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Colleges Scotland Conference 2024 – Skills for a Climate Emergency – everything, everywhere, all at once

By Dr James McKean, Policy Officer  

Photo of Anna Stoll, Jim Brown, Professor Dave Reay, Zara JanjuaAt the recent Colleges Scotland Conference 2024, our delegates started the day with a panel discussion on the climate emergency. The speakers were Professor Dave Reay, Co-Chair of the Just Transition Commission, Anna Stoll, Chair of BE Changemakers and business development manager at Amey, and Jim Brown from the Energy Skills Partnership.

“Colleges are the climate emergency service,” asserted Professor Dave Reay of the Just Transition Commission. Professor Raey described the dire state that the Earth’s climate is in and argued that in terms of delivering on skills for Net Zero and to get to a Just Transition, colleges are essential.

The Earth has entered a damage limitation phase, and there is a huge amount of work still to be done to reduce further impact of climate change. Professor Reay emphasised the need for Scotland to be a leading player in the journey towards a Just Transition. He argued that the climate targets are worthless without a just transition being realised and Scotland needs to take everyone with them on that journey. Societal problems arising from deindustrialisation and other inequalities, issues exacerbated by a changing climate can be addressed by colleges.

Professor Reay recognised that colleges were flexible and able to respond to the needs of their communities and have that cohesion and resilience that is needed in the face of Net Zero targets, sectoral demands and national priorities. Without realising and utilising the power of colleges we are at risk of an unjust transition.

Speaking as a young changemaker, Anna Stoll, representing the infrastructure support firm, Amey, posed a question to the audience – ‘are you hopeful or are you fearful?’ A divided show of hands demonstrated Stoll’s argument that there is more clarity needed and a better narrative to be told about the climate emergency, especially if we want to get young people on board - we need all the population to become changemakers.

Stoll highlighted the need for engineering skills within the built environment sector to help combat the 40% of carbon emissions that it is responsible for. Stoll enthused on the virtue of apprenticeships and the skills that she was given through college, and the interdisciplinary approach she brought to the course using her previous knowledge. This demonstrated Stoll’s argument that the future will require multi-skilled people to fully understand the wider ecosystem that they are a part of.

Stoll posed three principles – Dare to Reimagine, Dare to Develop and Dare to Challenge – these revolutionary propositions would contribute towards a new language that is digital and climate literate. Stoll stressed the need for this to be deliberate and unapologetic, and for there to be room at the table that doesn’t shy away from doing things differently. Stoll posed the question at the end of her speech – ‘Are we doing enough? This needs to be rephrased as ‘Are we doing all we can?’

Jim Brown, from the Energy Skills Partnership (ESP), highlighted that there is a lot of investment in the college sector focused on skills for a green economy, but stressed that much more is needed. Brown emphasised that the college sector benefits from collaboration and partnership, and that this is essential to developing future technologies. The removal of funding streams such as the Flexible Workforce Development Fund is detrimental to the sector as it decreases that capacity to upskill and reskill, and damages relationships to business. These issues within an environment where everything is being done on a shoestring makes it extremely difficult to futureproof the economy.

Other challenges highlighted by the panel discussion included the many skills gaps – digital, engineering, creative, operational. The challenge is to make the sector attractive for young people, not just so that they enter these skills pathways, but that they remain in them. Professor Reay suggested the creation of community benefit funds, these can be linked to skills enhancement and should be regulated and legislated for by government.

Asked if the sector is moving fast enough Professor Reay said that it needs to move faster and only makes good economic sense to move as quickly as possible on climate action. He went on to add that Scotland is really good at identifying where and how we can move on these issues, but there needs to be a tangible commitment from government to make that happen.

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