Canada facing skilled talent crunch in clean energy sector

Shortfall in managerial, experienced tech and entry-level talent a growing worry for the sector’s employers in Canada

EV charging stations in Metro Vancouver | Chung Chow

Canada’s clean energy transition needs more than fossil fuel options. It needs a wide range of human resources options and talent to drive that transition.

And it needs a lot of that HR horsepower, according to new research from the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC).

Clean Energy and Pathways to Net-Zero maps out an in-depth overview of Canada’s clean energy sector and the myriad challenges and opportunities it offers.

But one key focus of the report is the country’s clean energy talent pool. And therein lies one of the main challenges for the sector in Canada: The pool needs filling, if the country has any hope of decarbonizing its economy and reaching net-zero by 2050.

The good news is that ICTC estimates the Canadian energy labour force will total nearly 640,000 by 2030 compared with approximately 430,500 in 2021 and will continue to grow around four per cent annually over the next decade; the bad news is that the talent pool as currently constructed is not up to the task of meeting the current or future demand for research and development, design, engineering, technology, trades, business and marketing and environmental services skills.

The same goes for soft skills ranging from environmental sustainability expertise and core digital skills to technical know-how.

With Canada’s demographic shift of baby-boomers aging out of the workforce, the country’s clean energy sector, along with most other industries, faces a deep deficit of mid-to-senior level managers and technical expertise.

But the report from the ICTC, a non-profit research organization spun off about 30 years ago from what was the federal government’s Human Resources Council, also points out that there is a concerning shortage of entry-level raw material that clean energy needs.

“The employers we spoke to really stressed that they have a lot of struggles finding skilled labour,” said the report’s co-author Allison Clark, an ICTC research and policy analyst, “and that there’s really a labour shortage in the energy sector.”

The ICTC survey of 312 students in natural resources and environmental science career paths found that while nearly half were interested in a career in clean energy, one-fifth had no interest in the sector, in part because they believed there would be no entry-level opportunities for them in clean energy.

Also, while 70 per cent of the students surveyed said they were proficient in geography and surveying technology, close to 75 per cent were not confident in their knowledge or proficiency with cloud infrastructure and tools.

They also reported limited environmental science and technology knowledge, low awareness of environmental legislation and agreements and Canadian environmental practices.

All of the above skills are important and in demand, according to employers in the clean energy sector.

But many of those and other tech and soft skills are also important and in demand in other sectors in Canada and in the wider world.

A survey of top stakeholders in the U.S. water industry compiled by Black & Veatch, a global engineering and infrastructure development consulting company, found that 51 per cent of respondents ranked an aging workforce and hiring qualified staff as their No. 2 overall business challenge for 2023. It was eclipsed only by their need to replace aging water and wastewater infrastructure.

For Canada’s clean energy businesses, the most acute human resources challenges will be in its fastest growing subsectors. The clean building industry, for example, is projected to post a 14.2 per cent compound annual growth over the next seven years. A boom in vehicle and public transit electrification will also be driving a rapid expansion of the clean transportation sector.

But it won’t be much of an expansion without a deep pool of skilled labour, especially managerial expertise.

The ICTC’s survey of 74 energy companies underscored that marketplace reality.

As Clark noted, “Clean energy employers said that they have a really hard time finding skilled senior level talent. Project managers are probably the hardest thing to find. And it’s because the clean energy sector is growing so fast that there just aren’t a lot of people that have, for example, 10 to 15 years of experience in the sector.”

According to the study’s energy company interviewees, the top three in-demand roles cited were project managers, engineering and skilled construction and utilities trades.

Ironically, Canada’s much-maligned fossil fuel industry could help its clean energy counterpart, because clean energy also needs many of the skills oil and gas workers have.

Reskilling those workers for clean energy opportunities is therefore one part of the sector’s skills deficit solution.

But the other lies in an education and career training system that is not meeting the demands of the 21st century’s jobs market.

The ICTC report found, for instance, that some of the clean energy employers surveyed said that “Canadian universities are not adequately preparing students for the clean energy sector—in part because their teachings do not align with industry needs.”

Clark added that the employers were especially concerned that the “clean energy sector is evolving so fast, and that education just can’t keep up and they’re going to be training students on dated information.”

Or as one of the employers quoted in the report stated: “Our main concern is … the risk of a widening skills gap caused by the continued use of traditional models of education, many of which are not appropriate for preparing young people to enter the workforce of a transitioning energy sector.”

What to do?

The ICTC report lists several steps to reduce that gap and deepen the country’s current and future clean energy talent pool.

They include developing new school curriculums and providing more on-the-job training, internships and work placements that help inform both prospective employees and employers of career options and realities.

In addition, mentorships and other programs designed to cultivate managerial and leadership skills are critically important.

Canada is also in a global competition for skilled talent on every front.

But when it comes to clean energy, Clark said the country has several advantages because Canada is rich in natural resources in general and clean energy options such as hydro, tidal and geothermal in particular.

“So, I think that that will really allow Canada to be able to grow clean energy, because we do have such great opportunity there, just with the nature of our country.”

She added that clean energy’s diversity of opportunities should make it an attractive career destination for a wide variety of people with a wide variety of skills – not all of which need to be focused on clean energy.

“So, I would say, although maybe it’s really hard for them to find the skills, I don’t know if that should deter people who don’t have all the right skills from thinking of a career in clean energy.”