Climate

UK’s greenworkx takes aim at the domestic retrofit skills challenge

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Greenworkx team
Image Credits: Virginia Rowe under a license.

Steering humanity out of the climate crisis demands action in a very literal way. Boots on the ground, people rolling up sleeves and getting hands dirty retrofitting existing infrastructure, such as poorly insulated houses, type stuff. The goal is to re-make our built environment to be energy efficient and drive down carbon emissions ASAP. So we really need lots and lots more skilled tradespeople — fast. Aka, the kind of multifaceted, hands-on skills that technologists haven’t figured out how to automate yet.

Fixing this problem absolutely, therefore, demands human beings. Lots and lots of people to come in, eager and willing to learn new stuff, and take up green retrofitting jobs. So it’s a job discovery problem. And a training/upskilling/reskilling problem. Which means digital technology can of course help. And this is where a U.K. edtech startup founded last year, called greenworkx, is angling to step in — with a new spot of supportive construction: A digital pathway designed to boost the flow of skilled workers into green jobs.

The London-based team, which has just closed a £600k pre-seed funding round, describes what’s it’s building as “the go-to talent portal for green jobs”. The app soft launched towards the start of the year, after the co-founders formally incorporated the startup in mid June last year. The early stage funding round was led by Mangrove Capital Partners, with participation from Ada Ventures, and a number of angel investors in the climate and edtech sectors, including the CEOs of Multiverse (Euan Blair), MyTutor (Bertie Hubbard) and Octopus Electric Vehicles (Fiona Howarth).

Commenting in a statement, Nikolas Krawinkel, partner at Mangrove, heralded the opportunity of the looming “green industrial revolution”, writing: “We’re on the cusp of a green industrial revolution, which will require a huge rethink of our education and training systems. The greenworkx team have a deep understanding of digital-first learning methodologies and we’re excited to work with them to take on this profoundly important challenge.”

“The urgent ramp-up needed in the green workforce is a unique opportunity to build a fairer, more equitable future by bringing millions into a rapidly-growing sector of huge social and environmental importance,” added Matt Penneycard, founding partner at Ada Ventures, in another supporting statement. “We’re incredibly excited about the double impact that greenworkx can have in empowering people to access well-paid, future-ready jobs, whilst simultaneously directly driving the net-zero revolution to address the climate crisis.”

The startup’s vision is to build a platform and digital tools to drive awareness and accelerate the uptake of green jobs, using techniques like bite-sized learning and algorithmic matching of jobseekers to connect them with relevant opportunities to help build and power up the green economy.

Co-founders Mat Ilic and Richard Ng bring backgrounds in public policy work and education and edtech to bear on this skills funnel challenge.

Ilic, the policy guy, says he was inspired to tackle the people side and the green jobs challenge as he was reading John Doerr’s book, Speed and Scale — which is literally subtitled an “action plan for solving our climate crisis now”. “It was the first time that net zero felt like a manageable problem,” he tells TechCrunch, saying the book helped him realize “how significant people are” — especially “the people we need to bring about the transition, not just people to make lifestyle changes” — and so the “loose idea was was born then and there”.

Ng, who started his career as a maths teacher before moving into edtech and, latterly, training software engineers at U.K. tech apprenticeship startup Multiverse, says he’d felt pretty settled in that career — until he got speaking to Ilic and also got the green jobs itch.

“He was explaining to me this problem that in order to reach Net Zero we need to deploy all this green infrastructure… and I remember being really shocked by this because I thought wow, this is obviously a huge problem, which is really high stakes, really time urgent, and yet when I think about skills and future work so often it’s purely about ‘oh we need to code’,” he says in a video call with TechCrunch, offering a tacit critique of the full-throttle focus on ‘learn to code’ of the past (many) years. (Code, after all, may well end up being automated by powerful technologies like generative AI — even as we’re still in desperate need of double glazers, plumbers, electricians etc etc.)

There are also of course plenty of people for whom learning to code is never going to be the right fit. And Ng says he realized there’s an unfolding opportunity for all sorts of workers to thrive in green jobs as demand for these more hands-on, people-facing skills keeps growing — as well as being excited by the chance to build out the kind of support for vocational training and learning that the U.K.’s traditional educational system has not been geared toward.

“We need people to work with data, that’s very necessary, and there’s a bunch of people working on that now. But I was like this is also super, super important and really, really underserved,” he says. “Coding, unfortunately, is phenomenally inaccessible for a bunch of people… [Whereas] these jobs… are really, really meaningful, they’re pretty well paid and they’re actually very accessible as well. And so, for me, it was also about making sure that as we think about this really important challenge Net Zero we’re also using that as an opportunity to make sure we have this bright future of work which is hopefully much more inclusive and accessible to the communities which I care a lot about.”

The scale of the retrofit challenge means the skills supply problem is vast indeed. Ilic cites a statistic suggesting at least 30 million roles will be needed globally by the end of the decade — and half a million in the U.K. alone, just for domestic energy retrofitting. (And the startup’s stated mission is to get 10 million people into green jobs over 10 years.)

