Coal, oil, and natural gas have a long history as the world’s primary energy sources. Many communities have sprung up around mines and drilling sites, and generations of people have relied on hardworking laborers to brave the cold, darkness, or rough seas to keep the lights on at home. As the world transitions to renewable power, it is vital to train energy workers so they still have access to high-paying jobs and can keep providing for their families.
A Just Transition
More than 65 million people work in the energy industry, with fossil fuel workers accounting for 1% of global employment. The renewables sector now employs about half of all energy workers worldwide—and that number is rapidly growing.
In 2016, there was a 32% employment increase in the wind power industry, while the number of people working in solar power grew by one quarter. With so many positions opening up, many renewable energy companies are eyeing existing energy workers as potential new hires, especially as industries like coal are hemorrhaging jobs.
Oil and gas workers often have skills that transfer naturally to renewable energy positions. For example, chemical engineers can help produce green hydrogen to power trucks. Petroleum engineers can bring their knowledge to geothermal drilling jobs, while offshore oil workers can transfer to offshore wind, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage facilities. Fossil fuel workers also have a litany of other qualifications—physical endurance, a strong work ethic, and the ability to get along with people—that renewable energy companies are looking for.
During the transition period to a renewable economy, it is crucial that energy workers do not experience unemployment or lose their sense of pride in providing for their communities. How can fossil fuels workers seamlessly switch jobs?
One way to ensure a just transition is for governments to provide training programs and subsidies for renewable energy workers. In the U.S., for example, the Economic Development Administration operates the POWER Initiative to help communities that previously relied on coal change industries. The initiative provides aid to programs that encourage entrepreneurship, workforce development, and job creation outside of the coal sector. This federal assistance can give workers access to training they otherwise could not afford.
Programs like the Renewable Energy Tax Credit subsidize renewable energy for businesses and homeowners. In addition to creating jobs, they give renewable energy companies better funding to train new workers—and retain them. Clean energy workers in the U.S. enjoy up to 19% higher hourly wages than the national average, earning $5 to $10 more per hour even at the lowest ends of the income spectrum.
Forecasting how many employees an organization needs, where it needs them, and what roles they will fill is a critical step in creating training programs to onboard fossil fuels workers. Renewable energy companies can use this information to recruit and hire the right people.
For example, workforce mapping can analyze fossil fuels workers’ skills and compare them to the skills required in the renewable energy sector. It can also identify which workers have strong management or organizational talents that could translate to leadership roles in their new job.
People whose jobs are being phased out may need help figuring out what to do next. They may not have examples of successful transitions to use as a road map, so they may experience pessimism or anxiety about changing jobs.
Transition centers can guide energy workers through the process of switching to a new industry. They can offer training programs, financial aid, and counseling services to fossil fuels workers looking for a job in renewable energy. Transition centers can also help workers get extended employment or post-employment insurance benefits.
At the same time traditional energy jobs are declining, positions in the renewables sector are rapidly opening up. Fossil fuels workers are some of the best candidates for these jobs because they have the drive, experience, and industry expertise to seamlessly make the switch.
Often, company-provided training in technical skills—like installing solar panels or wind turbines—is enough to get workers up to speed. However, employees can also benefit from official transition centers, federal aid, and careful workforce mapping on the part of their employers. These strategies will give fossil fuel workers the best possible chance of changing jobs while offering them the support they deserve.
—Jane Marsh is Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy and renewable energy, among other things.