Constructing solutions for the South London retrofit challenge

The South London Partnership was recently awarded funding by the Greater South East Net Zero Hub to develop a retrofit skills action plan for South London.

The sub-regional collaboration of six London Boroughs – Croydon, Kingston, Merton, Richmond upon Thames, Sutton, and Wandsworth – estimates that South London has over 635,000 properties to decarbonise. This would require approximately 66,250 person-years to deliver the interventions required to retrofit our buildings over the next 10 years. See our infographic here.

Retrofitting is the process of installing new measures to improve the energy efficiency of homes, such as insulation and double-glazing or generating cleaner energy using solar panels, heat pumps and other technologies.

In this exclusive interview, we talk to Polly Persechino, Head of Economy, Skills & Employment at the South London Partnership, who has led this project to discuss the background of the Retrofit Skills Challenge in South London, the barriers the sector is facing and the next steps the South London Partnership are taking to overcome these. You can watch the interview above or read the transcript below.

What is the Retrofit Skills Challenge?

“The idea of the programme is to improve the supply of retrofit skills across South London to engage the future talent pipeline of workers. Making sure that the existing workforce has the training and expertise they need to decarbonise homes across South London and that we really amplify the economic growth and development benefits for South London businesses and its residents.”

Why is the Skills Plan so important?

“The retrofit skills plan is important to us in South London as it has enabled us to bring all our partners and beneficiaries together to ensure that they play an influencing role in developing the curriculum, so developing the skill set, and delivering and supporting the access to skills.”

“It’s allowed us to identify challenges and try collectively to unblock those that have prevented people from accessing skills support while allowing us to help the industry (big organisations and SMEs in the construction sector) to work with our educators to develop skills provision that meets their demands and those of the industry. We’re looking at the evidence base to enable us to develop curriculums that are responsive to demands now and looking at the future and how we support the future development of construction in the built environment sector.”

“It’s also really allowed us to explore commercial opportunities and support our businesses in South London to have a commercial and competitive edge. It’s given us the support to drive the growth of those businesses and the economic growth across South London.”

What are the roles of the government to achieve retrofit outcomes? How can they help motivate and engage businesses?

“One of the biggest challenges that we’ve identified through this process of developing our retrofit skills plan, which has been communicated both by our educators and the supply chain, is the demand from consumers. They want to ensure that their investment in skills, both as a business investing in their staff or themselves as individuals and our educators investing in their teaching staff and their infrastructure, is demand-led. They want to know that there’s a consumer demand, and they want to know that they’re going to get value for money. Anything they develop, deliver, or train for will enable them to grow their business or their learning base.”

“The government plays a vital role in developing policy and legislation that will drive some of these changes that we need to kickstart retrofit and decarbonisation. However, other external factors are playing quite a big role at the moment, such as the cost of living and the fuel crisis, which is starting to change consumer behaviour across the patch. We’re starting to see that demand increase, but I think we all have a role to play in creating the right conditions for investment, not just in skills but investment in decarbonisation, and all our stakeholders have a role to play in how we support the development of retrofit and retrofit skills across South London.”

How can we encourage young people to sign up for these kinds of jobs? What policy initiatives can be adopted to ensure they are not low-paid, insecure employment jobs?

“It’s no secret that the construction sector has struggled to attract talent over the last few decades. And we’ve been hit with a dwindling workforce, partly due to Brexit and post-COVID and we’ve also got an ageing workforce, so we know that we’re going to see significant gaps in the future. So, securing our talent pipeline is essential, not just for South London but for the rest of the country, and how we attract that talent is going to be really important.”

“I think, given the decrease in the construction workforce, it’s had an impact then on wages and driven them up within the sector, making it a lucrative career and a great prospect for young people. We need to get over the stigma of muddy boots and hard hats because it’s not all muddy boots and hats, and our young people have a really important role to play in developing a more sustainable future, not just for our locality but for the rest of the country. We need to work together to encourage and change that language around construction and the language around retrofit. If young people want to have a big impact on changing our future, sustainability, and the environment that we live in, then construction could be the right career. A lot of this is about language and messaging.”

“We need to work with the industry, particularly some of our larger construction organisations, to make sure that the opportunities we’re creating are sustained beyond the duration of a piece of work or a big investment piece in one locality. We need to use the available tools, so we provide apprenticeship opportunities, giving people the skills and transferable skills so they can move around if they want to.”

What are the key barriers to encouraging young people to take up retrofit? Who can lead in promoting this?

“I think one of the key barriers to encouraging people to take up retrofit is understanding what retrofit means. We have a very big knowledge development piece to do, not just with our residents but with people who might be considering working in the industry and people who are currently working in the industry, what does retrofit mean to them? And how can retrofit benefit their business or an individual, making sure that they’ve got the skills to take the jobs that we know are coming down the pipeline?”

“We all have a key responsibility in promoting these opportunities, working with schools and school teachers to make sure that they’re talking about retrofit and future jobs and careers. We know that 65% of 16-year-olds at the moment will work in jobs that we don’t know exist yet. We know that new jobs are coming down the pipeline, so we need to ensure that our teachers have that broad understanding. Similarly, within further and higher education, we need to make sure that we’re talking to the key influencers and gatekeepers of our young pipeline so they understand the opportunities coming down the line. Then I think businesses and local authorities have a real responsibility, big construction firms and small SMEs, in supporting the development of knowledge and skills across the future talent pipeline. They can talk to people about the industry, about how the industry is changing, and the key skills and the jobs that we need to ensure that we can enable future development and that future development is around working towards Net Zero. Retrofitting the existing homes within London is equally as important, and how we make sure that we communicate that is an important role that young people will play.”

