Skills, training and transition

Cutting green house gas emissions requires an army of new workers.  Those workers need opportunities for training or (in the case of workers currently employed on North Sea oil and gas) retraining.  But the jobs aren’t there – in fact the number of jobs in renewables is declining and the training is not happening.  Pete Cannell digs into why this is the case and lays the blame firmly on strategies for transition that are concerned with maintaining profit and the preservation of the oil companies.

To be able to work offshore on oil and gas platforms or on offshore wind installations you need industry certification.  Qualifications and certification for the Energy industry is controlled by an organisation called OPITO and courses are run by private sector trainers.  Prices are high; the basic offshore skills course comes in at around £800.

In 2021 Platform and Friends of the Earth (Scotland) (FOE(S)) conducted a survey of oil and gas workers.  One of the key messages from the survey was that if workers wish to shift to offshore wind, their oil and gas certificates are not recognised, and they have to pay for almost identical training that is validated for offshore renewables.  This is a scandal, and its important that it has been publicised by FOE(S), Platform and others.  They are campaigning for an Offshore Passport which would apply across both sectors and reduce costs to the workforce.

Bringing costs down for workers and making it easier to transition to renewables is welcome, but it’s not enough. There is an urgent need for the campaign to be widened.   

To meet the target of restricting average global temperature rises to 1.5C there is a pressing need to start the phase out of North Sea oil and gas production and develop renewable substitutes.  North Sea Oil and Gas needs to stay in the ground.  

Elgin Franklin Image CC0 Public Domain

As activity on the North Sea runs down there needs to be a commensurate increase of activity in renewables – particularly wind and solar, home insulation and building a resilient smart grid to ensure reliable distribution of renewable electricity.  All this new activity should mean new jobs.  Right now, that’s just not happening.  The Office of National Statistics reports that in Scotland between 2016 and 2020 jobs in renewable energy dropped by 14% to 20,500.  Across the UK, between 2014 and 2020 the fall was 28,000 – ‘the steepest declines were in factories producing energy-efficient products, onshore wind, and solar energy’.

The decline in jobs is a direct result of the lack of coherent planning by governments at Westminster and Holyrood and their reliance on the oil and gas industry led North Sea Transition deal (published in 2021). While it sometimes looks as if governments don’t know what they’re doing, the Transition deal underpins every new policy initiative. In brief the deal means that climate action relies on the market and the private sector, that there will continuing extraction of oil and gas beyond 2050 and that we must hope that technological fixes are able to sequester some of the resulting green house gas emissions.  

Offshore workers already have some of the skills that are central to the transition to a renewable economy.  But as we’ve seen the energy sector skills body puts expensive barriers in the way of workers trying to make the transition.  Other crucial jobs, for example in retrofitting (making existing houses more energy efficient), heat pump installation and district heating require new skills and retraining.  But OPITO, the energy sector skills body (originally established by a Tory Government in 1991 along with a raft of other sector skills councils) is driven by the oil and gas industry and fully committed to the North Sea Transition deal.  So, the skills training they offer supports an oil and gas industry perspective on how things should change, and their model of outsourced training paid for by the workers fits with the big oil and gas’s desire for an atomised workforce that pays for its own training.   It’s worth looking at OPITO’s website, this is an industry body that does the industry’s bidding.  

Bringing greenhouse gas emissions down to zero and building a new sustainable economy is critical to all our futures.  Supporting North Sea Oil and Gas workers through the transition that this entails is both morally and practically essential.  To avoid repeating the chaos and misery that afflicted coalfield communities when the pits closed, oil and gas workers who wish to should have the opportunity to apply their existing skills and retrain for the new economy.  OPITO is not set up to support this, but the Further Education system is.  The network of colleges across Scotland used to be at the centre of skills training and could be again.  

Without a serious, planned, and large-scale programme for training and retraining there is no chance of a just transition, or a transition that takes place in time to avoid global temperature rises well in excess of 1.5oC.  Currently the lack of such a programme is a barrier to action.  In Edinburgh, for example, there is a campaign led by the Edinburgh Trades Union Council for retrofitting the housing stock. Edinburgh City Council insists that such a programme would need to be outsourced to private contractors and that a shortage of skilled workers would mean that only a few houses could be insulated.  

The construction firms are not going to train more because the industry operates with layer upon layer of subcontractors.   Moreover, there is strong evidence that even where firms can provide trained workers the level of training is inadequate and heat pumps are installed incorrectly and then fail to work properly.The introduction of sector skills councils in the UK, of which OPITO has emerged as one of the largest and most powerful, was part of the neo-liberal restructuring of the British economy.  Collective organisation was anathema to the architects of the system – thus the focus on individuals paying for their own skills development. That needs to stop.  And the new system, supported by the colleges, needs workers and workers organisations at the centre, high standards, enough time training for skills to be properly developed, together with jobs that provide decent pay and conditio

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