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Decarbonising the UK’s building stock: can immigration policy help solve workforce challenges?

Working papers

Written by Claire Kumar, Sam Alvis, Arpana Giritharan

Image credit:Caucasian HVAC worker installing electric modern and energy saving heat pump. Image license:Virrage Images / Shutterstock

The UK has made significant commitments to both low carbon heating and energy efficiency. However little progress has been made and the country has fallen far behind the rest Europe. A key challenge is how the UK will develop the workforce required to deliver retrofitting targets. New research from ODI and Green Alliance explores labour shortages and skills gaps in depth and asks a new question: should the UK seek to use immigration policy to support a rapid scale-up of retrofitting in the context of its decarbonisation targets?

Key findings

This paper suggests five immigration policy options to support the development of the UK’s retrofitting workforce:

  1. Create an umbrella sponsorship model for the construction sector to support firms in international recruitment.
  2. Create a tailored net zero workforce visa category.
  3. Make the skilled worker route less costly, using special provisions to significantly lower fees across retrofitting-related occupations.
  4. Develop retrofitting skills mobility partnerships to create a pipeline of workers.
  5. Increase upskilling and recruitment of refugees under the UK’s Displaced Talent Mobility Pilot, prioritising applicants with retrofitting-related skillsets.

Workforce forecasts to meet low-carbon heating and energy efficiency targets are considerable. The Climate Change Committee estimates that direct employment requirements are far greater than any other net zero area. Yet workforce development remains a neglected issue.

New entrants to the industry will be critical but progress attracting and preparing the domestic workforce is slow. The UK has no workforce development plan. A complex and fragmented landscape of training options exists and there is significant concern about the lack of retrofitting courses in further education colleges.

There is strong rationale to use immigration policy to support the development of the domestic workforce, especially in the context of the UK’s chronic labour shortages and given the importance and urgency of decarbonisation targets.

Immigration does not necessarily offer an easy fix. A highly qualified EU workforce is unlikely to materialise; the immigration system is now much more restrictive and costly for EU workers. Non-EU workers with the exact skillset are not a readily available pool and the construction sector is ill-equipped to use the immigration system. A more purposeful approach is required, as laid out in the immigration policy options offered here.