Where do you see occupational demand to be over the next 10 years?

“The South London Partnership recently commissioned a report that was developed by Dundee University and Whole Life Consulting based on CITB (Construction Industry Training Board) data on interventions that will be required to support retrofit and the jobs that will be required to deliver those interventions. We see the demand significantly, particularly in South London, around insulation and building envelope skills. Ensuring internal insulation floors and walls are sufficient to support alternative fossil fuel heating systems such as air source heat pumps, so actually insulation is one of the biggest. The other what we’re seeing is retrofit assessors and retrofit coordinators and people that are equipped with the skills to be able to go into people’s homes and advise on what’s required to enable the decarbonisation of a home and the project managers that will sit around that. The other thing is heating, ventilation technicians and plumbers, they’ll be essential as we look at replacing boilers in the future. Scaffolders and roofers will be responsible for installing solar energy and electricians will be responsible for the engineering and the set-up of this. So, these are the key roles that we see that will be in demand through the decarbonisation programmes across South London over the next 10 years.”

What is the demand for skill and potential commercial opportunities for businesses?

“We have a demand for skills and technical skills, so they will need to be trained appropriately, and we require current trades and new tradespeople who were coming through the programme to have the essential skills required and be able to provide advice and guidance to consumers, residents, homeowners and landlords, who are thinking about the decarbonisation of homes. We will also require transferable skills such as customer service and cross-sales skills because they will play a vital part, particularly when speaking to residents. I think in terms of the potential commercial opportunities for businesses, there was a report that was commissioned by City Investment in 2021, and it saw the investment opportunity in South London sitting at about £17 two or three years ago. There is a huge commercial opportunity for our South London businesses. We want to ensure they have that competitive advantage and edge, which is why we would like them to engage with the skills development programme, so they understand what’s coming up in the future. That way they can make sure that they harness the opportunities, particularly those commercial opportunities.”

What are the known challenges to accessing skills support, and what do you hope your work will achieve?

“I think one of the major challenges is businesses just not knowing where to go to find information and support to access the right skills. The skills and employment sector can be complex and difficult to navigate. If you’re a busy person, with lots of things to do, trying to navigate the training providers online is challenging. We know this because we’ve spoken to businesses, so just accessing the information, and finding out what you need to know, as a small business particularly, is difficult.”

“What we’re hoping to do through this programme is create a one-stop shop where businesses can come to find out how they can upskill themselves, how they can upskill staff, where they can access training, how they can access funding for that training if the training isn’t funded, but also how we match them with training providers, further education or higher education so that they can explore the options. We hope that through developing the knowledge of retrofit and decarbonisation and providing a one-stop shop where people can go for information and signposting, we will help to create a pathway for the businesses so they understand where to go to get new skills and what new skills they might need.”

How do we ensure that the skill provision matches sector demand?

Through the retrofit skills challenge, we’ve been fortunate enough through our retrofit taskforce to bring together lots of different practitioners and beneficiaries, from industry, large and small employers, higher education, further education, schools, local authorities, social landlords, private landlords, and local authority housing officers, to make sure that we understand the pipeline of works and therefore what occupations and jobs people will need. We’ve been able to create a clear picture of what that skills and talent pipeline might look like to enable us to develop and support our further and higher education providers, particularly to develop a skills programme and curriculum. Obviously, technology changes quite frequently and through this project we are hoping to embed a culture where industry works intrinsically with the education sector to ensure that the skills provision and the curriculum development match and reflect the demands of our employers. We’ll be trialling and testing new methods of engagement, but also supporting that through facilitation and making sure that our skills educators are matched with the correct people from the industry.”

Will there be an attempt to restart the Net Zero Innovation Hub under Big South London?

“This programme has provided us with is the opportunity to explore the skills provision and skill support around retrofit. What we’ve identified is that there’s an amazing opportunity to learn and get more innovative collaborations that extend beyond retrofit. The supply chain of retrofit is huge, it’s not just consumers, it’s not just the construction industry, it’s not just local authorities, it’s not just social landlords. We’ll look at all avenues to ensure that we bring the most amount of influence onto this wider supply chain and that this programme will further enable us to ensure that we set up partnerships and collaborations that deliver beyond retrofit.”

What are the next steps?

“We have submitted a skills plan to the Greater South East Net Zero Hub. It’s now part of a Greater South East plan that has been submitted to the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero. We’re looking at getting that plan signed off within the next couple of weeks and that will enable us to kickstart a series of events, including looking at consumer demand and how we support consumers in their journey to Net Zero. We will be running an event with micro-credentials for small businesses and small construction firms interested in taking their first step towards Net Zero training. We’ll also be running some skills pilots, which we’ll look at supporting insulation and a pre-boot camp for the industry, so technicians who are already working in the sector, as well as scaffolding for retrofit roofing, retrofit assessors and coordinators skills pilots that will run across South London.”

“So we have a series of events running over the next few months, and we’d love to hear from any organisations or businesses who would like to get involved in either the task force, helping to shape the activity that will run for the rest of the year, or be involved in any of the events and any of the skills delivery that we’ve got coming up over the next few months.”

Get involved

To get involved in any of the training or event opportunities, access the new Retrofit Skills website by clicking on the link below.

Retrofit Skills website

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Posted 02/02/24

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