Europe needs a green skills revolution to fully harness solar and wind

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: David Alexandru Timis, Community Champion, Brussels Hub, Generation

  • Under-represented groups risk being excluded from the green economy without the right skills.
  • The solar and wind industry are particularly struggling to find workers.
  • Demographic shifts, a digital skills shortfall and a reluctance to do physical jobs are partly to blame.

As the European Union and the United States set ever-more ambitious targets to address climate change, the number of job vacancies in the green economy is increasing. However, the supply of skilled talent remains low for these in-demand green sector jobs.

In Europe, it is estimated that 18 million people will need to be reskilled for the continent to reach its climate goals. Reducing Europe’s net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, in line with the European Green Deal, will certainly require a continent-wide reskilling effort.

The green sector offers enormous potential for job creation in the coming years, but we have to make sure that all citizens, no matter their socio-economic and educational background, can harvest its benefits in full, especially under-represented and marginalized communities: youth, migrants and women are at risk of being excluded from the green economy.

As the number of green jobs continues to grow, these vulnerable groups of people risk being further left behind if prevailing market barriers and employer biases are not addressed. The need to create equitable and inclusive access to the skills and pathways for jobs in the growing green sector has never been more relevant and pressing than today.

The green skills gap

We cannot reach our climate goals and ensure a smooth transition to a green economy without a workforce equipped with the relevant skills. The skills shortage is the most severe in the solar and wind industries.

In the EU, more than 1 million solar workers will be needed by 2030 to meet higher renewable energy targets set recently to end the region’s reliance on Russian oil and gas. In 2022 alone, solar employment in the EU rose by an estimated 30%.

Globally, it is estimated that a total of 568,800 wind technicians will be needed by 2026 to install, operate and maintain the growing fleet of global onshore and offshore wind turbines. In the US alone, by 2031 the employment rate of wind technicians is projected to grow 44%.

There are several reasons behind the skills shortage plaguing the solar and wind industries. Wider demographic shifts experienced by several countries are one possible explanation. For example Germany, Europe’s largest solar market, is predicted to lack 5 million workers by 2030 as long-term falling birth rates reduce the number of people entering the job market.

Growing supply chain and logistics issues and volatile prices continue to hound developers following the war in Ukraine and the global economic rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic. While these disruptions are not currently having a major impact on solar and wind projects, they must be taken into account as a reason for the skills shortage in these sectors.

At the same time, the increasing competitiveness of the solar sector and ambitious installation targets mean that demand for workers is rising faster than in other sectors. Moreover, solar companies are not only vying among themselves to hire the top talent, they are also competing with wind companies looking for workers with similar skills.

Generational prejudices

The increased use of technology in the solar and wind industries means there will be a growing demand in the coming years for people with data analysis and coding skills. However, companies in the tech sector are already struggling to find people with digital skills, and so, solar and wind companies are likely to be faced with a similar shortage.

Another possible explanation for the solar and wind skills shortage is due to the negative messaging about skilled trade work presented to millennial and Gen Z workers. After years of promoting going to university and getting a degree as being the only path to a strong economic future, we’ve ended up with a shortage of electricians, welders, etc.

The final reason solar and wind companies are struggling to find workers is because most people don’t know about the opportunities offered in this burgeoning field. They don’t know what green jobs are, and even if they do, given that many are physical jobs, they are less appealing to people compared to roles in the tech and healthcare sectors.

Reskilling for net zero

The start of this decade has seen more than its share of crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the conflict in the Ukraine, and growing economic uncertainty. Though we can’t predict when these challenges will fade, one crisis will persist: climate change, which is the single greatest threat and opportunity of our time.

For almost three centuries since the dawn of the first Industrial Revolution, which brought us among other innovations water and steam power and mechanization, human ingenuity has produced remarkable inventions and unprecedented prosperity for much of the world. But, this has come largely from the use of fossil fuels that have produced large amounts of CO2.

With many countries and companies around the world making pledges to reduce emissions, the clean energy transition seems to be an inevitability. And that transition will undoubtedly have an impact on employment, as the demand for cleaner fuels shifts attention away from fossil fuels. However, it’s quite likely that not every sector will see a net gain of employment.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

This transition to a net zero world will require sweeping changes in every sector of the economy in every country in the world. And we must achieve all this in only three decades. Clearly, no single entity can meet this reskilling challenge alone. The key will be to establish multistakeholder partnerships to prepare the world’s workforce for the green economy.

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