Our much-awaited COP26 is over, and how you judge it might depend on how you see the contents of your glass, and how closely you followed the movements on negotiations and agreements. For those with close attention, the final agreement’s likely impact on temperature rise will be the only measure that really matters in the end.

Like many, I had my sit up and take notice moments of how stark a failure to change will be, but also optimism in the form of multi-source commentary on how business is now the leading driver for action, overtaking governments who will now have to play catch-up to keep up. With COP26 on our doorstep we had the privilege of seeing first-hand examples of positive business climate actions everywhere, and on that basis the optimism doesn’t feel misplaced.

Scotland playing host yielded other benefits in providing a target date to set ambitions to deliver meaningful and needed work packages in time to highlight during the conference, with the prize of capitalising on the opportunity for heightened awareness and interest. For Scottish Engineering, our opportunity for this was our involvement in a short-life working group which kicked off in August with a goal to scope, research, review and publish a report on Sustainability in Apprenticeships. The group was formed under the umbrella of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board (SAAB), a wide-ranging team of business leaders and experts from across sectors, including industry, academia, trade unions, learning providers and professional and accreditation bodies. It’s an industry-led independent body very much driving its own agenda through its specialist sub-groups.

The appetite for the report came from questions already taxing SAAB members in their own industries: What exactly are green skills, why are they different? How do you plan for the skills we will need without all the solutions known at this time?

In a programme at pace to build consensus based on gathered evidence, it was heartening to see common agreement across the key building blocks. The first of those was just how critical it is to embed sustainability and green competencies across Scottish apprenticeships, closely followed by clarification that green skills are simply good skills with foundations in climate-change literacy, meta and digital skills supporting excellent role-specific core skills. To plan for when we don’t know what we don’t know, we identified that core skills with green skill foundations will make up 80% to 90% of the total, leaving a top-up to get to the required skillset. The source of that top-up will come from industry, training groups, our colleges, and universities, and can also provide a model to upskill people who can be repurposed for sustainable careers.

That the team has delivered such a useful and usable report within such a tight deadline is for me a testament to the dedication and value of the SAAB team and its Skills Development Scotland supporters, but we are clear that it’s the start of the conversation, not the end, and in truth also the hard work to deliver it. I presented the report’s findings and our official SAAB response at a COP26 event attended by ministers, sustainability experts, business leaders and policy-makers. Its endorsement and recommendations for action have also been made to Scottish Government ministers, along with the offer to continue to help implement and shape this to ensure successful delivery.

The toughest question of all remains unanswered: How will we ensure we will have the sheer volume of skills to address the needed changes?

It’s a question that the SAAB members and partners will continue to consider. The shortages which are already here in the engineering manufacturing sector will only get worse unless a step change in the provision of work-based learning through apprenticeships is increased. Our ageing demographic, low birth rate and loss of European Union nationals will be combined with the essential demand for skills to decarbonise our energy, heating, transportation, and every other aspect of our lives that need to change. The obvious answer is that industry needs to step up, but the problem is that our industry is 99.5% small to medium sized enterprises, a size and scale where there usually needs to be clear line of sight to the purchase order to fund such an investment, something not often the case for decarbonisation yet.

Government must carry a responsibility to incentivise the needed behaviour, and an example of this can be seen in England where an apprenticeship incentive has reversed a pre-pandemic decline in apprenticeships and delivers a straightforward national programme that makes me jealous as I have nothing comparable to point companies to in Scotland. The closest thing we have is the Employer Recruitment Incentive which simply hasn’t worked for our sector, with its main issue being the decision to place its administration with local authorities and so instantly removing the opportunity for a straightforward, consistent, national programme.

The Scottish Government has commendable, ambitious policies in its youth guarantee and climate action targets, but unless it fixes this gap, the skills to address our climate action engineering will be provided by others, and the high-quality training and future careers in engineering will be a missed opportunity for Scotland’s young people.

Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering