackling the retrofit challenge
Download our updated climate action toolkit for city regions and local authorities

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