Developing green skills for a sustainable WA economy

The development of WA’s renewable energy sector has attracted attention in recent months, particularly regarding investment in hydrogen. The WA government has committed $160 million to the state’s renewable hydrogen industry, and in April Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced another $140 million for two West Australian hydrogen hubs set to create 3,000 new jobs. The transition to a low-carbon economy means restructuring different sectors, especially in the labour market. As our research shows, Western Australia is uniquely placed to be a global renewable energy superpower. Yet, a considerable effort is required today to reskill and upskill WA’s future workforce.

Clean State’s Jobs Plan shows that hundreds of thousands of jobs could be facilitated through a decarbonised economy. As international agreements and markets accelerate the shift to net-zero, it’s critical to understand how transitioning and emerging industries can be scaled through the development of a skilled ‘green workforce’.

On 5 April 2022, we brought together leading experts from the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science & Innovation (JTSI), the Department of Training and Workforce Development, the State Training Board, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA (CCIWA), the Minerals Research Institute of Western Australia (MRIWA), the Chamber of Minerals and Energy (CME), the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre (FBICRC), the School Curriculum and Standards Authority, South Metropolitan TAFE, Edith Cowan University and Murdoch University. A summary of our key findings from the roundtable discussion is outlined below.

Everyone will need green skills

Different industries use different definitions for green skills. Some refer to green skills as those needed exclusively in ‘green industries,’ for example in land care and conservation. From our discussion, we determined that green skills are more than that – we define green skills as all knowledge and abilities needed to support a more sustainable economy.

Using a cross-sectoral approach, green skills must be developed across the entire WA economy. This means investing in skills for jobs, including electricians who will enable the scaled uptake of renewable energy; construction workers with energy efficiency, water management and insulation skills; as well as green skills in the tourism sector around waste recycling, biodiversity, and conservation.

Like transferable digital skills, green skills are in fact already being used in many industries that are not directly related to green economic activities, including fleet management, data science, health, fashion, and agriculture. As such, green skills will not be limited to those who choose careers in the environmental sector. They will apply and be required across the board, in every occupation, and every sector. This is the centrepiece of an inclusive transition to net-zero.

Why are green skills important?

International agreements on climate change are driving federal and state economies to become more sustainable. This transition will inevitably require and deliver structural changes to the WA economy, especially the labour market. Industry will increasingly demand green skills-equipped talent to design, develop and deliver climate solutions, as well as sustainable goods and services. It is crucial to support workforce development that aligns with the needs of the industry. Otherwise, the labour market will face skills shortages and skills mismatches resulting in excessive costs for employers. Moreover, because Australia’s economy relies so heavily on skilled migrants there are huge risks to the labour market if vacancies are not filled. The global pandemic highlighted how out of date the nation’s skilled migrant policies are. This is especially true in Western Australia, where our remoteness and strict border closures have resulted in major skills shortages, forcing many businesses to ‘turn down work.

Future labour markets will be severely impacted unless workers and employers start adapting now. A lack of green skills will hold back WA’s ability to participate in international markets, innovate, develop new solutions and reduce carbon emissions. Yet, despite evidence from leading organisations including the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, PWC and even our own research on the benefits of decarbonisation, we are a long way off from skilling the workforce at scale to meet climate goals.

To accelerate the transition, collaboration between government, industry, the education sector and training providers is critical. From our roundtable discussion, we have developed a green skills SWOT analysis that helps identify the weaknesses and opportunities for WA’s greening labour market.

What are our strengths and opportunities?

Green skills courses
We have the opportunity to develop and deliver courses to meet the demands of the changing labour market. While sustainability degrees have existed for some time, there are several new courses available to students that want to learn about new forms of energy production. These include, for example, Murdoch University’s undergraduate major Renewable Energy Engineering and the Graduate Diploma in Energy and Carbon Studies. Edith Cowan University also teaches carbon literacy to its business students. Vocational education and training (VET) packages are also being developed in conjunction with the State Training Board and supported by 70+ training councils including the Resources Industry Training Council. These include the Certificate III in Sustainable Energy and the Diploma and Advanced Diploma in Renewable Energy.

Migration
We have the opportunity to update interstate migration protocols​, for example by including emerging skills (and specifically, emerging green skills) in the state-nominated Migration Program Graduate Stream. We can also adjust the state’s priority occupation list to encourage more green skilled migration.

Battery production
WA has the potential to lead the global battery industry and has already begun processing critical minerals​. ​The Future Battery Industries CRC’s Future Charge report shows that if we develop our critical minerals industry sustainably to include processing and refining, the jobs creation potential could increase from 18,700 to 34,700 ‘diversified battery industry’ roles across Australia. About two-thirds of those jobs are expected to come from the vocational sector and about one-third from university graduates.

FBICRC: Future Charge

FBICRC is also calling on governments and other organisations to help co-fund a $750 million Australian Battery Institute – which will see 4000 people per year trained at universities and TAFE’s to support the development of the battery industry.

