BREAKING: Two-Thirds of Canadian Oil and Gas Workers Want Net-Zero Jobs

This article was written by Mitchell Beer and was originally published by The Energy Mix on July 14, 2021.

More than two-thirds of Canadian fossil fuel workers are interested in jobs in a net-zero economy, 58% see themselves thriving in that economy, and nearly nine in 10 want training and upskilling for net-zero employment, according to a groundbreaking survey released this morning by Edmonton-based Iron & Earth.

While large majorities are worried about losing their jobs, receiving lower wages, or getting left behind in a transition to net-zero, three-quarters would sign up for up to a full year of retraining—and 84% would participate in rapid upskilling that ran 10 days or less if they were paid to attend, according to the research conducted by Abacus Data.

“Oil and gas workers are just people who have families, who need to put food on the table, put a roof over their heads, and this is the work they’ve known,” Iron & Earth Executive Director Luisa Da Silva told The Energy Mix. “This is where their jobs have been.”

But “people are quite amenable to upskilling,” she added, and “for the workers on the ground or who are more on the technical side, their skills are still transferrable.” Whether a project is a tar sands/oil sands mine or a hydrogen plant, “they don’t look that different. If you’re a welder, you’ll be using the same skills.”

“The basic fundamentals of physics and science, the technical skills underlying an energy worker’s job or a fossil fuel worker’s job, are very similar,” agreed consultant Ed Brost, a chemical engineer who spent 35 years working for Ontario Hydro, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., and Shell Canada. “A joule is a unit of energy in fossil fuels and in the electricity world. So it’s a matter of adapting, upskilling, and tuning up an existing skill set to match the 21st century instead of something from the last century.”

That means two of the essential elements of the transition are for workers to know what their next job will look like, and how their current skills will give them a pathway into a net-zero economy. Iron & Earth is calling for 10,000 fossil fuel workers to receive that training by 2030.

The online survey, conducted with 300 oil, gas, and coal workers between May 24 and June 11, painted a picture of a work force with a wide range of skills, considerable experience with projects outside the fossil industry, strong concern about the climate crisis, and noticeable but not overwhelming regional differences in opinion among workers in Alberta, Ontario, and other parts of the country. The results are considered accurate within 5.66%, 19 times out of 20.

Abacus reported that:

• 69% of workers said they were interested in switching to the clean economy, including 62% in Alberta, 69% in Ontario, 72% of workers under age 45, and 78% of workers who were Indigenous or members of visible minorities.

• 60% or more said they saw the net-zero economy as an opportunity to develop new skills, boost the environmental health and well-being of their children or future generations, and create new economic opportunities for Indigenous communities.

• Workers under 45 were consistently more optimistic about the job benefits of the transition to net-zero, and consistently more worried about the risks, including job loss, lower wages and benefits, career changes, and reduced hours. Paid retraining and information on opportunities in the renewable energy sector placed highest as the factors that would affect their decision to consider a net-zero job.

• 67% agreed with the need to address climate change, including 62% in Alberta, 76% in Ontario, 68% across the rest of the country, and 75% of respondents under age 45, compared to 52% of older workers.

• 77% were somewhat or very concerned about environmental protection and conservation, with regional breakdowns of 68% in Alberta, 87% in Ontario, and 82% in the rest of Canada.

• 61% said Canada should pivot toward a net-zero emissions economy, and 58% said they would likely thrive in that economy. Optimism on both questions was most pronounced among workers in Ontario and the rest of Canada, and workers who were younger, Indigenous, or members of visible minorities, with respondents from Alberta agreeing on both questions by smaller margins (49 to 41% on the pivot, 44 to 42% on whether they would thrive).

• 69% of respondents had past experience with at least one type of project outside fossil fuels, including 30% in energy storage, 28% in energy efficiency, 25% in biofuels, and 23% in carbon capture, storage, and utilization (CCUS).

• 88% were interested in training in at least one aspect of the clean economy, including 39% in energy efficiency, 38% in CCUS, 37% in energy storage, 34% in solar, 33% in biofuels, 28% in wind energy, and 27% in geothermal.

• 79% said their skills would be transferrable to new jobs with up to 10 days of rapid training, and 90% said they could make the shift with a year or less of moderate training. (The full survey report contains detailed breakdowns by new job area for trades and industrial workers, office and remote workers, onsite supervisors, and workers in science, technology, engineering, and math.)

 84% said they would attend a rapid upskilling course on a full scholarship, and 70% said they would still take part if they had to pay for the program. The equivalent numbers were 75 and 56% for moderate training, 60 and 37% for programs running up to two years, and 54 and 32% for a four-year degree or trade.

• 56% of survey respondents said they would take a pay cut of at least $5,000 per year to land a job in the net-zero economy, 13% said they would accept a $20,000 cut, and 4% would be prepared to part with $50,000.

• 80% or more said they would support each of the four national initiatives Iron & Earth is promoting—on upskilling, businesses retooling, infrastructure retrofits, and nature-based solutions.

With the survey data in hand, “what we really need is for the government to make a commitment to investing in these workers and make sure they’re not left behind in this transition,” said Da Silva, a former mining geoscientist who worked in the Alberta oilpatch before joining the organization. “When the government is creating its Just Transition Act, they have to bring workers in to actually voice their concerns and help shape the legislation.”

With large majorities of survey respondents willing to get on with the transition, Brost added that Canada’s fossil fuel work force is ready to push past the fear of change and prepare for the transition.

“People don’t agree on much at all at a 60 or 70% level,” he said. But tapping into the opportunity in the survey numbers—for the oil and gas work force, and for the country as a whole—will take federal and provincial dollars, training design, and training programs that match the demand for an energy efficiency and renewable energy work force.

“If the training is there and the jobs aren’t ready, we have a problem,” he told The Mix. “If the industry moves to solar, wind, geothermal, electrified transportation, but the skills sets aren’t there, we also have a problem.” But while “it’s important that the provinces and the federal government work together to create the infrastructure at the same time as the skills are being developed,” the fossil fuel work force “seems to be ready for this.”

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