For Lesley Cartwright, the Covid-19 pandemic, and subsequent downturn in the UK North Sea oil and gas industry, were the factors that pushed her to change career and seek work in renewable energy.
Cartwright, from Ayrshire in the west of Scotland, had been a technical professional in the oil and gas industry based out of Aberdeen in the north east for 13 years. But she was among thousands of North Sea workers who lost their jobs as global energy demand plummeted during coronavirus lockdowns.
Cartwright says she had already been a “bit disenchanted with the oil and gas industry” even before she was made redundant. So losing her job became a spur to shift to the cleaner side of the energy sector.
And her career change is the kind of move that climate campaigners and many governments hope will be replicated by more oil and gas workers, in an effort to cut reliance on fossil fuels and meet stretching climate targets.
“I was quite lucky, I had a recruitment consultant [as] part of my redundancy, who helped me identify transferable skills,” says Cartwright. Based just outside the East Ayrshire town of Kilmarnock, she is now a senior project manager at consultants Natural Power.
Given her job is based on project management, Cartwright did not have to undergo prolonged retraining. But, and depending on workers’ role and type of employment, the shift from fossil fuels to green energy is not always so straightforward. Cartwright says she has since been asked “a lot of questions” from former colleagues in the oil and gas industry keen to make a similar move.
The workforce in north-east Scotland is something of a test case for what could happen elsewhere in the world. It has an ageing oil and gas basin and a fast-growing renewables industry, with offshore wind, in particular, forecast to undergo explosive growth in the next decade.
“This is a global issue and arguably the UK is ahead of the curve,” says John Underhill, energy transition director at Aberdeen University. He chairs the National Energy Skills Accelerator, an organisation set up to help the North Sea workforce prepare for a transition from fossil fuels.
The UK government made developing a “people and skills” plan — to ensure oil and gas workers find new opportunities — a key part of a “transition deal” struck with the North Sea industry in 2021.
For employees of big integrated energy companies, such as BP and Equinor, the transition can be fairly smooth, with retraining paid for by their employer. As in Cartwright’s experience, skills such as project management are more easily transferred.
But unions and climate campaigners warn of challenges for contractors and offshore workers, who also want to take advantage of the growth in renewables in Britain — by switching to offshore wind installations, for example.
A survey of more than 600 offshore oil and gas workers published last year, by climate organisations including Platform, Greenpeace and the trade unions RMT and Unite Scotland, found contractors were having to spend an average of £1,800 annually out of their own pockets to duplicate training. This was because there were different certification schemes — run by separate accreditation bodies — for the renewables and oil and gas industries.
Training organisations such as Opito — a not-for-profit body based in Aberdeen — have since acknowledged the “fragmented approach” and, in March, promised a “digital passport” to allow offshore workers’ existing training to be recognised across both fossil and green energy industries.
Even so, campaigners such as Rosemary Harris of Platform are frustrated at the pace of progress: “Workers are still finding it hard to transition, [are] worried about their futures and are still paying for their training at a time when the oil and gas industry is making massive profits.”
Underhill admits government funding to assist retraining is an issue in many markets. “Everywhere, financial support for this is scarce,” he says.
In Germany and Sweden, the transition from oil and gas is throwing up similar challenges.
Philipp Schröder — chief executive of Bremen-based equipment supplier 1KOMMA5, which helps consumers reduce emissions from their homes by fitting low carbon systems such as electric heat pumps — says it is hard for fossil fuel workers in technical positions, such as heating installers, to shift to the clean energy sector.
“Their main expertise is with hydronics,” he notes. “They have no experience when it comes to electrification.” Hydronics expertise is no use when it comes to fitting low carbon systems, adds Schröder, whose previous roles include Tesla’s country director for Germany and Austria.
Companies such as his can retrain installers, but he says governments could help by paying 50 per cent of workers’ salaries during that process. “Right now, we take the entire cost on our expense.”
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