OECD chief warns green skills revolution might entrench inequality

Upskiling staff to thrive in clean-energy industries could mostly benefit graduates and high-skill workers, Andreas Schleicher tells conference

September 28, 2023
Gillian Keegan, UK secretary of state for education, speaking at the International Green Skills Conference
Gillian Keegan, UK secretary of state for education, speaking at the International Green Skills Conference

Reskilling the UK’s workforce for green careers might worsen social and regional inequalities because more affluent people are more likely to invest in training to equip them with improved career opportunities, one of the world’s leading education thinkers has warned.

Speaking at the International Green Skills Conference at Imperial College London, Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said he feared efforts to support green skills could disproportionately benefit those who already had strong education outcomes, thereby entrenching inequality.

“People who have benefited so far from the green transition are in the high-skill sectors, which was also true for the digital transition,” Mr Schleicher told the forum, organised by Times Higher Education and the Department for Education. “If we do not reverse that, we will see more of this division.”

This potential disparity was already evident in patterns of lifelong learning, with executives and those with a higher level of credentials much more likely to consider retraining, Mr Schleicher explained.

“When it comes to reskilling, those who have greater skills are investing in their skills…and those who need [training] the most get less,” he said, noting how states tended to invest more in “those who went through university…than someone who went to school”.

The “huge imbalance” of where green jobs – those related to Britain’s bid to become carbon neutral over the next 30 years – were created might also lead to further regional inequalities, he continued.

“And less than 20 per cent of those in the green economy are women,” noted Mr Schleicher.

The issue of regional disparities was also tackled by education secretary Gillian Keegan in her keynote address to the forum, which brought together hundreds of professionals from industry, government, vocational training and universities to discuss how education systems could be reformed to meet the needs of the green economy.

Ms Keegan insisted the “green transition would support levelling up across the UK” and that “green apprenticeships” and “bootcamps” targeted at those with lower skill levels were crucial to the government’s plans to support green careers.

Recent announcements by Rishi Sunak about delaying key milestones in the UK’s transition to net zero reflected how the country should be “realistic” about the transition, but supporting green skills would be a key element of this change, said Ms Keegan. “Our commitment to reach net zero by 2050 remains unchanged and ensuring the economy has the skills to meet this [target] remains fundamental,” insisted Ms Keegan, who said the government had set out measures to support over 450,000 green jobs across the UK in 2030.

However, the government’s recent record – including the approval of the exploitation of the Rosebank oil and gas fields in the North Sea and legislation to make it easier to arrest and prosecute climate protesters – faced criticism at the conference, with one delegate accusing ministers of sending mixed messages on the environment.

“They are saying climate activism is radical, rash and arrestable,” explained the delegate, who worried that the environmental agenda was being portrayed as a “niche” concern.

That comment was commended by another speaker, Debra Rowe, president of the US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, who said those delaying action on climate change would be viewed as “laggards” by history in light of impending climate catastrophe.

“The people in power are not acting like adults,” said Professor Rowe on their alleged shirking of responsibility for the environment.


The International Green Skills Conference 2023 took place in London, UK, on 28 September in partnership between Times Higher Education and the UK Government's Department for Education. Watch the on-demand session recordings here.

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