Harnessing the ‘Greta Effect’

‘Greta Effect’, BESA, President, John Norfolk, Generation, Poor quality

The world’s most famous teenager is inspiring millions of young people to look for careers combating climate change. This is a great opportunity to promote building engineering to a newly motivated generation, says BESA President John Norfolk.

Almost a quarter of young people say they want to work in an industry where they can have an impact on climate change, according to a survey carried out by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

More than half of those aged 15-18 who replied to the survey said they thought climate change was the biggest problem facing the world and were inspired by teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s “listen to the science” message.

The ‘Greta Effect’ is galvanizing her generation and it is now up to their parents, teachers and we – as potential employers – to guide them towards places where their enthusiasm can be harnessed to best effect.

In the first instance, it should give a welcome boost to the numbers of school children opting for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, which can open up future careers in engineering and start to address our industry’s poor record on diversity.

17-year-old Greta remains convinced there is a lack of “real action” on climate change and believes politicians are not listening. She described the European Commission’s new Climate Law as a “surrender” because its targets are too distant. However, every journey starts with that important first step and – while you would have to whisper it carefully to Greta, the Climate Extinction protestors etc. – the UK is actually not doing so badly; particularly in comparison to several much larger polluting nations.


The UK's carbon emissions are now at their lowest level since the 19th century having fallen by almost 3% last year and 29% in the last decade, according to latest government figures. This is largely due to the fact that coal-fired generation of electricity is being rapidly replaced by renewables and low carbon sources.

Since 2010 emissions from coal power have fallen 80%, while CO2 from gas has also dropped by 20% and from oil by 6%. This is also “science” and deserves to be highlighted because it shows we, as a nation, have started to take those first steps on the road to net zero – although nobody would deny that we still have a very long way to go.

Like most people of her age, Greta is probably largely unaware of the role building engineering services play in reducing carbon; improving living and working conditions; and tackling social issues like fuel poverty.

We also play an increasingly important role in the health and wellbeing of people thanks to our involvement with indoor air quality (IAQ). Millions of young people might see climate change as the biggest challenge facing the planet right now, but there are millions more who are equally worried about air pollution and its impact on human health.

IAQ is often many times worse than outside air and the fact that 90% of people spend more than 90% of their time indoors should also be a motivator for the new, socially minded generation.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and the Royal College of Physicians recently carried out a wide-ranging survey of buildings that revealed shocking rates of asthma and other allergic conditions including conjunctivitis, dermatitis and eczema were directly linked to poor IAQ.

“Too many of our homes and schools are damp and poorly ventilated – this is adversely affecting the health of children,” said RCPCH paediatric respiratory consultant Jonathan Grigg. He added that it was welcome that the country was finally paying attention to the quality of outdoor air, but that the indoor issue was not receiving the attention it needed.

The research showed that British children spend on average just 68 minutes a day outside and are, therefore, subject to a range of indoor pollutants for almost 23 out of every 24 hours.

The report also pointed out that IAQ tends to be worse in low-quality housing and older buildings due to inadequate or poorly maintained ventilation – and that indoor air can be between 5 and 13 times more polluted than what is outside due to a cocktail of contaminants including smoke, damp, traffic fumes, chemical aerosols and particulates from wood burning.

Poor quality

“More than three million families live in poor quality housing in the UK,” said Royal College of Physicians special advisor Stephen Holgate. “Most will not have enough money to make improvements and have no option but to make do with damp, under-ventilated environments.

Our socially conscious young people should also have this issue in their sights and, by working to improve the quality of the built environment more generally, they will also help to cut carbon.

The range of careers opening up to the next generation should be a source of encouragement and optimism for us all, particularly at a time when employers in our sector are faced with a serious demographic problem. A dip in recruitment around the turn of the century and then during the economic crisis of 12 years ago has left us with a gap in our middle management ranks. This is becoming an increasingly serious problem as many experienced workers approach retirement.

Previously, some employers would have looked to the EU to fill gaps in their workforces, but that will no longer be an automatic option because of the new restrictions on immigration imposed when we left the EU. However, the availability of lower cost overseas labour was always something of a sticking plaster for those parts of our industry that had failed to properly invest in training and in marketing to a new generation.

BESA has long advocated the need for more investment in training at all ages and at all points in a career. We are working hard to get younger people to consider careers in our sector – but similarly, we are also encouraging people who are already well into their working lives to spend time learning new skills so they can move with the times and keep up with changes in working practices and rapid advances in technology.

More and more buildings in the UK are becoming ‘smart’ as they embrace digital systems and advanced methods – and this presents another opportunity to a younger generation who are keen to work with such technologies and have an instinctive feel for them.

This is another area that is under-promoted by our sector to the new generation. The image of our industry remains rather archaic despite our growing involvement with smart tech and the importance of building connectivity to our engineering services solutions.

We are an industry that is modernising and growing into the new digital world, but undoubtedly we will need more help from the younger generation to truly embrace all aspects of 21st century engineering. We must, therefore, become far more vocal about the exciting careers we offer.

Harnessing the ‘Greta Effect’ will be crucial if we are to claim our share of the highly motivated young people looking for employers willing to give them the chance to use their skills to save the planet and change the world.

*John Norfolk is President of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

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