(This article has been translated into French.)
As Canada’s stated targets for net-zero emissions by 2050 become more ambitious, policy-makers face challenges in creating viable pathways for this environmental transition. These many challenges are often framed negatively, with the emphasis on economic decline and lost jobs, particularly in carbon-intensive energy extraction and manufacturing sectors. But we also need to focus on preparing workers to meet the needs of a growing clean economy.
Canada’s workforce lacks the skills to handle the next stage as we make efforts to decarbonize, recent and forthcoming economic modelling suggests. Skills development is urgently needed along with broad support for labour-market transitions and mobility. We need a sizable skilled workforce for the projects we need to meet climate targets and to drive a net-zero emissions transition in Canada. How do we get there?
How will the labour market change to go green?
Looking specifically at Canada’s transition to its net-zero targets, there are three scenarios outlined in the forthcoming report Jobs and Skills in the Transition to a Net-Zero Economy from the Smart Prosperity Institute (SPI), the Diversity Institute and Future Skills Centre (FSC). These range from efforts to address emissions through aggressive carbon capture to transitioning energy sources.
In broad strokes, economic transformation involves moving away from oil and gas production to manufacturing, construction, clean energy, transportation and other sectors where technology or processes are changing to meet market or policy-driven change.
Much has been written about the role of automation in reducing jobs. There’s promise for jobs in here, too, based on research. The Conference Board of Canada and FSC’s report, Green Occupational Pathways, estimates that among the 3.5 million people currently working at high risk of automation, 65 per cent could access viable career transitions – in sectors like clean energy production, energy efficiency, and environmental management – with six months of training. One year of training could enable at least one transition for nearly all of these workers. With three years of training, the number of different ways for workers to enter these high-growth sectors increases substantially.
Similarly, SPI’s Jobs and Skills report finds that many occupations in sectors that will lose jobs are transferable to new and transforming sectors. Current skills can be repurposed in the economy of the future.
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Our main challenge, therefore, isn’t about the volume of jobs in the future Canadian economy – it’s about the scale and pace of the transition. If SPI’s modelling is correct, the transitions that could affect up to a quarter of all current jobs will be keenly felt, especially in communities and sectors most dependent on carbon-intensive economic activity. Adding to the uncertainty, many of these vulnerable sectors are also susceptible to very rapid changes, depending on the fortunes of global markets and global policy dimensions.
The Conference Board of Canada, the Canadian Climate Institute and SPI have all noted some important regional skills mismatches. In sectors projected to decline, including oil and gas extraction, emissions-intensive manufacturing, and mining and quarrying, not all workers will successfully transition because of constrained geographic mobility or the availability and cost of training.
If unaddressed, these skills gaps pose serious risks to Canada’s ability to meet its commitments and to reap the rewards that the transition will bring. Bottlenecks could take the form of current or future skills shortages in various sectors of the green transitions, ranging from new areas of clean economic activity to implementing transitions away from high-emitting economic activity. Addressing this requires integrating considerations of both growing the workforce in the face of market trends, and ensuring the workforce has the skills needed to build the projects required at the scale needed to meet national climate targets.
As well, marginalized populations may bear a disproportionate burden in the labour market. Indigenous Peoples and visible minorities are overrepresented in transition-vulnerable sectors relative to their share of the population (particularly in oil and gas production and mining). They are projected to be most vulnerable to transitions, and they make up a disproportionate share of those already unemployed.
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Some of this may be addressed by a greater focus on fostering equity within education and skills development, but it will also be crucial to combat other systemic barriers of discrimination because these patterns will replicate in the economy of the future if not addressed now.
How can we prepare workers for these opportunities?
While it may seem daunting, preparing Canadian workers is manageable. Companies are beginning to identify a variety of needs, ranging from skills around research and development to skills related to implementing new practices in manufacturing, installation and maintenance. Some Canadian companies are well-positioned to be active players in the global economy’s transition. Many are leaders in areas such as mining technology, fuel cell technology and plant-based proteins, including the 13 companies named to the 2022 Global Cleantech 100 list.
Canadian workers are among the best-educated in the world, and there are many opportunities to expand the capabilities of those working in skilled trades to meet the needs of the future, as ECO Canada demonstrates in its project to develop national occupational standards for more sustainable forms of economic activity in coastal areas and oceans, and as the Canada Green Building Council is exploring in its project to develop and test different approaches to developing green building skills in the construction industry. More needs to be done to market these opportunities (and associated training needs) across the labour market information ecosystem.
Canadian institutions supporting skills training, retraining and development can support this transition by investing in reworking current programs and developing new programs to prepare new and future workers for careers that are vital to advance the green transition. Critically, many of these technical skills will vary regionally, in the same way that economic opportunities will vary by region and sector.
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Education and training institutions need to be mindful of how to prepare workers for the near and long term, both of which may look very different. While technical skills are important, the Jobs and Skills and Green Occupational Pathways report argues that fundamental skills such as problem-solving, lifelong learning and resilience are going to be just as critical as technology and policies change.
Finally, there are a myriad of steps that need to be taken to make the reality of the job market transitions more tangible for workers. Players in the labour market information ecosystem will need to continue to develop the underlying data structures that communicate what roles will emerge and how to develop the skills to work in them.
Policies that support labour market transitions (such as employment insurance and firm-level subsidies for wages and training) will need to be tailored to support investment and time in employment that contributes to decarbonization. Finally, researchers will need to do the hard work of drilling into disparate regional and community-level economic realities and mobilizing this knowledge more directly with groups whose decisions are going to be crucial to this period of change.
This article is part of the Future of Work and Skills Training special feature series.