A just transition for energy workers: The stakes could not be higher

Sue Ferns · 7 June 2021

The concept of a ‘Just Transition’ is gaining more traction ahead of COP26, but positive examples of implementation are still scarce, writes Sue Ferns, Prospect senior deputy general secretary.

Significant shifts in the energy industry means that many workers will need new skills to facilitate their step from traditional generation to low carbon alternatives. Whether necessitating a move between business units in larger energy companies or the need to find a new job elsewhere, it’s clear that there are currently barriers to making this a just transition.

This is not a theoretical problem, nor is it one for the distant future. For example, Prospect research has found that coal and oil powered plant closures in the past decade resulted in the loss of around 14,500 jobs. In many cases these plants will have been a crucial source of local jobs in former industrial heartlands in Wales, Scotland, Yorkshire, and the Midlands. A further 48 coal and gas power plants across the UK are expected to close in the next decade, at the cost of around 10,500 jobs.

Although the concept of just transition is getting more airtime in the run up to COP26, positive  examples of implementation are still few and far between. We know that a just transition is achievable, as set out in the 2021 report by David Coats ‘A just transition? Managing the challenges of technology, trade, climate change and Covid-19’, which draws on positive examples from Germany, Sweden and Canada. As a member of the Government’s Green Jobs Taskforce, I am pressing for the introduction of a strong UK framework too.

Just transition training

However, we are also acutely aware that simply waiting for this to happen is not an option. Workers affected today also need to be supported. This is why Prospect has worked directly with two major energy companies and with Renewable UK to organise a series of events to enable workers to learn about the transition to renewables; ask questions of employers and peers who have already made the switch into renewables; and refresh their job search, application, and interview skills.

Although making this transition is not appropriate for everyone’s circumstances, these sessions helped to bust some myths about the types of work available and the combination of skills and experience required. They also illustrated how use of sector-specific language and internal HR processes can act as unintended barriers to movement. There were also valuable lessons about the longevity of different types of roles and the scope for some remote working.

As a union with members across the energy sector, we know that there are cultural differences between companies and between generation types. But we also know that our energy workforce has already proved to be remarkably adaptable to the changing energy mix. We are also mindful,  as National Grid has identified, that there will be a huge demand for skills in this sector, stretching over the next 3 decades. The Net Zero challenge will continue to evolve, and this evolution must be supported by a portfolio of accredited training and skills development that facilitates a whole-systems approach to change.

Of course, there are more significant barriers: location really does matter for some roles and financial support will be needed for workers to retrain and relocate. This will require national, regional, and local co-ordination involving all stakeholders.

In the meantime, we will continue to play our part to support workers interested in making the journey into renewables. Employment security is an important motivator for us, but it also makes good business sense to top up existing skills rather than simply developing them from scratch. For example, we will be exploring how to ensure that people don’t self-select out of applying for new roles because of skills and experience requirements (perceived and actual), the possibility and practicalities of trial periods to assess whether a new role is a good fit, and how to maintain employment continuity.

Helping the workforce to transition from high to low carbon jobs is essential if we are to maintain public support for Net Zero and harness a sense of national mission. We want to see an ambitious green industrial strategy that supports the growth of good quality green jobs. The stakes could not be higher.

A version of this article first appeared in BusinessGreen.


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From generation to transmission, Prospect represents the interests of over 22,500 members working across all parts of the energy sector.