All too often, the issue of climate change is treated as a purely technical one, outside the realm of the social sciences or education. To address it effectively, however, implies a transformation in the vocational education and training (VET) and qualification systems as well as in the labour market. VET can play a major role in reducing CO2 emissions and improving the energy efficiency of buildings across Europe. The paper explains why this is so and what can be done to implement change in the construction, a sector set to gain more employment than any other from the transition to a green economy through policies and programmes for nearly zero energy building (NZEB), renewable energy installations and retrofit across Europe. The imperative of equipping the construction workforce with the appropriate knowledge, skills and competences is an integral part of the European Union (EU) green transition policy for the built environment. Zero carbon and NZEB require the training of millions of construction workers, a different construction process from the traditional one and a significant upgrading of existing VET systems. The complex technical and social challenges confronting construction VET systems throughout Europe and the constraints involved in addressing these are the focus of this paper. The aim is to identify the changes in the quality of labour and in VET required to achieve NZEB and to present a trans-European transparency tool against which different VET programmes for low energy construction (LEC) can be assessed.
As apparent from the European Commission’s Build-up Skills initiative, successful NZEB depends on co-ordination and overall project awareness, teamwork and the application of theoretical knowledge to particular circumstances. This requires an energy literate workforce, with broader and deeper theoretical knowledge, higher technical and precision skills, interdisciplinary understanding, and a wide range of transversal competences. The depth and breadth of expertise implied and the qualitative transformation of the construction labour process required also need to be expressed by qualification frameworks to facilitate a uniform approach in conformity with the European Qualifications Framework (EQF). Broadly-based initial VET (IVET) systems and occupational profiles, constructed and maintained through consultation and co-ordination with social partners and based on imparting relevant knowledge, represent the ‘high road’ to energy efficiency in buildings and are best placed to respond to the challenges of climate change. Developing the agency and powers of judgement of workers through VET is not only a promoter of personal development but a means of providing up to date construction expertise.
The paper shows how an approach to VET based only on learning outcomes and targeting specific skills, as implied in the European Skills, Competences, Qualifications and Occupations (ESC) initiative, is too narrow and lacking in depth to allow for the systematic application of theoretical LEC knowledge to practice and the development of NZEB expertise in the workplace. Theoretically broader, deeper, more technical and inter-disciplinary expertise is needed to meet European Performance in Buildings Directive (EPBD) targets. Despite this, VET for LEC across Europe has been largely preoccupied just with developing specific ‘skills’ and confined to short and task-specific continuing VET (CVET) courses, representing what can be regarded as the ‘low road’. Mainstreaming the knowledge, skills and competences required for NZEB into IVET curricula is rare though it is achieved in German construction IVET, which takes a standards-based approach, successfully embeds LEC elements and seeks to overcome occupational boundaries and develop a holistic understanding of the construction process. The paper highlights the strengths and weaknesses of different VET systems in meeting NZEB requirements and presents examples from CVET and IVET from different parts of Europe to show what can be done to incorporate LEC elements.
Through an investigation in ten European countries, the paper presents the range of different strategies advanced and illustrates the significance of social partnership, the need to overcome the fragmentation of the construction process, and the high-quality VET essential in order to address climate change. It is argued that a ‘high road’ approach, in encompassing a broad concept of agency, successfully addresses NZEB requirements whereas in contrast a ‘low road’ approach represents an instrumentalist approach to labour that jeopardises the achievement of higher energy efficiency standards.