Battery integration
The FBICRC’s report Vocational Skills Gaps Assessment and Workforce Development Plan shows how skillsets for battery production in WA would include those for electricians to maintain battery storage systems and automotive mechanics to manage electric vehicles in the near future.

Green skills education
While critical minerals and renewable energy are perhaps our strongest opportunities on paper, there is potential for ‘green jobs and skills’ to be an industry in and of itself. One of Australia’s national top five grossing industries is education. Given WA’s potential to be a global renewable superpower, we could also develop and deliver a world-class green skills education and training sector, fortifying that future as a possibility.

Greater collaboration
There is a willingness to collaborate between industry, education institutions and government to identify skill gaps. Entities may provide information about skills profiles, training programs, and emerging skills gaps and skills mismatches. This data will support the Department of Training and Workforce Development to identify emerging occupations and start building training pathways and markets in areas of demand.

What are our weaknesses and threats?

Several weaknesses need to be addressed within the WA green skills system before meaningful development can happen.

The supply-demand paradox
Perhaps the most frequently cited obstacle to green skills development is the ‘supply-demand paradox’ of training provision. There is a perception that industry leaders and education providers are at an impasse: educators need guidance from industry to determine what skills are required, but industry cannot know what it requires until the skills shortage is already evident. The Certificate III in Sustainable Energy is a microcosm of this unique problem. Although the course was developed for secondary students, industry feedback has shown it is not suitable for their needs. Emerging green jobs industries will need to work very closely with the education and training sector to develop precise green skills courses. 

Education
School-level educators are attempting to determine when and how climate and renewables should formally enter the curriculum, e.g., in primary school, secondary school or under vocational training. It is critical that students undertake the right qualification at the right time to encourage matriculation, but balancing short and long-term curriculum change is a challenge. Constant cyclical change in curriculum is stressful for schools because teachers need to acquire new skills to develop new programmes. Nevertheless, there is consensus that climate and new energy learning should start as early as possible and continue through the full education and training journey.

Another major barrier schools face is a general lack of awareness about the breadth and depth of green careers. While there are already certificates and diplomas available in secondary school for VET students, there are currently zero students enrolled in them. The same was true in 2021. Practitioners in this sector highlighted that they feel they need to ‘sell the skills’ needed for the green economy to current school students. But to do that, the system requires career influencers – such as parents and teachers, as well as career guidance counsellors – to be aware of emerging industries. This cannot be done in a one-off ‘new energy seminar’. All career influences must be educated about future career opportunities on an ongoing basis.

Training
Inflexible training provision is another barrier to green upskilling and reskilling. Often individuals that need green skills training are already working on mine sites, in trades, schools, university or research roles – so training needs to be more flexible to reach all of them. Secondly, a strengthened focus on existing workers could accelerate the green skills transition as those who are looking to upskill enter courses sooner. Anecdotal evidence suggests high numbers of coal, oil, and gas workers are looking to transition out of the fossil fuel industry by enrolling in these courses and are applying pre-existing skills to the energy sector. A third barrier is the existing apprenticeship model. One solution is reducing the length of certain apprenticeships from 3-4 years to a micro-skilling program that would encourage more young people into these roles.

Minimal border mobility
Western Australia’s reliance on migrant workers, particularly engineers, is a policy weakness. Border mobility and slow visa processing are hampering access to skilled workers, and therefore our progress in realising a sustainable economy. The state’s skilled migration list also needs to reflect the difficulty and length of training. Access to overseas workers is a time-consuming process with some visas for PhD students taking over 16 months to process. Additionally, international students and skilled migrators may face difficulties connecting with the industry and are forced to undertake unskilled jobs or work outside their area of expertise. Skilled migration and the international education sector are critical to delivering and captivating the green skills that cannot be filled by the state workforce.

Improper transitions
A final threat to WA’s green skills transition is undertaking an improper transition. As one participant pointed out, the environmental cost of oil and gas is high, but the environmental and social cost of wind farms can be high, too, if not implemented carefully and with the guidance and input of key regional stakeholders who already have strong green skills and local knowledge – for example, Traditional Owners and farmers. We need to understand what that cost is for communities and ecosystems moving forward – because understanding that cost will guide us in developing a genuinely sustainable, accessible and inclusive green skills future.

Where to from here?

The unilateral takeaway from our roundtable is that there must be a collaboration between government, industry, and education providers to address skills gaps and strengthen WA’s opportunity to develop skills for a sustainable economy.

While some great work is underway to develop skills for battery production and more recently green hydrogen, overall training does not meet the pace of change. Key stakeholders must be empowered to develop and deliver new skills that are dynamic and market-ready. Only then will WA be able to take full advantage of the transition to net-zero and our greening economy.

To find out more about WA’s transition to a decarbonised economy, have a look around the Clean State website. You can also reach out anytime for comment using the contact form below.

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