Building beyond the Bust: How skills in the fossil fuel sector can create the net-zero economy

How can we make sure fossil fuel industry workers are part of the green transition? Banner image: Shutterstock/ Party people studio

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What if I were to tell you that there is a community of skilled workers ready to build the net-zero economy? That the workforce to power this economy needn’t be built up as it already exists? There are welders to manufacture wind towers, drillers to build geothermal plants, electricians to design solar arrays—this workforce is already here, now. But where can we find these skilled workers? In the fossil fuels sector.

It might sound like a radical idea, but anyone who has spent time in the fossil fuel world can tell you that the base technical know-how to build net-zero technologies already exists with fossil fuel workers. And workers want to work in the net-zero industry. Our Canada-wide poll of fossil fuel workers shows the majority of workers want to work in the net-zero economy, and believe that Canada—and the world—need to move away from fossil fuels and towards net-zero. You might ask, “Why would someone talk themselves out of a job?” Because fossil fuel workers have seen it over and over again: the boom with a huge demand for workers, then a bust and the subsequent job losses, unemployment or underemployment as they struggle to find comparable work to support their families and communities, if they find anything at all. Such a bust resulted in the loss of over 100,000 Canadian jobs during 2015-2017. 

Since its founding in 2016, Iron & Earth has spoken with Indigenous, academic, government and industry experts to gain perspectives on how existing skills and capabilities in Canada’s energy sector can be leveraged to support the transition to a net-zero future, as well as potential gaps and obstacles to their alignment with changing sector needs. After five years of talking and listening, we’ve created a plan for government to transition to net-zero:

  • Implement nature-based solutions, green infrastructure and natural technologies, and support and strengthen the Earth’s ecosystems
  • Upskill fossil fuel industry and Indigenous workers
  • Reposition businesses to retool manufacturing capacities and pivot business services
  • Retrofit and repurpose infrastructure, to reduce the carbon intensity of long-term and old infrastructure, as with our Renuwell initiative

    Reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and delivering a more inclusive, resilient, and competitive economy requires a deep understanding of the breadth of skills needed along the way. We want to collaborate with industries and governments at all levels to ensure the move to net-zero is a just transition.   

    Find more on Forum Network: New Energy, New Jobs, New Opportunities, by Paul de Leeuw
    Professor & Director, Energy Transition Institute, Robert Gordon University

    Workers see the writing on the wall, and whether they come at it from an economic or a climate change perspective those in the fossil fuel industry are coming to the same conclusion. Whether they are worried about how to feed their families, make ends meet and keep a roof over their head, or want to use their valuable skills to build a greener future for their children, grandchildren and communities—we need to move away from fossil fuel energy and towards net zero.

    There are remote Indigenous communities within Canada that are 100% diesel dependent for their energy needs, and communities that have been or are highly dependent on the localised fossil fuel industry for employment and economic prosperity. By diversifying their community energy sources and upskilling workers into net-zero technologies, the community becomes resilient through energy independence, economic empowerment and stable employment. This is a repeatable, sustainable energy model that can be implemented anywhere in the world with off-grid or fossil fuel dependent communities.  

    And it just makes sense. The fossil fuel industry will always have a place in our economy. Look at the ongoing pandemic—our vaccine syringes, plexiglass barriers, and face shields all derive of plastics from fossil fuels. Let’s leave fossil fuels for those things in our world where, so far, nothing else exists to take their place, and move away from the old mix of oil, gas and coal as primary energy sources. 

    It’s a simple idea: let’s use the workers that built the energy economy of the past to build the energy economy of the future. To keep workers employed, families together and communities resilient. Let’s ensure that those who dedicated their career to building the economy of the past are not left behind and forgotten in the transition to net zero. That they not only survive the transition, but also thrive in the new economy.

    It is now up to policymakers, decision-makers and governments to create the economic and developmental incentives that businesses and industries need to transition to net zero, and to create social, economic and structural changes that will empower even the most vulnerable in our societies. Because fossil fuel workers are at the frontlines, ready to make the transition—let’s work together to build a sustainable future.

    Lear more about the green skills in the 2021 joint Cedefop/OECD symposium: Apprenticeships for greener economies and societies:

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    Luisa Da Silva

    Executive Director, Iron & Earth

    Luisa Da Silva, B.Sc, P.Geo, MBA began her career in the fossil fuel industry of northern Alberta, and has over 20 years experience in the energy, mining, education, and not-for-profit sectors. After a successful career as a professional geoscientist, Luisa moved to the United Kingdom to work in digital transformations and to pursue an Executive Master’s of Business Administration. She has been influenced by her experiences in mining and exploration both in Canada and abroad. After a successful career as a professional geoscientist, Luisa worked with one of Canada’s top environmental charities before joining Iron & Earth as their now Executive Director. In her spare time, Luisa is an outdoor enthusiast and spends as much time in nature as possible; transitioning to green solutions has been a lifelong journey. Along the way, Luisa learned that she is enthusiastic about educating others and enabling them to transition to fulfilling careers.