While the challenge is global the U.K. certainly has some of the worst insulated homes in Europe, making that element a particularly acute local problem. Solutions can also be interdependent, too — since, for example, poorly insulated homes aren’t a good fit for low carbon heat pumps — which means tackling drafty buildings is really a prerequisite for speeding up the decarbonization of U.K. housing stock.

“We’re talking about half a million different professions and trades needed in already an existing skills shortage in construction — and that’s before we start talking about the other aspect of this, which is the existing workers who need to be reskilled in what’s basically the biggest reallocation of capital and the means of production since the Industrial Revolution,” says Ilic, adding: “And no one seems to be talking about it with the level of urgency and emergency and scale that is needed — and more fundamentally, we’re here because we believe it’s eminently solvable. And that’s what’s so practical about the way that we’re looking at this challenge.”

Some other startups are talking about it, of course. Denmark-based Lun, for example, recently bagged seed funding to build software tools to encourage more tradespeople to focus on installing heat pumps, instead of taking on less climate friendly jobs. While US-based BlocPower has already been beavering away for almost a decade with a residential retrofit-as-service platform focused on low-income communities. But it’s fair to say the scale of the change needed across our societies is so absolute — so root and branch — that it’ll need a tsunami of startups tackling as many bits and pieces as possible if we’re to drive the necessary system flip at the blistering pace now required to avoid even worse heating and weather extremes (not to mention the risk of runaway climate change).

Greenworkx’s app is soft launched at this stage — with a handful (around 40) of green skills seekers signed up to a (free) introductory retrofit course they’re offering.

Early users are more of a mix than the team’s expected target youth demographic (i.e. 16-24-year-old school and college leavers who did not follow the academic higher education route to university) — with Ng noting other profiles of interest include immigrants in their mid thirties to forties seeking a career switch into more stable work. Another early user he mentions was a former nurse — a women in her late fifties who could no longer continue working in a patient-facing role (owing to developing allergies) but who was looking for another job that allows her to keep serving her community and retrofitting social housing fit the bill for her. (“It’s a way to basically continue serving her community.”)

To locate their first users they’ve been partnering with organizations and charities that are focused on employability. But as they seek to scale up they plan to expand the pool of jobseekers via digital marketing on social media and tapping up the sorts of influencers who might resonant with key targets. They’re also planning a possible green jobs travelling roadshow to take their message of climate opportunity around the country in an electric bus.

The early product is still quite a manual experience, per the co-founders, as the team has been focused on understanding learner profiles and needs so they can better tailor the platform experience. But the goal is, ultimately, to automate the process of matching jobseekers to green skills opportunities to be able to scale the platform and its outputs.

“We’ve had our first proactive inbound from a small company this week looking for energy assessors and retrofit assessors,” notes Ilic. “So it’s been really interesting to see that. And in terms of where we focus attention on the job side, so really a lot of investment is going into decarbonizing social housing at the moment — housing associations, local authorities and smaller energy efficiency or construction companies are all looking for these sort of energy efficiency professionals or trades. So some of that is them reaching out to us some of it is us working with them. So we’re pretty confident that for this kind of batch of people that we’re taking through — both the understanding retrofit courses as well as some partnerships that are more focused on domestic energy assessment or retrofit advice — we should be able to get our first job outcomes and then explore how it goes from there.”

For larger energy companies and construction firms the first focus is likely to be on upskilling an existing workforce, rather than trying to hire scores of new workers. So the startup is thinking how it might best support those goals. They’re also still figuring out how much training content they might offer themselves — vs working with partners and/or employers to provide it. But the overarching goal is to find ways to support as many people as possible to think about a career switch, skills upgrade or first leap into green jobs.

“We’re a b2b proposition. And the ultimate goal is to create value by giving people the talent they couldn’t otherwise reach — so filling roles,” says Ilic. “But I think we’re exploring a range of different steps in between, including actually having that curriculum and training proposition to support reskilling existing workers, because if we’re building a high quality digital curriculum for connecting people to these jobs from a standing start, actually it’s also relevant for people that are learning about low carbon heating technologies in their current jobs. So both reskilling and recruitment are going to be part of our value proposition.”

“We are starting supply side. We want to build a tool that will matter so much to learners that they will obsess about,” he adds. “They would be prepared to pay for it even though we’d never want to charge them for it because we want to create a frictionless route for them to be able to access these roles. Because that’s partly in our collective interest — as I said, we’re looking at servicing the labour demand — but, yeah, we feel that the business side will become kind of apparent as things unfold; as you see the kind of exponential growth, say the consumer demand for solar among other things, so that’s what we’re planning.”

This report was updated to correct a citation by Ilic: The projection is for 30M retrofit jobs being needed globally before the end of the decade, not in the U.K. — there the projection is for half a million roles being required by 2030

BlocPower hits its stride, landing $25M Series B to expand its residential energy retrofit platform

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