Switch to renewable energy jobs faces hurdles

Many in the oil and gas industry say there is little help available for experienced workers who wish to pursue renewable energy jobs.

In mid-October, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, issued a rallying cry that was as bold as it was bullish. “Aberdeen is the oil and gas capital of Europe,” she said. “Let us resolve today to make it the net zero capital of the world.” To achieve this ambitious and lofty goal, Sturgeon announced that the Scottish Government was providing £50 million in funding to 22 green energy projects. The funding is part of a £500 million Just Transition Fund established earlier this year, with the express aim of “accelerating the energy transition” and securing renewable energy jobs in North-east Scotland.

But away from the fanfare and polished rhetoric, there are systemic challenges – most notably a dearth of skilled labour – that need to be addressed. Take the Energy Transition and Jobs, a paper recently published by PwC, a global professional services company, which found that 200,000 people would require training in the UK for the green energy revolution to gain significant traction.

One solution being proposed to address the skills gap, is to re-train oil and gas workers, many of whom, according to Professor John Underhill, have a transferable skill-set.

Underhill, who is the Director of the Centre for Energy Transition at Aberdeen University, and the Academic Director of the UK’s GeoNetZero Centre of Doctoral Training (CDT), told Gas Outlook that subsurface geologists, who work in oil and gas, already have the data evaluation expertise needed to carry out Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). However “there are renewable skillsets – particularly wind power – that require new technological and engineering innovation, expertise that many in the oil and gas workers sector currently lack,” he said.

To bridge the gulf in knowledge, “the industry needs to carry out a really important piece of capability mapping to work out what is needed, what provision currently exists, where the gaps are and how to fill them,” the professor  said, adding that that exercise, “while in its infancy, has already begun.” He highlights the importance of the National Energy Skills Accelerator (NESA), a collaborative initiative, which aims to provide the energy sector with the skills and talent to meet the challenges of the energy transition. In order to do so, it has pooled the knowledge and experience of the University of Aberdeen, Robert Gordon University and North East Scotland College.

Last month it received a million pounds in funding from the Scottish Government. As Chair of the NESA, Professor Underhill says that that the enterprise “will enable Scotland to develop a robust Just Transition Skills Plan for the energy sector, and design scalable pilot training programmes to the local and regional workforce. To ensure their relevance, the programmes will be co-designed with industry and regulators”.

Re-skilling challenges

Despite this, many in the industry say that there is very little help available for experienced oil and gas workers who wish to pursue a career in renewables. A survey conducted by the environmental groups Greenpeace, Platform and Friends of the Earth Scotland last year revealed that 97 percent of UK offshore workers interviewed were “concerned about the UK offshore energy industry training costs”, while 65 percent said their employer contributed nothing to their training. But, perhaps the most concerning finding was the unnecessary, repetitive nature of training costs. The study found that 62 percent were asked to “obtain duplicate skills” or “an overlapping qualification” when changing jobs – even if their existing qualification was still valid.

The report criticised what it called “profiteering training companies” and said that training standards bodies like Global Wind Organisation (GWO) and the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation (OPITO) were “obstructive to schemes that would standardise certification.” It recommended an offshore training passport, which it said would “standardise training accreditation across the offshore oil and gas and offshore renewables industries.”

Following the study, OPITO confirmed that it would create an Energy Skills Passport. According to OPITO, the passport, which will be available “from Autumn 2023”, will enable offshore workers to view “their completed Technical Qualifications and Training, Safety and Survival Training and Specialist Response Training”. OPITO also told Gas Outlook that the passport, which offshore workers will be able to access both electronically and in paper form, “will also show which qualifications are recognised across energy sectors for specific roles.”

But, Rosemary Harris, a North Sea Just Transition Campaigner for Platform, says that “a failure” by training standards bodies, including OPITO and GWO, to sign a memorandum of understanding has raised questions as to “whether the passport will actually help offshore workers move into the renewable sector.”

GWO confirmed that it “was not part of the conception of the so-called skills passport,” but “was later invited to collaborate with OPITO and its project team in 2022.”

In an email, Jakob Lau Holst, GWO’s CEO, told Gas Outlook that during the process, GWO had “been able to test the project team’s assumptions.” He also confirmed that GWO “had provided them (OPITO) with a better understanding about the wind industry training matrix, captured in GWO’s Entry Level Framework.”

However Holst said that several important questions remain. GWO members are “still unclear” as to the scale, scope and nature of the challenges that the passport intends to solve, he noted, adding: “Because of this we are not committed to any solution yet.”

When asked to comment, OPITO said in an email that “there is an intent to achieve cross-industry recognition for qualifications and training where possible. It confirmed that it “is in the process of working collaboratively with GWO, and others, on a mutual recognition agreement to create a more aligned qualification framework”. It also stated “in areas where this is not possible, the respective awarding bodies will work collaboratively on potential solutions.”

Equipping offshore workers for the future

But Platform’s Rosemary Harris says the fact that there has been no agreement between training bodies is hampering offshore worker’s ability to be part of the green energy revolution.

And so what does she think needs to happen to ensure that offshore fossil fuel works are part of the green energy transition? She says, “In the short term, OPITO, GWO and the other training bodies need to come together and decide what is in the best interests of the workers and will help build a strong renewables sector in the North Sea. In the longer term, there needs to be some sort of re-training guarantee for oil and gas workers who want to work in renewables, with grants made available to enable them to find a job that compliments their skill-set.”

Harris, who previously worked as a political campaigner for Friends of the Earth, also thinks that the UK energy training sector needs to be better regulated.

She says, “Apart from the Health and Safety Executive, the training sector is a bit of a free for all. It needs the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in Westminster and a Green Skills Minister in Scotland to outline what it is they expect from the training bodies. They should create a robust regulatory framework which clearly outlines their duties and responsibilities. That simply doesn’t exist at present.”

With GWO forecasting that jobs in wind power will increase by 33 percent increase in the next four years, and OPITO predicting that offshore energy jobs will grow by more than 211,000 by 2030, it is imperative than Britain has, in the words of OPITO CEO, John McDonald, “a diverse, agile and adaptable” workforce. MacDonald says such a workforce must possess “the skills we need in oil and gas, offshore wind, carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen.”

“If we do nothing to help the transition,” concludes Rosemary Harris, “not only will vast swathes of oil and gas workers leave the sector entirely, we could see huge pockets of north-east Scotland facing economic hardship just as mining towns did in the 1980s. To repeat the mistakes of the past would jeopardise the futures of locally affected communities and would undermine the entire concept of a Just Transition.”

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