The charge to net zero: solving Scotland's evolving skills demand



Road passing through forrest
Road passing through a lush green forrest

by Professor Gillian Murray, deputy principal for business and enterprise at Heriot-Watt University

With the new academic year well underway, many of our nation’s pupils and graduates are working towards the next steps of their career paths. For those interested in pursuing a profession in the green energy sector, Scotland and, in particular, the energy transition offer plenty of opportunities.

We’re only seven years away from the UK Government’s commitment to ‘supercharge clean energy and accelerate deployment’ by 2030. An ambitious 95% of the UK’s electricity supply is set to be low carbon by the end of the decade thanks to the vast planned expansion of alternative energy sources like nuclear, wind, solar and hydrogen. This, according to the government’s British Energy Security Strategy, will create more than 40,000 new jobs across the clean energy sector.

Closer to home, a 2022 survey conducted by the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce asked companies and organisations based around Scotland’s energy capital to uncover their plans for the future. A decisive 70% fed back that they are actively diversifying their services in line with the region’s growing renewables market.

However, knowing where one’s business is heading is only half the battle. With Scotland’s energy sector evolving in line with our collective ambition to decarbonise, key challenges remain: an acute shortage of people and skills across a range of new growth sectors.

Tellingly, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed by Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce said access to skills will be one of the defining issues of 2023 - set against a backdrop of recruitment concerns. With 20% of Scotland’s 270,000 highly-skilled offshore energy workers set to retire by 2030, the transition to renewables will require a steady stream of new workers, as well as the reskilling of existing workforces in new and emerging technologies.

As we approach Cop28, we’re reminded that the number of low carbon jobs is set to quadruple by 2050. Now is the right time to start outlining how we can meet these skills demands through training and experience.

Scotland’s universities are well placed to create a thriving workforce with the skills and knowledge to drive forward the country’s energy transition. Like our own institution, the education sector is responding with focused post-graduate courses, bringing together international expertise to build a new generation of transition energy engineering specialists capable of driving change at pace.

At Heriot-Watt University, we plan to supercharge this response with the launch of a new global centre of excellence dedicated to tackling the global climate emergency and empowering current and future generations of talent with the skills and knowledge to deliver net zero and beyond.

Alongside campus-based courses, Graduate Apprenticeships (GAs) are also central to a just transition, re-skilling and upskilling existing workforces alongside school leavers through work-based education. This adds value to organisations, industry sectors and local communities.

GA partnerships have already been established with a range of forward-thinking businesses from Dumfries and Galloway to the Highlands and Islands. These partnerships are helping to deliver crucial skills and resources by supporting ‘apprentices’ of all ages to study for a degree-level qualification while working for a company.

For employers, the fully-funded programme helps to plug critical knowledge gaps and, as companies continue to evolve, it offers higher education opportunities across an increasingly diverse workplace.

With Scotland’s renewable energy generation tripling since 2009, the potential is clear to see. If we’re to prevent the most harmful aspects of climate change and substantially reduce our carbon emissions by the middle of the century, then an education ecosystem that works for all ages and skill levels is vital. The transition must be just and rapid in order to succeed - universities are central to that success. 


Steven Herd

07791 878940