How can the green jobs boom avoid leaving workers behind?

Workers install solar panels on an office building in Skopje, North Macedonia April 19,2023. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

Workers install solar panels on an office building in Skopje, North Macedonia April 19,2023. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

What’s the context?

As pressure grows to protect the climate and environment, green jobs are in demand but skills are falling short in the global workforce

This story is part of a series on transforming the world of work for a greener, fairer global economy: "Green jobs for a just transition"

  • Green jobs, at only 1% of hires, still limited
  • Broader focus urged on green skills for all work
  • Younger talent seeks employers with green credentials

BARCELONA - When it comes to predicting the future of green jobs globally, the numbers look impressive. Tens of millions could be created this decade in clean energy and nature protection alone, as fossil fuel industries shrink and green investment grows.

But what exactly are these new roles, where will be they be located, will they pay fairly, and what skills will be required?

Workers themselves, especially those in polluting industries, have doubts about the optimistic outlook presented by international agencies, said Nick Pesta, a senior strategy associate at RMI, a U.S.-based energy transition think tank.

"If we don't start answering those questions, it's going to be hard to pull off the very good and correct goals of the just transition," he said.

And while the spotlight is on coal, oil and gas workers who need to be reskilled in renewable energy, labour experts point to a host of emerging green occupations - from recycled fashion to carbon accounting, urban gardening and electric bus mechanics - as younger generations seek more sustainable careers.

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In the energy sector, projections of future jobs vary, with a recent RMI report calculating that, on average, studies foresee a net gain of 25 million new jobs in clean energy this decade after subtracting losses from fossil fuel sectors.

As of 2021, renewables alone had already generated 12.7 million jobs, a third of them in the solar photovoltaics industry, according to an annual review by the International Labour Organization and International Renewable Energy Agency.

But RMI's report noted that "unfulfilled promises of prosperity have left many people sceptical about clean energy job claims", while solar and wind power hubs are often located far from fossil fuel extraction sites and electricity plants.

"When you're a coal miner in West Virginia or an oil worker in Nigeria, you're not going to feel super-optimistic because globally 12 million jobs are being created. You want to know what's happening in your community... in your company," Pesta said.

Efforts are being kickstarted to upgrade the skills of workers whose jobs are tied to the production and use of fossil fuels and other industries that over-consume natural resources, generate large amounts of waste or pollute the environment.

For example, city regulation on new buildings in San Francisco is enabling fitters of gas systems to switch to installing pipes for the reuse of wastewater, helping reduce planet-heating emissions and tackle drought at the same time.

And Australian iron-ore giant Fortescue Metals Group has converted its haul trucks to autonomous vehicles and is eliminating fossil fuel use by 2030, while retraining employees for digitalised mining operations and green energy production.

The European Union, meanwhile, has started allocating its 19.2-billion-euro ($21.2 billion) "Just Transition Fund" for fossil fuel-dependent regions in nations from Estonia to Spain, to invest in greener businesses for alternative employment like clean technology, conservation or building renovation.

Skills over jobs

To enable workers and their communities to make a smooth transition to a low-carbon world, analysts like Pesta are urging a pivot from the conventional focus on green jobs to new skills that can help transform all sectors, from farming to transport.

Professional networking site LinkedIn, in its "Global Green Skills Report 2022", pointed to "the hard truth" that "right now we are nowhere close to having sufficient green talent, green skills or green jobs to deliver the green transition".

Jobs regarded as fully green accounted for only 1% of global hires in 2021, while "greening jobs" - which can be performed without green skills but typically require some - stood at 9%.

"Not all jobs will need to be exclusively green," LinkedIn's report said. "It's not just those building solar panels - it's the sustainable fashion manufacturer, the fleet manager, the sales manager."

One major problem, according to Matthew Shribman, a Britain-based scientist who set up AimHi Earth, a firm that offers sustainability training to companies and charities, is that green skills are poorly understood and defined.

"We have this strange dichotomy where they are so in demand from business leaders and politicians - and yet no one knows what they are," he said.

Most often, they are perceived as the "hard" technical skills needed for things like measuring carbon emissions, installing solar power or retrofitting building insulation - which are important but only part of the picture, he added.

Shribman advocates for a far broader set of softer abilities - including systems thinking, crisis management, storytelling, kindness and connecting with nature - and predicts that demand for green skills will rise exponentially fast across the board.

"What's important at this stage is that we get defining them right so that we don't end up pulling ourselves in the wrong direction as we have done by focusing far too much on (greenhouse gas) emissions over the past few decades, rather than thinking about the whole natural system," he said.

Green talent gap

Shribman also urged educational institutions to abandon their traditional approach of training people to "be machines" and "do repetitive tasks" in favour of producing innovators and problem-solvers who can break down silos and build the wider relationships needed to tackle the climate and nature crises.

Doing that means not just adding courses on climate change, offering sustainability qualifications or setting up dedicated departments, said Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School of graduate studies for global affairs at Tufts University.

"What we've done, and some others are doing, is teaching climate as the condition into which you are going to be graduating and working" - whether as a vet or an engineer - said Kyte, a former World Bank climate envoy and U.N. energy advisor.

Business schools are still lagging behind, while medical and public health schools are only just beginning to make their students aware of the climate challenges they will face in their professional lives, such as more extreme weather, she said.

Today the "binding constraint" for a low-carbon transition is not finance but a huge gap in green skills, Kyte said, blaming a lack of productive dialogue between governments and the private sector on how to develop a well-prepared workforce.

According to LinkedIn's 2022 report, job postings requiring green skills grew at 8% annually in the previous five years, but the share of green talent lagged, rising by roughly 6% a year.

"We always end up talking about 50,000 (coal miners) in West Virginia and not the millions of young people who need to be trained for the jobs that are going to be available to them," Kyte said, adding that it is fuelling "a huge fight for talent".

Sustainable supply chains

One career where competition is heating up fast is for experts on sustainability.

The LinkedIn report ranked "sustainability manager" as the fastest-growing green job between 2016 and 2021, ahead of wind turbine technician, solar consultant and ecologist.

At EcoVadis, a Paris-based firm that provides environmental and ethical ratings for companies and their global supply chains, almost a third of its expanding staff of 1,500 are sustainability analysts, who specialise in everything from carbon emissions to child labour.

Nicole Sherwin, senior vice president for executive customer advisory and strategy - who joined EcoVadis more than 12 years ago when it was a startup - said many younger candidates want to work with firms that address climate change and human rights.

"They know about these issues, they know why they matter - and there is an expectation specifically for companies to be doing something about it," she said.

As awareness of the need for a greener and more ethical approach to procurement builds among managers, suppliers of goods like palm oil or clothing are having to respond by adding sustainable expertise in-house, Sherwin said.

RMI's Pesta emphasised that making the whole of the global economy greener and fairer - while enabling it to continue growing - will require new ways of thinking about work.

"If we do that correctly, there will be green elements to every job - every job will have some piece of it that is about reusing material, harnessing renewable power (or) remediating pollution from past activity," he added.

($1 = 0.9060 euros)

(Reporting by Megan Rowling; Editing by Kieran Guilbert.)

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Workers assemble electric scooters at the Ather Energy factory in Hosur, India, April 20, 2022

Part of:

Green jobs for a just transition

How should we transform the way we work to secure a greener and fairer future for all?

Updated: May 02, 2023


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