EU confronted with lack of skilled labour to support building renovation wave

Construction workers need to have better working conditions and fairer contracts to make the sector more attractive, according to the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers. [CoolKengzz / Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Building decarbonisation.

The EU’s push to improve energy efficiency in buildings and reduce the amount of fossil fuel they consume could create more than 160,000 jobs in the energy and heating sector by 2030, according to the European Commission.

But there are fears that labour and skills shortages in Europe’s construction sector, caused by an ageing workforce and unattractive employment conditions, will mean there are not enough people to take up the jobs vital to renovating buildings in line with Europe’s climate ambition.

“The transformation towards a climate-neutral building stock will only be possible if existing jobs are transformed to include green and circular skills and if new job profiles emerge, such as specialists in deep building renovation, installers for advanced technological solutions, or Building Information Modelling managers,” according to the European Commission.

However, in its 2020 renovation wave strategy, the EU executive states that “already before the COVID-19 crisis, there was a shortage of qualified workers to carry out sustainable building renovation and modernisation”.

These warnings are echoed by the industry. “In all countries, we hear about serious shortages in construction,” says Tom Deleu, the secretary general of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers.

“We have an ageing workforce in many countries. This is mainly because we have seen that there’s not enough inflow of young workers and, even when young workers enter the industry, they don’t stay for long,” he told EURACTIV.

For instance, in Germany in 2015, over 43% of business owners in the heating sector were older than 50. Meanwhile, the number of trainees across skilled trade sectors has been shrinking, with just 361,000 in 2015 compared to 630,000 in 1997.

The main issue for the construction industry is that it has adopted a business model focused on cheaper and precarious labour instead of training and good working conditions, which makes it less attractive for workers, said Deleu.

“This is a huge challenge in our view when you want to deliver the Green Deal and the renovation wave because this demands skilled workers, and they are lacking. So the industry needs to really pick up on this, to upskill, reskill workers and attract a lot of new workers,” he told EURACTIV.

One solution he suggested was to make fair working conditions a requirement for governments and companies to receive public funds.

Public money from the EU recovery fund and other programmes is a key driver for building renovation, so including conditions like direct employment rather than subcontracting could help prevent exploitation in the sector.

EU’s building renovation wave hits administrative snag

Differing views within the European Commission on how the EU’s unprecedented recovery fund can be spent, and a rush to translate national spending plans from their original language, risk slowing down the EU’s building renovation wave, experts say.

Reskilling for a new age of construction

More training and reskilling of workers is also needed, particularly because the renovation wave and Green Deal require a new way of building with new materials and technology, said Deleu.

It is difficult to quantify exactly how much reskilling is needed across Europe, but Deleu estimates that 5% of Europe’s workforce will need to be retrained every year – meaning a quarter of the workforce needs to be retrained over the next five years.

Reskilling is essential to creating a green building stock. According to the European Commission, the design, installation and operation of circular and low-carbon solutions often require a high level of technical knowledge.

Installing heat pumps for example requires specific certification. In France, 25% of installers have that qualification, while in Germany it is only 10%.

“A priority is to upskill and increase the total number of installers if we want to at least double energy renovations across Europe,” said Alix Chambris, vice president for global public affairs and sustainability at Viessmann, the German manufacturer of heating appliances.

“This is the reality check of climate goals. We need a European-wide offensive to upskill, attract and enable installers to work with new technologies at unprecedented scale and speed,” Chambris said.

The revision of the energy performance of buildings directive, due to be published today (15 December), is likely to include measures aimed at reskilling workers. EU countries would need to address “the gaps in capacities, skills and education in the construction sector and energy efficiency sector,” according to draft EU plans.

EU countries need to provide clear links between their plans for renovation and training in the relevant sectors, said Seán Kelly, the centre-right Irish MEP responsible for the European Parliament’s report on the energy performance of buildings directive.

“Having a qualified building workforce is essential to ensure the high levels of quality required for moving towards a decarbonised building sector and to accelerate the rate of building renovation in Europe,” he told EURACTIV.

“The European construction sector faces unprecedented challenges to achieve ambitious energy-efficiency objectives, which can only be met if successful training initiatives and supporting policy instruments are put in place,” he added.

The revision of the energy performance of buildings legislation should also create more harmonisation across Europe, Green lawmaker Ciarán Cuffe told EURACTIV.

“A common energy rating system across Europe could help. This might also allow for the greater mobility of workers,” he said.

Every member state also needs to invest heavily in upskilling construction workers, he added.

“There’s an entire workforce of gas engineers who have to learn new skills to install and service heat pumps. There’s a set of skills in constructing well-sealed buildings and ensuring that they are adequately ventilated,” he added.

“None of these skills are completely new to those who’ve worked in construction for many years, but it does require continued skills development to stay on top of the latest technologies.”

EU renovation wave needs 'major changes' to be successful

“Major changes” are needed to ensure the decarbonisation of buildings in the EU if the bloc is to make a success of its energy transition and comply with the Paris Agreement, the European Academies’ Scientific Advisory Council (EASAC) said in a report published on Wednesday (2 June). EURACTIV France reports.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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