Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Wanted: Good green energy jobs

Wind and solar energy projects don't create a lot of jobs and the ones they do create don't pay all that well

By Marjorie Griffin Cohen and John Calvert
Vancouver Sun
October 27, 2011

The energy sector is often promoted as an area where a "winwin" situation exists for labour and climate change policy. The prevailing view is that the economy will create many good new jobs as it shifts from dirty energy production to clean, renewable energy.

We wish this were so, but our study of employment in the energy sector finds that these claims are largely wishful thinking. While there are new developments, overall Canadian energy policy is "more of the same." It is explicitly driven by private-marketbased decisions, rather than careful planning by governments to ensure both good environmental and labour outcomes. To the extent that there is public planning, it is focused on delivering outcomes the energy industry wants. This planning failure has implications both for the lack of greening of the energy sector, and the types of jobs being created.

In the oil-and-gas sector, despite industry "green" washing, employment growth is largely based on increasing production from non-conventional fossil fuels (oilsands, shale and tight gas). These newer extraction methods are environmentally even more damaging than conventional oil and gas production.

According to the National Energy Board, by 2020 the oilsands will account for 75 per cent of the oil industry and shale and tight gas will be 66 per cent of the gas industry. The resulting jobs are similar to those created in the past, with a heavy reliance on construction trades, particularly in the oilsands, but also in other areas such as pipeline construction. Government reliance on market forces has resulted in a failure to take advantage of the full employment potential of valueadded manufacturing and fossil fuel processing.

New, renewable industries, such as wind and solar, are more labourintensive than existing electricity production, but still constitute a very small proportion of the energy market so far - less than one per cent. While these industries are likely to grow their job creation potential is relatively small. But most significant is that the new jobs are often not good jobs and employment conditions are generally inferior to those in publiclyowned utilities.

The B.C. government, through its various energy initiatives during the past decade, shifted new electricity generation from BC Hydro to the private sector. This is a very expensive development, primarily because this generation is private and smallscale. But despite the high cost, it has resulted in less secure, less wellpaid work mainly because the private power industry has a much lower rate of unionization than its public counterpart. Almost all of the jobs created are short-term construction jobs with comparatively few permanent positions.

In virtually all areas of energy development there are skills shortages and the need for additional training, including in the renewables sector. These shortages are found in a wide range of different occupations and point to the pressing need to expand Canada's training and apprenticeship system. The traditional energy labour force has been largely male and drawn from within Canada. However, to meet anticipated skills shortages employers are actively looking for other demographics within Canada and, increasingly, from developing countries, although under immigration arrangements that usually entails low wages and less favourable working conditions. A good start would be training support that focused on training women and other groups that are vastly under-represented in this industry.

Our study also examines the role of organized labour in advancing green jobs in the energy sector. Trade unions have developed a number of concrete proposals, defined as a "just transition" strategy to meet the challenge of global warming. Their goal is both to expand green employment and to ensure that new "green" jobs are decent jobs. However, neither federal, nor provincial governments have included trade unions as players in the policy process. They should be because they have much to offer.

The lack of a coherent national green employment strategy is a reflection of the larger failure of Canadian governments to recognize the seriousness of the climate crisis. It underlines the need to establish a national policy that focuses on restructuring the economy - and the energy sector - to respond to this crisis. Most significant for this will be linking energy production with the manufacturing sector because this is where most 'green' jobs can be created.

A national energy strategy must include a much stronger government role in including working people and environmentalists in shaping Canada's energy and environmental security. It should also include a comprehensive training and employment program based on the premise that green jobs should be decent jobs and available to a wider range of workers.

Marjorie Griffin Cohen is a professor of political economy at Simon Fraser University and John Calvert is an associate professor in the faculty of health sciences. Both are members of the SFU Morgan Centre for Labour Studies.

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