It is always people who are at the center of any transformation, and sometimes waves of market changes cast problems to their shores. The energy transition is no exception: along with positive outcomes, it brings up issues of maintaining skills and keeping old employees in the new system. Ways of dealing with these problems vary from sector to sector, and the general trend shows that there is no fatality as long as employers are willing to lend a helping hand. Let’s see how exactly they do it, and what solutions they use.
The wheels of the energy transition are turned by the power of those involved in the shift. For them, it’s not just about introducing new technologies and transforming products and services: it’s reshaping markets and meeting new demands not only in the business terrain, but also inside the companies themselves. These tasks are not easy, and a business can be particularly volatile during this period. However, the first to be hit are employees.
This is the most noticeable in industries that are going through major changes, and the to-be-green European energy industry is an apparent example. Employment in the EU energy supply sector as a whole has been decreasing over the past decade, states the ‘Employment in the Energy Sector’ study report by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service. However sad, there’s nothing surprising in this fact. A reshaping market offers no room for existing employees: company restructuring and divestment of some products (like internal combustion engines) often mean job cuts. In addition, the frantic pace of new technologies development spares no leeway for professional growth: learning new skills turns into a race where only the fastest win.
“In most likelihood, you will not have either-or, so you will have some new jobs being created… while at the same time it is very likely that some other existing jobs will disappear,” Irene Mandl, head of unit at the European Labour Authority, comments on the green energy transition issues. How do we ward this threat off? And is it possible for an employee to make a natural transition to the new age – without career U turns, but also without hiding old and irrelevant knowledge under new job titles? Despite all the difficulties, some companies manage to find solutions for both employees and businesses – let’s see how they implement it in practice.
Various industries are handling the risk of job losses during the green transition differently. Here, for instance, are German automobile manufacturers: they are making high-profile marketing claims that the switch from internal combustion engines to greener engines is in full swing. Meanwhile, employees of these companies are disquieted by their vague future: “Workers genuinely are afraid of change, because their learning in the past was that if something is changing, they will lose out,” says Béla Galgóczi, senior research officer of the European Trade Union Institute.
A deeper look into the industry shows that the workers’ future may be brighter than it seems now – just it all depends on their employers and willingness to invest in their staff. Some have already ventured on this path, and among them is Volkswagen, which doesn’t deny imminent job losses, but highlights that the case is not lost yet. The carmaker has already taken initial countermeasures to cushion employment effects arising from electromobility, for example, by opening up new areas of expertise like as battery cell development and production. VW’s plant in Zwickau has become a testing ground for the initiative, and the measures proved to be successful: all new positions were filled by upskilling, and the transition to an all-electric factory was held without any job losses.
In turn, others have no need to rush for upskilling programs and make their workers wonder about what lies ahead: training and re-training make up an important part of their business processes. Cases of companies working in the deployment of new technologies are of particular interest here, because their economic and social role is precisely to accompany the transitions affected by these technologies. It is obviously unfeasible to replace their employees with every new tech wave. Therefore, the key point for them is to make the most of the existing skills of the personnel in place, and to adapt them to the new developments, while adding new ones from elsewhere as their business grows. Here, upskilling and professional growth is not something yet to be considered, but is an essential part of the business routine.
This case can be illustrated by Solutions 30, a European company that specializes in the deployment and maintenance of network and new technology terminals. In its 20 years of existence, it has successively accompanied the implementation of significant innovations such as ADSL, fibre optics and 5G, and is now at the heart of the deployment of connected meters and charging stations for electric vehicles. Each shift involved new equipment and processes that required an effort to adapt – primarily from the company’s employees. To help them, Solutions 30 has built an extensive inner network of training centers and e-learning modules, supported by collaboration with customers, local authorities and professional schools. The program also allows hiring young people without degrees or people undergoing professional retraining, improving their skills and adding new ones. The local, non-relocatable nature of these optic and connection technicians, cable pullers and other jobs throughout Europe is a key opportunity for the workers to stick to their home ground, and to hamper the stress arising because of changes, thus keeping the skeleton staff stable. All in all, this always-on-the-go approach helps the company unwaveringly stay in the black, and ensures steady incomes and employability for newcomers and veterans.
Maltese Solar Solution follows a similar path, and takes jobs preservation and training as seriously as their business. For them, upskilling means new opportunities to be conquered with old mates, and their recent case offers an example of fleet-footedness and devotion. Initially focused on solar energy installations, the company saw new chances in the fast-growing electromobility market, and took advantage of Demo-EV, an EU-funded green initiative in Malta, to reskill several in-house employees. The knowledge has been shared with other employees, and so the company proved that investing in new skills is not necessarily costly and time-consuming. Ultimately, this move gave the firm an opportunity to expand its scope to market areas other than solar energy and electric cars: “This eventually gave us the knowledge to import, sell and eventually repair other products,” tells David Zammit, the company’s staff member who is now certain about his tomorrow.
On the other side of Europe, it is not companies, but campaigners and governments who have taken up the initiative. Just like their colleagues from the German automotive industry, UK energy workers feel uncertainty and fears over upcoming market changes. This is particularly true for oil and gas laborers living under the growing pressure of environmental laws and initiatives. Fortunately, and with the help of activists, they were able to raise awareness of their problem. “The government must ensure oil and gas workers are supported into secure and sustainable jobs,” says Gabrielle Jeliazkov, a lead campaigner at Platform London, an organization focused on social and ecological justice. Their efforts weren’t wasted: the country has already invested £25m in National Transition Training Fund and the Green Jobs Taskforce, complemented by UK and Scottish government representation on the Energy Skills Alliance. This is nothing but an evident signal for their employers to take a deeper look at their workforce’ future, as already evidenced by ScottishPower and Shell creating new opportunities by offering new skills programs for newcomers into the energy industry and seasoned oil and gas workers.
Whether we like it or not, the green transition is taking place in our full view, and, if successful, it will undoubtedly benefit our planet. Successful, however, does not mean beneficial for everyone, and the human consequences are inevitable. The scale of the problem is still vague, but the panorama of the examples above offers a rough idea of how we should respond to the potential crisis. The first quality that will be needed here is a willingness to change with the rest of the world, where efforts of governments, companies and employers are equally important: the way to better future is paved by action-takers, not by idle talkers