The renewable energy industry could account for 38 million jobs by 2030 and 43 million by 2050, but skills gaps and shortages of workers in this sector are widening
IDENTIFYING THE NEEDS Renewables growth must go hand in hand with education and skilling programmes
ELECTRICIANS WANTED Electrical contractors already face shortages of technical workers able to install solar PV and heat pumps, and struggle to attract and retain women
KEY QUOTE Skilling policies must go hand in hand with measures to increase renewable energy deployment
The number of workers in the renewable energy sector reached 12 million in 2020, according to the Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Review 2021, a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Under IRENA’s 1.5°C compatible scenario, the renewable energy sector could account for 38 million jobs by 2030 and 43 million by 2050, twice as much than under current policies and pledges. However, the agency said that, despite positive trends, “Skills gaps and shortages are increasing and likely widespread across countries unless proactive measures are taken.”
In developed countries, the skills gap is particularly accentuated in the case of technical and manual workers. According to the same IRENA report, between 52-64% of the workers employed in the solar PV and wind sectors have “lower certification”.
According to EuropeOn, the European association representing electricians and technical workers installing, maintaining and repairing electrical infrastructure, 60% of firms employing electricians in Germany currently have unfilled vacancies. Sweden expects to hire an estimated 28,000 electricians and other technical workers in the next five years.
Meanwhile in the UK, about 15,000 new apprenticeships will need to be filled in the next five years. “We need to install more heat pumps, we need more solar panels, EV charging points, but the workforce is not following,” says Julie Beaufils from EuropeOn.
“This is a sector of around two million professionals across Europe, so it is extremely important. And we feel that, with the green and digital transitions, there are many challenges that will depend on us, because we are the ones implementing the deployment of renewable, clean and smart technologies,” Beaufils adds.
IRENA says that, without addressing the skills gap, countries will not be able to achieve their renewables goals. “Skilling policies must go hand in hand with measures to increase renewable energy deployment. Matching the skill supply with the anticipated demand requires an identification of skills needs, education and training pathways, and priority groups to be targeted,” IRENA says.
One of the reasons for this shortage is the lack of attractiveness of technical education, compared with university degrees. Lawmakers tend to prioritise higher education over vocational education and training, which is why an increasing number of European renewable industry groups are advocating for technical education to be a key component of the European Green Deal.
According to Beaufils, a career in a technical field brings many opportunities for personal development in a fast-evolving field and even brings purpose to a career. “Technical education and careers are too often viewed as an option of last resort. We are striving to challenge this cliché and highlight that technical careers are changing really fast and should appeal to new generations because they are promoting a sustainable way of life,” says Beaufils.
THE OLD AND THE NEW
Purpose and meaning are precisely what the “millennial” and “Gen Z” workforce are after. Young people are increasingly refusing careers in oil and gas: a 2017 survey by consultancy EY found that 62% of teens aged 16 to 19 said a career in the fossil fuel industry was unappealing.
The sector is also facing a massive transformation, as the switch to clean energies risks making much of its workforce redundant. This is one of the biggest challenges that the energy industry is facing, says Thomas Berger from EIT InnoEnergy, an EU-funded technology development platform.
“[Oil and gas companies] have huge transformation projects ongoing to shift their oil and gas site workers into renewable energy workers and doing massive reskilling in solar PV or other energy domains to reshuffle engineers from one sector to a totally different one,” he says.
A recent assessment by the Aberdeen-based training and consultancy firm RGU Energy Transition Institute found that 20% of the UK’s oil and gas task force have skills that are highly transferrable to other energy industries and 70% have at least medium transferability, particularly to the offshore wind industry. These include planning services such as environmental and geological surveying.
Manufacturing of foundations for wind projects already takes a lot of the existing know-how from offshore oil and gas. There are similarities in constructing and decommissioning foundations of offshore projects in both industries, plus the skills involved in the operation and maintenance of offshore assets are also transferrable.
The Global Wind Energy Council’s (GWEC) Market Intelligence forecasts that wind capacity will grow by about 470 gigawatts (GW) by 2025 and bring total wind installations beyond the 1200 GW mark by the middle of the decade. Nearly half a million jobs will be needed to deliver this growth, says Jeanette Gitobu from GWEC, but that makes the sector vulnerable to a skills shortage.
“Skills in project management, engineering and technical vocations will continue to be in demand within the global wind industry sector among many others,” Gitobu says. Encouraging students to nurture their business and STEM skills is key to address this, but technical and manual jobs will also be needed, as that will be where the majority of job opportunities for offshore wind are concentrated, she adds.
However, most workers in oil and gas still need reskilling to some extent and the high costs of retraining are shouldered by workers themselves. In a recent survey cited by IRENA, some 600 workers said they had spent an average of £1824 a year in training courses and certifications for new jobs.
