Communities like Aberdeen risk being left behind if the transition to renewables isn't properly managed, experts have warned.
Oil and gas workers face training costs of up to £8,000 every two years if they want to move into the renewable sector, and say there is no government strategy to support the switch.
Workers like Paul Smith, who moved into renewables after 20 years in the oil and gas sector, are being burdened with extortionate bills for training which duplicates courses already taken.
“Most of the contracting workforce now have to pay out thousands of pounds every two to four years to keep up certifications,” he says.
“The courses needed for offshore have gotten so out of control that it’s got to the point that I have to pay £75 for someone to measure my shoulders to tell me where I can sit in a helicopter.”
Scores of workers like Paul are facing an uncertain future as the UK pivots away from fossil fuels to decarbonise the energy system by 2035. The faster the transition accelerates, the quicker thousands of jobs like his will disappear.
The good news is, oil and gas workers have exactly the right skills for new jobs in renewables, and are overwhelmingly keen to make the switch: A 2020 survey by Friends of the Earth and charity Platform London found that 81 per cent of current workers would consider leaving the sector, with more than half citing wind and renewables as their favoured destination.
The bad news is, these workers are facing extortionate costs, an absence of logistical support and a dearth of job opportunities in their attempts to move, leaving many unemployed or pushed back into unstable, polluting jobs.
“When we interview workers, lots of them reference the [collapse of] the mining industry. They say they don’t want to be thrown on the scrap heap in the way the miners were”, says Gabrielle Jeliazkov, a just transition campaigner at Platform London.
In spite of bold pledges and boasts on renewable energy from senior UK politicians, there’s currently “no industrial strategy” in place to make the transition fair for these thousands of workers, says Jeliazkov.
Instead, oil and gas workers are forced to sign on to increasingly precarious, insecure contracts as the industry declines. In 2020, 42.8 per cent of the 1,300 workers surveyed by Platform either lost their job or had been furloughed.
This precarity compounds the difficulty of switching over to the renewables sector, with most workers now self-employed and forced to pay for training costs themselves.
These courses, which must be Global Wind Organisation approved, can cost upwards of £1,000. On top of this, most jobs in wind are currently seasonal, meaning workers are forced to stump up money to keep their oil, gas and renewable certificates in date.
“If you took a rigger as an example, he might have to pay £8,000 to £10,000 over the course of two years to keep his oil and gas training courses in date,” Jeliazkov explains.
“If he wanted to also be eligible for jobs in renewables, he’d have to pay around £8,000 every two years to keep his renewables courses in date.”
And when workers actually manage to switch to wind? “Wind frequently pays a lot less [than oil and gas] – we’re asking workers to downgrade their standard of living”, says Jeliazkov.
Erik Dalhuijsen, who lives in Aberdeen and worked in the oil industry for 30 years, believes these difficulties are no accident.
“The problem is, the oil industry has positioned itself as advisers to the government. They don’t make money out of transitioning – they just lose income,” he says.
Dalhuijsen believes the oil and gas industry are dragging their feet deliberately, meaning a lack of job creation in the renewables sector even while oil and gas roles become increasingly scarce and precarious.
In areas like Aberdeen, where the economy relies heavily on oil and gas, the consequences are palpable.
“Most colleagues with my experience level are all struggling. They’re either in a job they’re going to lose soon or freelancing without getting work,” says Dalhuijsen.
He believes the oil industry’s close ties to the government have resulted in “piecemeal” subsidies for role creation in the renewable sector, which won’t amount to long-term, sustainable jobs.
“The transition isn’t happening, there are no roles available – just small changes and subsidies, all piecemeal and haphazard.”
The frustration with the government’s current approach, says Jeliazkov, is that there’s “so many things we could be doing” to support oil and gas workers in the transition to net zero.
One solution being posed by Platform London and Friends of the Earth is an “offshore training passport” to allow oil and gas workers to move into renewables without the extortionate training costs.
Removing such barriers will be essential to secure a just transition to net zero which leaves nobody behind, both organisations say. Yet as things stand currently, says Jeliazkov, “we’re just letting the North Sea slowly decline without building up a renewables industry to replace it”.
“We’re going to wind up in a position where the communities and economies that rely on the North Sea will decline and there’s no plan for how to avoid that,” she says.
“We’re going to end up with a workforce that’s left on a cliff edge.”