The Skills Gap: A Matter of Time

An emerging theme with many of the people I am talking to is the timing of the transition, especially as it applies to the skills and employment sector. I’ve been fortunate to meet with people across places like Bakersfield, Houston and Aberdeen – all big oil and gas towns – and one recurring trope goes as follows:

Oil and gas will necessarily decline, taking jobs with it. Renewables and low-carbon energy will grow, creating new jobs. The timing however, is not aligned. There is not a smooth process which will see those working in the hydrocarbon sector move neatly across to the clean/green energy sector. There is a perceived gap between the two events, which is a source of some (understandable) concern.

For places like Bakersfield, California faced with a relatively aggressive State approach to decarbonisation and phasing out of oil and gas, the worry about becoming the next rust belt were expressed by a number of people. In Aberdeen the phase-out is perhaps less  dramatic, but certainly well acknowledged, and considerable efforts are being put into shifting from being an ‘oil and gas’ centre to an ‘energy’ centre.

This space creates a fertile space for organisations like the Kern Community College District’s Californian Renewable Energy Laboratory, Aberdeens Energy Transition Zone or Scotland’s Energy Skills Partnership, to work across the education and training sector, and with industry, in trying to both retrain existing workforces and train new ones to take on jobs in sectors like renewable energy, CCS and hydrogen.

The work is not necessarily straightforward though, for several reasons:

  • Many of the jobs that people are being expected to transition to are new, so curricula may need to be developed
  • It’s important to understand how many of these new jobs will be needed, and when, to ensure graduates will have work if they follow this path
    • This requires industry having confidence about project delivering and timing themselves
  • The assumption that someone who has worked for a long time in oil and gas can or will be retrained into a new role in a new sector is fraught
    • In California, for example, rather than retrained, some staff simply relocate to places with less ambitious climate goals (like Texas)
  • There is not always equivalency in jobs; renewable energy projects are generally not particularly labour intensive when in the operational phase
  • The data around ‘green jobs’ or ‘renewable energy jobs’ is difficult to parse out
    • Unlike roles in oil and gas or energy, which are often identified much more clearly by government statistics, ‘green jobs’ are a much more diffuse concept to measure
  • There is also an interesting angle, from the likes of Dr Pauline Anderson (also from University of Strathclyde) regarding gender equality in the transition – and the fact that the somewhat baked-in gender imbalance in technical roles in the oil and gas sector appears to be continuing in the renewables sector

Interestingly though, as the next generation come through the education sector, people are reporting that they are less keen to work in the hydrocarbon sector, and more interested in working in renewables, due to better alignment with their social or environmental values. This hasn’t necessarily been well harnessed by the new/clean/green energy sector, but certainly has some potential. (Interestingly, it is also potentially harming the decommissioning sector, who will be necessarily ramping up as oil and gas infrastructure reaches end of life or obsolescence).

All that said, unless potential future employees or graduates (and governments) have visibility over the work pipeline, it’s hard to mobilise training resources, people to be trained and the relevant enabling infrastructure to help them get there. This comes back to another recurring theme, that I might devote a future blog post to: Stability and certainty – industry wants to have confidence in policy positions beyond the election cycle to support investment decisions. The US and UK – both facing elections this year with very real possibility of a change in government, and Scotland’s current turmoil create an environment that is not conducive to investor confidence, especially given the idealogical edge associated with so much of the energy transition.

If industry aren’t confident, they can’t give clear direction around training and skills requirements and the required workforce may not emerge. It’s another game of chickens and eggs that has the potential to slow the transition process. This is made slightly more difficult by the difficulty actually measuring and understanding green jobs and green skills.

For places like Western Australia, where the large-scale renewables and broader green economy largely represents additionality, rather than replacement of an existing industry, this presents risks for having the future workforce ready to help that industry emerge – or leaves us exposed to a situation where we will be competing globally for talent rather than growing our own. For places that are actively trying to shift from hydrocarbons to low-carbon energy, the risk is of real and actual decline, rather than simply missing the boat.

1 thought on “The Skills Gap: A Matter of Time”

  1. Katherine Allen

    Some great insight in this post Nils.
    The skills and workforce pipeline and lack of data around ‘green’ jobs has long been a source of frustration for us, though from a different perspective.
    Locally, I do think we have some good industry collaboration with training providers, but I can see much trepidation re the Chicken and the Egg as we head towards both State and Federal elections in WA and Australia respectively.

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