IRENA found that, under a 1.5°C scenario, the number of workers in the oil and gas sector would decline by 6.9 million in 2030—but fewer jobs are lost in fossil fuels that are gained in alternative fields.
Progress in scaling up green hydrogen, electromobility and battery value chains will also provide new opportunities. EIT InnoEnergy, which is involved in the European Battery Alliance, says the EU’s green battery plan provides a great opportunity for the development of workers. “We are talking more than 800,000 employees to reskill and upskill to set up this battery value chain in Europe,” says Berger.
In a scenario where average global temperatures increase by 1.5°C, the number of workers in the hydrogen sector is expected to reach two million in 2030 and that number will remain stable until 2050. Although in relative terms that is only a small share of energy jobs, IRENA says introducing more hydrogen capacity to the energy system can have ripple effects throughout the supply chain.
The impact of artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and new digital technology on the world’s energy workforce still remains to be seen. IRENA says demand will increase in fields including AI, computer science and engineering, and telecommunications. IRENA also recognises, “The Internet of Things [IoT] holds significant potential for new management and business model options due to its capacity to aggregate data.”
“Targeted efforts to address emerging skill requirements in areas such as digitalisation, electric vehicles, energy storage, bioenergy, heating and cooling sectors, manufacturing, and energy access will be vital for avoiding skills shortages and ensuring that the development of human resources is in line with anticipated skills demands,” IRENA says.
Robotics is particularly interesting for the wind industry too, says GWEC’s Gitobu: “It provides an exciting opportunity for a new generation of tech-savvy professionals to innovate and make an impact while attracting transitioning talent from other sectors such as IT to help address the skills gap.”
ADAPT AND ATTRACT
Such a fast-evolving sector has made it hard for schools and universities to keep up with the pace. “Higher education is still not adapting at the speed of industry demand,” says Berger. “Because of the way the system works, it is not easy to keep up with this speed of transformation. If you want to introduce new studies at universities, it normally takes at least three years to have a new curriculum out and then it needs to be implemented,” he adds.
Lawmakers can help detect the skills gap and put measures in place to attract talent into these industries. For the EU’s Fit-for-55 climate and energy package, unveiled in the summer of 2021, EuropeOn has suggested that EU member states should provide the European Commission with an assessment of the gap between the available workforce at the national level and the needed workforce to deliver on its renewable and energy efficiency objectives.
“These assessments could create a real wake-up call for EU member states to act, because when they see they are lacking, say, one million people to deliver on the objectives, they will have to take action. And it is also a positive thing because this means you can create one million green jobs in your country,” says EuropeOn’s Beaufils.
It is difficult to assess how much operational power lawmakers have to adapt education systems to fast-moving industry environments, says Berger. “But I think it’s good that there are a lot of funding programmes that try to stimulate transformation and adaptation to industry demands.”
If the energy industry is broadly male-dominated and if there is a clear shortage of workers, it might be possible to make jobs more attractive to female talent. IRENA’s surveys found that women make only 32% of the overall renewable energy workforce and 28% in roles related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In the case of wind energy, the figures are even lower: 21% of the overall workforce and 14% in STEM-related roles.
EuropeOn’s Beaufils says this is a matter of high concern among energy contractors. “If we can’t find workers and 50% of the population is female, we should definitely look at finding ways to attract women in this industry. But it’s been a very much male-dominated trade for a really long time, so there’s a need for a big change of mindset.”
“If women are to have a fair chance at occupying roles in the wind industry where they are currently underrepresented, they must have greater access and incentive to enrol in engineering and STEM-related subjects. This underrepresentation of women, particularly in STEM disciplines, occurs before they reach the job market as they enrol in tertiary education,” says GWEC’s Gitobu.
Women still face several barriers to enter and advance their careers in the energy sector. IRENA says that perceptions of gender roles still persist. “Therefore, access to adequate education and training opportunities in STEM can be enhanced, among others, through adjustments in curricula, targeted scholarships and internships, and vocational training opportunities, specifically for women,” IRENA says.
“But more importantly, challenging cultural and social norms is critical. Strengthening the visibility of the diverse roles women are playing in the energy transition and helping women become agents of social and economic transformation can exert a strong influence on perceptions of gender roles,” it adds.
A GWEC study conducted jointly with the Global Women’s Network for the Energy Transition (GWNET) has also found several barriers to the retention of female talent, such a lack of fairness and transparency in internal policies and the lack of flexibility, gender targets, mentorship programmes, parental leave or on-site childcare.
“We need to make sure that technical careers are attractive to women and to young girls. And then we need to make sure that there’s an environment which is really open to both sexes in the workplace,” Beaufils says.•
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