Schools scramble to meet demand for 'green' skills

Experts predict the renewable energy market will continue to grow but many wonder whether there will be enough skilled labour in Canada to fill the gap.
Workers accept delivery of wind turbine towers at the Pointe-Aux-Roches Wind Project in Essex County, Ont. on Nov. 26, 2010. Industry experts say the size of the future renewable job market is uncertain but many companies say they expect a shortage of skilled labour. (International Power Canada, Inc./Canadian Press)

Lucio Stavole has an idea about how to train students for new green energy jobs: Build an energy-efficient house on school property.

"We decided we would build an eco-home," says the head of the construction technology programs at Toronto’s Central Technical School, a high school that specializes in skilled trades.

The project is part of a Toronto school board initiative to get kids from a number of different disciplines — construction trades, geography, science and the like — more training and knowledge in so-called green industries. Stavole figures his students can fabricate a full-scale home right inside the aircraft hangar the school uses for big building projects.

Donald Wang wants to accomplish the same result — teach kids to get ready for jobs in the new energy economy. But, the Chair of Advanced Manufacturing and Automation Technology at Toronto’s Centennial College prefers a more traditional classroom approach.

In Centennial’s program, Wang’s students learn how to conduct energy audits, work on nuclear plants and perform other tasks that 20 years were seen as peripheral to the real economy, not integral to its future.

"We want to say to these industries, ‘we can help you,'" Wang says.

Donald Wang, Chair of Advanced Manufacturing and Automation Technology at Centennial College, teaches students the skills they need for new jobs in the green energy sector. ((Donald Wang))

For Darryl Pearce, who is studying to be an energy technician at Centennial, all this training has a more practical purpose.

"My employment opportunities were scarce in 2009. When the decision was made to go back to school, I felt that I wasn’t starting over in my career," he says.

Pearce wasn’t kidding about not wanting to re-start his career. After all, the 41-year old had spent years as an expert in automotive parts, specializing in plastic moldings.

"That desire [to get on with a new career] was easily transferable to the Green Energy sector, which was getting more and more media attention," Pearce says.

The New Economy

Both Central Tech and Centennial College are part of growing number of institutions that are trying to prepare students to take advantage of opportunities in the burgeoning green electricity field.

Indeed, many experts believe that developing sectors that can produce renewable energy, dispose of waster more effectively and make manufacturing processes use fewer resources is the next wave of development for Canada’s industrial sector.

"It’s 100 per cent possible. It’s a question of how we execute it," says Judith Lipp, executive director of the Toronto Renewable Energy Cooperative, a non-profit organization that develops renewable energy projects in Ontario.

But getting a clear picture of the potential job opportunities in the green energy sector is difficult. Given the newness of the companies and technologies associated with renewable energy, employment estimates are piecemeal.

The Canadian Solar Industries Association estimates the development of sun-based energy  could result in 35,000 new jobs across the country by 2025.

The Canadian Wind Energy Association figures the sector could create new employment for at least 52,000 men and women by 2025. By contrast, that association also calculates that there were just 3,785 people employed in the wind sector nationwide in 2006.

The Ontario government, meanwhile, estimates that its new legislation aimed at boosting green power will create 50,000 new jobs in the province over the next three years. But since passing Ontario’s Green Energy Act in 2010, the province has announced just under 3,000 new jobs associated with renewable energy, counting both the construction and operation of the facilities, according to the Ministry of Energy.

Closing the Green Gap

Filling all of these expected new jobs could prove to be a challenge, despite the expectation that overall unemployment in Canada and other industrial countries will remain high for the foreseeable future. Even with the efforts of people such as Stavole and Wang, there simply aren't enough workers in Canada with the necessary skills.

A worker underneath a turbine in Windy Point, Wash. on May 12, 2010. Judith Lipp from the Toronto Renewable Energy Cooperative says the green energy job sector will grow by more than 50 per cent by 2016. ((Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times))

"It’s going to be a scramble to fill these jobs," says TREC’s Lipp.

Her group estimates that the number of "green" industry jobs will grow by more than 50 per cent by 2016.

And, in some sectors, the workforce needs will expand even faster. A 2009 survey of Canadian solar power firms, for example, noted that  the industry anticipated the number of sun-energy jobs to double between 2008 and the end of 2011.

But, few companies believe the pipeline of new environmentally-trained graduates or experienced men and women shifting into these industries will be sufficient to make up the difference.

In that 2009 solar industry poll, more than 50 per cent of companies surveyed said they could face problems finding skilled workers for the available spots. And fully four out of five companies said they will see shortages in the installation and maintenance ends of the business, precisely the areas for which Centennial and Central Tech are training their students.

For new students and people seeking to be re-trained into these industries, there are a lot of things to learn.  In a 2010 report, ECO Canada, an employment search agency specializing in environmental jobs, cited these areas as the ones most in need of new workers:

  • Wind and solar energy;
  • Battery technology and power electronics;
  • Sustainability management and energy efficiency, and;
  • Environmental finance and emissions trading.

People are being attracted to these types of jobs as word of the opportunities spreads. Wang’s program alone has experience a four-fold growth in the number of students in two years, from 15 enrollees to 70.

But training people to fill all the vacancies could prove to be a slow job.

"You need a whole host of different skill sets," TREC’s Lipp says.

For example, Centennial’s diplomas are two to three years in duration, meaning that few new graduates will be ready for the workforce in the next year or two even though the renewable energy fields are beginning to expand in earnest.

Traditional Growth

Renewable energy isn’t the only type of power-generation that's experiencing a growth spurt in the demand for trained workers. While the use of green power is growing, the majority of Canada's electricity will continue to be generated by traditional methods — coal, fossil fuel and water — for the foreseeable future, experts maintain.

And while the development of renewable sources of electricity — whether wind, biomass or hydroelectric — has caught the attention of many Canadians, the traditional segments  of the energy sector also will be looking to add to their workforce over the next few years.

For instance, some estimates figure that Ontario Power Generation, the province’s main electrical utility, will lose between 800 and 1,500 skilled line workers and other technicians annually for the next five years, largely due to people reaching retirement age.

"That leaves a big void right now [for skilled labour]," says Centennial’s Wang. That means Canada’s schools also need to train people to fill traditional power-related jobs as well as to work with new technologies. Line work, specialized construction and turbine maintenance are examples of tasks that people might not think of in the new economy, but for which there is lots of demand.

As a result, the institutions are getting more creative about how they educate their students for actual jobs, Wang notes.

For example, Centennial has entered into an agreement whereby Ontario Power Generation took an active role in helping to design six courses in Wang’s program.

"That puts our foot in the door," he says, in terms of being able to provide the most relevant training and being able to fast-track students into high-demand jobs.