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The future is green. Will your students be ready?

The drive towards automation and away from a greenhouse gas-emitting economy is demanding new and evolving skills from Canada’s workforce, a report shows.


Anyone who spends time speaking with governments, attending conferences, conducting interviews, completing research, or simply opening a news site will come across the term “green” economy. Sometimes referred to as the “clean” or “net-zero” economy, this massive shift away from Canada’s greenhouse gas-emitting present is no doubt upon us – yet the term remains a bit of an enigma, with no universal consensus as to how it might be defined. Still, public and private researchers and economists are toiling across the country to forecast how this future economic system might look: the new jobs that will be required, the existing jobs that will be transformed, and whether our institutions are providing the skills needed to meet our ambitious climate commitments.

For the authors of a report done in 2022 by the Conference Board of Canada and the Future Skills Centre titled, “Green Occupation Pathways: From Vulnerable Jobs to Rapid-Growth Careers,” the green economy is in many ways part and parcel with technological transformation and the automation that so often accompanies it. The researchers sought to combine one of Canada’s most pressing labour issues – that one in five employees is at risk of losing their job to automation – with its ambition for a fast-growing clean economy, in which said employees could work.

After speaking with climate-focused organizations across Canada, Tricia Williams, director of research at the Future Skills Centre, said that two main concerns arose. “One is that there are a lot of transitions that are going to happen for people in the core labour force for our climate change plans,” she said, pointing to the example of oil and gas or automotive workers. “And second, how is Canada going to reach its net zero targets, and what are the skills dimensions of that shift?”

The labour market research the authors produced indicates that of those workers who have a considerable risk of losing their job to automation – which number 3.5 million people across 92 occupations such as construction, manufacturing, and retail trade – there are few or no options for them to transition to lower-risk occupations without undergoing significant retraining. However, in the industries of the clean economy (which the authors say are hard to clearly identify but would include clean energy production, energy efficiency and environmental management) nearly every vulnerable occupation has a corresponding green career opportunity with just one year of training.

One program that is meeting this challenge head on is Calgary’s EDGE UP, which is working to upskill displaced oil and gas sector workers with digital competencies in data analytics, software development, IT network management, digital product marketing and cloud computing. The program is funded by the federal government and offers free tuition for eligible participants who complete their courses at local postsecondary institutions including the University of Calgary, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Mont Royal University. In addition to its focus on supporting workers making the transition away from oil and gas, the program is an example of a new adage among labour market experts: tech is no longer a sector, but a horizontal enabler across all industries. “Artificial intelligence is not just something that happens in tech development, but it’s integrated across all other sectors,” said Dr. Williams.

Postsecondary students and institutions

While the report’s research primarily focused on high-risk, low-mobility workers, Dr. Williams and her co-author Darren Gresch, from the Conference Board of Canada, said that it also has implications for those studying at universities. For graduate students, a focus on tech skills is a must, she said, but so is recognizing that the economy is changing so quickly that professionals will have to invest in skills training throughout their careers. “Graduate school encourages us to be an expert on something very deep and technical,” she said. “And I think the future is going to require us to not only go deep, but to be turning your head around to see how your specific area of expertise connects to other issues that are going on so that you don’t become redundant.”

Current students, the authors say, should be asking themselves, their administrators and career counselors how their program is “staying on top of the green transition” and possibly incorporating sustainability principles or relevant skills into its curriculum. They also found that one of the barriers to entering or transitioning into a green career is the lack of adequate labour market information about the job opportunities that exist in the clean economy. “That’s one critical area for universities or workers looking to make the switch, helping them understand what their options are and what opportunities are out there,” said Mr. Gresch.

The cost of retraining programs is another barrier. Universities should work closely with industry associations and employers to develop accessibly priced programs, Mr. Gresch said. “Universities should work with employers to understand what sort of training they need and even potentially co-develop [programs] that could be done on the job, just to help reduce some of those costs,” he said.

Hannah Liddle is the digital journalist for University Affairs. 

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