The numbers are impressive. In his first ‘state of the Union’ address last September, José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, said he wanted to see three million “green jobs” by 2020. This is laudable, but preparing Europe’s workforce for a low-carbon future is in practice more about providing people with a new set of skills than a new set of jobs.
Some dispute that a ‘green’ economic sector even exists. “It does not,” says Antonio Ranieri from Cedefop, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training. “You can better compare it to IT; it is cross-cutting.”
Andrea Benassi, secretary- general of Ueapme, the European craft and SME association, agrees: “The whole economy will change.”
Cedefop’s latest green skills study, published in 2010 in conjunction with the International Labour Organization, came to the surprising conclusion that the most pronounced impact of the transition to a green economy would be to force change on existing jobs. It also found that a gap in generic skills, from management to communication, impedes this transition just as much as a shortage in technical skills.
Ranieri believes that policymakers ultimately have the responsibility for preparing workers for the future. And there is some evidence that policymakers are starting to act. In its draft energy-efficiency action plan, the Commission notes that the current 1.1 million workers qualified to work on efficiency and renewables in buildings will have risen to 2.5m by 2015. It will launch a ‘building workforce training and qualification’ initiative this year to help member states adapt their construction sectors to the demands of low-carbon renovations.
At member-state level, says Ranieri, there is too often still a lack of co-ordination between low-carbon growth strategies and skills plans. He says that only a few countries, such as France and the UK, have attempted this integration.
Meanwhile, industrial initiatives are under way at national, regional and local level to transform the workforce. Cedefop emphasises the need for conversion efforts, examples of which include programmes to turn construction workers into energy auditors in Estonia, electric and heating installers into solar entrepreneurs in Germany, and commodity traders into carbon traders in the UK.
In the wind sector, the Windskill project in 2006-09 was a first initiative by the industry to address a skills gap, in particular in engineering, by developing a pan-European qualification structure for installation and maintenance staff (70% of the sector’s workforce).
The European Wind Energy Industry Association expects its members to create a quarter of a million new jobs over the next decade.
Europe’s transition to a low-carbon economy depends on a supply of adequately trained people, says Ranieri. For the construction sector, it is already evident that the skills shortage will become more acute as radical building renovations become more common. Training requirements present a challenge, especially for resource-strapped SMEs.
To overhaul the buildings sector properly, the old adage that you ‘pay to save’ must be replaced, says Benassi. “Companies must see energy [efficiency] not as a cost-saving but as a real opportunity to grow.”
It is up to policymakers to make the case for this.
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