Environment

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned

The green transition doesn’t have to lead to job losses, a new report has urged – but the government must help retrain gas sector workers

A worker at a natural gas plant. Credit: canva

The green transition doesn’t have to lead to job losses, a new report has urged – but the government must step in to stop gas sector workers falling off a “cliff-edge”.

The UK cannot meet its legally-binding climate targets without shutting down fossil fuel production.

But a just transition demands retraining oil and gas workers into climate-friendly roles, a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has urged.

The right support will mean “minimal career disruption” for the gas sector’s 115,000 workers. But this could turn into major upheaval if the government doesn’t support workers to retrain.

Current plans to support workers have been “piecemeal”, explained Joshua Emden, the report’s lead author.

“A best case scenario is one where you have a clear industrial strategy regarding what kind of technologies we’re going to need in future, and is clear about what the impact will be on workers, and offers proper support for retraining,” he said.

“Worst case scenario is we end up in a cliff-edge scenario for workers. Either we don’t meet those net-zero targets – which would be a disaster for the climate, and would mean higher energy bills – or, in the rush to meet net zero targets, the transition is rapid and disorderly, workers get left behind, and jobs are just lost. We saw that in the 1970s and 1980s with coal mining and de-industrialisation.”

What is the net zero transition?

To meet our net zero targets, the UK will need to reduce the amount of gas it uses by nearly 80% before 2050.

It’s not clear whether the government will meet these goals. Last September, prime minister Rishi Sunak U-turned on several key green policies, pushing back the 2030 deadline for selling new petrol and diesel cars, delaying the phasing out of gas boilers, and pledging to “max out” oil and gas exploration in the North Sea.

Scientists and campaigners slammed the decision. “It’s not pragmatic, it’s pathetic,” said professor Dave Reay, executive director of the University of Edinburgh’s Climate Change Institute. “This rolling back on emissions cuts for short-term political gain will undermine the transition to net zero and with it the future opportunities, prosperity and safety of the entire country.”

But regardless of dangerous Tory delay, the writing should on the wall for dirty energy. Coal provided 40% of our electricity a decade ago – now, we use barely any.

“The writing should be on the wall for upstream oil and gas from a climate and energy security perspective,” said Emden. “[But] we need to work out where these workers go.”

What green jobs could gas workers retrain into?

Moving into a new job is not as unusual as you might think. In 2021, approximately 2% of the working population, or approximately 600,000 workers, found a new job each quarter, the IPPR estimate. A little more than half, or 390,000 workers, moved to new occupations.

So it is possible to find people new jobs. And as the green transition accelerates, there will be plenty of green jobs to go around. The average job vacancies in green industries from 2012-2021 was more than 17 times higher than high-carbon jobs in 2021.

But we need “proper retraining support” if these jobs are going to go to the right places.

“Workers and union need some notice of what is going to happen. We can still do that and still accelerate the transition,” Emden explained.

The report looks at “green occupations” (those specific to green industries) and “blue occupations” (‘climate compatible’ occupations that are not specific to green industries but do not entail high carbon emissions). It finds that 93% of the approximately 115,000 people working in these gas sectors share more than 50% of their existing work tasks – such as inspecting and repairing equipment – with green or blue occupations.

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To move into green occupations, workers will need “significant support.” Only around 5% of workers in gas sectors could move to a green occupation that shares on average 40% or more work tasks with their current role, the report finds.

But moving into ‘blue roles’ – like engineers and technicians – will require less support.

“We’re not suggesting that every worker should move into a green job, specifically, we’re not saying all workers should work in wind turbines or anything like that,” Emden said.

“But there will still be engineers, mechanics, repairs people, required in future, and some of these jobs are related to what workers are already doing. So the transition need not be hugely disruptive in terms of the retraining that might be involved, but we still need the support in place to make sure that that happens.”

The think tank have urged the government to reform the skills system by introducing an annual £1.1bn Green Training Fund to provide free training to workers in gas sectors  that may need to change occupations.

“We’re not quite at the stage yet where we can say, you know, you can go from job A to job B, and it will require this specific training, that’s your pathway,” Emden said.

“We’re not quite at that level of detail yet. But we are at the point where we can point at job roles and say that here are some options that might be available in the future. And here’s how closely related they are to what you’re currently doing. More of that kind of work needs to be done.”

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