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‘Net-zero’ targets boost demand for green engineers

Green skills deficit in labour force threatens economy’s growth potential: RBC report
Climate change is increasing the need to train new engineers and retrain their experienced counterparts, an RBC report finds | Pramote Polyamate/Moment/Getty Images

The Canadian economy’s “green shift” will create a demand for a new generation of engineers with new areas of expertise, a recent report says.

According to Green Collar Jobs, RBC economists say that as many as 3.1 million Canadian jobs “will be disrupted over the next 10 years as the country transitions toward a Net Zero economy.”

That accounts for as much as 15 per cent of the country’s labour force. The report, released last month, further noted that certain “highly-paid, highly-skilled” positions will face more dramatic changes initially, and engineering will be among the sectors most affected.

“Managers in engineering, architecture, utilities and manufacturing are already seeing over 50% of their tasks shift due to the climate transition — five times that of managers on average,” the report said. “Companies like Vancouver’s Ballard Power Systems [TSX:BLDP], at the forefront of the energy transition, will need engineers trained in the rapidly-evolving technology of hydrogen fuel cells.”

The report estimates that such a demand – if not met with the proper retraining of engineers and the education of engineering graduates – may mean a dramatic labour shortfall in Canadian engineering.

“That shortfall will be more painful in some sectors than others,” the report continued. “For instance, Canada will be short about 7,500 senior managers and 7,300 engineers and physical scientists as demand for these skills soars. As clean electricity grows as a key source of energy, workers with electrical skills will be highly sought after. Overall, by 2030, 98,000 new positions will be created in jobs where skills won’t change but will be in increased demand due to the climate transition.”

Mehran Ahmadi is one of the report’s contributors.

The associate director and lecturer at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) School of Sustainable Energy Engineering is a top researcher in the sustainable building and net-zero construction practices. He said retraining engineers to meet the green challenge shouldn’t take a long time.

He noted that schools like SFU have already shifted away from offering just traditional, single-discipline engineering programs and are instead focusing on multi-discipline training that will give new engineers flexibility and a wide range of expertise to handle sustainable designs.

The key challenge, however, is educating stakeholders to how the costs of such changes add overall value to a project.

“I think the traditional way of thinking [in construction] is to look at how to cut the cost,” Ahmadi said. “But it is important that you look into the long-term and know that when they invest in something, the cost will come down. It’s not the quarterly or annual concept of cost we should be calculating. The trades, engineers and developers are only involved with stability of a building for a maximum of five years, right? But the building will be there for 100 years or so. So in our life-cycle assessment, we need to look into that 100 years in terms of impact.”

Ahmadi added that as municipal, provincial and federal governments realize the costs of climate change and energy conservation, regulations will be introduced more frequently, forcing industry to change. When it does, the private sector stakeholders who made the investment to train and bring in engineers with an understanding of sustainable materials, building practices and project designs will reap the rewards.

With costs often being the definitive factor in aiding or hindering change, Ahmadi said government incentives must play a role in getting the private sector over the initial hump.

When asked about how B.C. is doing in the effort to bring more “green engineers” online, Ahmadi’s reaction is mixed.

“Based on my experience … I see lots of good things that are happening. I even compare ourselves specifically in the building industry with California, which is a progressive state in the United States. I think we are going even further than [California] in getting the building industry moving towards sustainability. So this is the good news.

“The bad news,” he said, is that it’s “not enough.”

According to the RBC report, the cost of not doing enough is significant.

“Now, a failure to get enough Canadians with the right green skills into the labour force could further limit our growth potential,” the report said. “As early as 2025, the country could be short roughly 27,000 environmental workers, a category that includes those employed by green firms or engaged in green tasks.”

As with the construction sector, the greening of manufacturing and other industries will be holistic, the report said, meaning the demand will stretch from professionals like engineers and architects to ground-level trades and labourers.

“In some cases, the workers experiencing the biggest changes will be those directing the transition,” the report emphasized. “Specialized managers planning for new production processes in engineering, architecture, utilities and manufacturing are already experiencing a shift in over 50% of their tasks. Some task changes won’t require major retraining, but others will.” •