According to the latest report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the drive for revamping Europe's building stock has already had a profound impact on employment.
The building renovation programme for energy efficiency in Germany has mobilised €100 billion in investments, reducing energy bills, avoiding carbon dioxide emissions and creating around 300,000 direct jobs per year along the way, the ILO said.
The OECD too has lauded Germany as a leader in environmental policy, saying it has become "a laboratory for green growth".
"The European economy is already generating a significant number of jobs in energy efficient constructions and will continue to do so in the coming decades," said the OECD's Deputy Secretary-General, Yves Leterme.
For industry sectors involved in the building insulation business, the drive for energy efficiency holds huge promises for employment.
"The renovation of public and commercial buildings could create up to two million jobs, kick start the economy and give Europe a competitive advantage in the world economy," says Thomas Bauwens of PlasticsEurope, an industry group.
Need to adapt skills, training
However, the skills gap remains a major obstacle to green growth.
There is a "huge" need for education and training for the next generation of green jobs, Leterme warned as he presented the latest OECD report on 4 June - "The jobs potential of a shift towards a low carbon economy" .
Speaking at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Leterme said the shift to green jobs will not happen without a related effort to adapt workers' skills and training.
"Green skills appear to be hugely needed," he said. "But there is no need to reinvent the wheel," Leterme added. "Most of the green skills that new market entrants will require can be met through incremental enrichment of educational and training programmes."
Paul L. Swain, an OECD economist who drafted the report, also sounded a cautious note, saying the potential of "green-collar" jobs has yet to be fulfilled. "There is already a growth in jobs in the energy efficiency sector, but at this point it is well, well below the potential," he told EurActiv.
Experts in the property management sector confirmed that the jobs market for green skills was still largely underdeveloped. “There is a lack of professionalism in Europe,” said Laura Lindberg, Public Relations Manager of RICS, a worldwide professional body for qualifications and standards in land, property and construction. “It is extremely important to have the right professionals with skills, experience and regularly trained. Today there is still a lack of skills and professional training in Europe that needs to be tackled,” Lindberg added.
Demand dampened by consumer ignorance
In fact, much remains to be done to fire up the jobs market for energy efficiency.
On the demand side, consumers are not yet fully aware about the benefits of building renovations. Lindberg, who represents professional property and land managers at RICS, believes this is partly due to incomplete scientific research. While energy efficiency revamps are generally regarded as beneficial from an economic point of view, other aspects are often ignored.
Energy efficiency "is about saving money", Lindber said "but also about the feeling it gives you, that you are doing something more for your wellbeing, such as that the quality of air is better for your health.”
“It is about feeling better in an environment. If you work in a place that is extremely warm and not well insulated and noisy, the quality of life and work is reduced,” Lindberg argues.
And then of course, there is always the financial cost of renovations, which weigh particularly heavily on investors in times of economic hardship. In a global downturn, building owners might choose to compromise on the quality if they do not cancel renovation plans altogether. “People decide to invest in something cheaper, because it is not the best moment,” Lindberg said.
According to the OECD's Paul L. Swain, countries like Australia also tried to move "too quickly" in promoting green jobs, putting in place large subsidies to retrofit houses and office buildings. When the recession hit in 2009, Australian authorities found that the work had not been properly checked and that much of the money had been wasted. "The problem they ran into was that they tried to spend that money rapidly but then it's hard to control quality," Swain said.
Rush for green jobs leave thousands on the side of the road
On the supply side, the promise of a green jobs revolution has encouraged thousands in the construction and building sector to apply for government accreditation to register their energy efficiency skills.
But they have run into a number of obstacles. In England, the economic crisis has derailed the government's plans, leaving around 8,000 professionals with accreditation but a lack of demand, said Martin Russel of RICS London.
This came on top of the high prices demanded to earn recognition as a "green expert". In the UK, for example, professionals pay government body UKAS around €7,000 to obtain accreditation for implementing specific energy efficiency measures in buildings, whilst it cost around €15,000 to earn recognition as an energy efficiency adviser.
The oversupply of energy efficiency professionals and the discontent at the initial lack of business was also a problem in Ireland, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The intensive promotion of courses by commercial training providers has encouraged thousands to enroll in training programmes, more than the market required.
In Ireland, demand did eventually pick up, the IEA notes, leading it to conclude that a certain degree of oversupply of assessors was needed to ensure healthy competition in the market.
But problems arising from oversupply have persisted and generated a lack of trust between professional organisations and government authorities when it comes to applying for professional accreditations, Russel argued.
“There is interest out there, but I don't think people are rushing for it, they are being cautious at this time. There is a trust issue,” Russel said.
He added, however, that on balance, the market in Europe for energy efficiency accreditation has been picking up and as long as there is enough demand there will also be an economic rationale for professionals to regain their appetite.