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25 September 2020updated 27 Sep 2023 11:03am

Without skilled workers the green recovery will be stuck on red

Government involvement in training for green jobs is often chaotic, and the private sector needs incentives.

By Philippa Nuttall

As countries open up from national lockdowns and the impacts of climate change crawl back into the headlines, calls for less polluting ways of living are becoming increasingly mainstream. Governments are proposing green new deals to kick-start the economy and create jobs, while introducing measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But without well-organised education and training programmes, workers will lack the skills to deliver this change.

The evidence is clear that a green transition will create more jobs than sticking with old-school technologies. Economists Joseph Stiglitz, Nicholas Stern, and Cameron Hepburn recently published a paper in May showing that every $1m in public spending generates 7.5 full-time jobs in renewables infrastructure, 7.7 in energy efficiency, but only 2.7 in fossil fuels.

“Climate action is not the enemy of jobs, the opposite is true” says Camilla Roman, policy specialist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a UN agency. But “large investments” in skilling and reskilling are needed to ensure workers can fill these positions.

Green recoveries can create more existing jobs in sectors like transport, as buses and trains are favoured over cars, and bike ownership continues to increase.

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In other fields workers will need training as jobs change. Heating engineers, for instance, will need to deal increasingly with heat pumps instead of gas boilers, while architects will need to think more about energy efficiency. Moving away from fossil fuels will also create new occupations, such as wind turbine engineers and solar panel installers. Others, such as in the coal industry, will disappear.

Supranational, national and local governments have come out in favour of green recoveries, the UK included. “It will be the duty of every responsible government to see that our economies are revived and rebuilt in a way that will stand the test of time,” said the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. “That means investing in industries and infrastructure that can turn the tide on climate change.”

This call is backed by trade unions around the world. “The scale and depth of this crisis everywhere require courageous action by governments, with 350 million jobs lost or under threat, and hundreds of millions of workers in the informal economy facing destitution,” Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Council (ITUC), said in a recent statement to the G20 Labour and Employment Ministers Meeting.

“Now is the time for governments to put in place a new social contract with financing for recovery that meets the test of realising the Sustainable Development Goals and climate action with social dialogue for just transition.”

A “just transition” would mean that no-one is left behind as the world moves to a more sustainable economy. A lack of opportunities for training could jeopardise this, however. As the ILO highlights in a report published in 2019, skills development for green jobs globally is “somewhat unsystematic” with it “sometimes taking place as part of overall government policy but often carried out by other actors, including civil society groups as well as regional and local government authorities and social partners, working to fill gaps from the bottom upwards”.

In the UK, a coalition of influential mayors and council leaders known as UK100 is calling on the government to commit to a “New Deal for Green Skills and Growth”. Its research shows that 3.1 million posts will be affected by the shift to green jobs in the UK, and that these workers will need access to training and skills development from government and industry. A further 3 million jobs will need to be filled if a green recovery is prioritised. This will include retraining workers from the oil and gas sector to work in the wind industry, and helping manufacturing workers and after-sales mechanics transition to electric cars and, in time, driverless vehicles.

But government involvement in green skills development is often chaotic, with responsibility distributed across more than one ministry, says the ILO. “Ministries dealing with education and training and employment are weakly represented in policymaking on climate change and environment.” Policy coordination with people outside government is generally little better, even though the ILO insists it is “difficult to overstate” the importance of including the private sector, employers and workers to ensure “education and training deliver skills relevant to the needs of the labour market”.

Devashree Saha, senior associate at the World Resource Institute, a US-based think tank, underlines the need for private and public sector involvement. “If Ford and General Motors are to transition to more electric vehicles, for example, they need to be able to retrain existing workers with the right skills,” she says. “There is a big role for the private sector, but this does not let the public sector off the hook.”

Indeed, according to the ILO, there are indications that, without incentives, the private sector struggles to act on its own.

Depending on the renewable energy sector, 17 to 32 per cent of companies are experiencing skills gaps in Europe, estimates the European Commission. Take the automotive industry again. As it moves from fossil fuel engines to electric vehicles, studies estimate that 5 per cent of the workforce, or 700,000 employees, will need to be upskilled every year in Europe.

Countries can take steps such as reforming their training curricula, offering new courses, and installing a green element across the board, says Roman. “A basic awareness of energy, waste management and other issues can be integrated transversally into vocational training programmes, for example.” Making sure everyone is up to speed with their digital skills will also be important to support energy efficiency and sustainable development efforts.

And the jobs that need to be filled may change as the green transition gathers pace. The ILO recommends governments put in place mechanisms to anticipate and monitor skills, but most countries are yet to react to this call. France’s National Observatory for Jobs and Occupations of the Green Economy is a rare example.

“Good practice has to involve government, the private sector and workers organisations [collecting] labour market data…to help make policies relevant,” says Roman. “There is not one model that fits all, what is important is that there is a coherent approach with clear overarching objectives.”

Samatha Smith, head of the Norway-headquartered Just Transition Centre, doesn’t disagree, but insists jobs, not skills, is where the focus should be.

“People are hung up on skills and training, but these are easy to solve, the big issue is jobs,” Smith says. Once the jobs exist the training will follow.

Philippa Nuttall Jones is editor-in-chief of Energy Monitor

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