Just Transition: Workers must vanguard a skills revolution to a net-zero economy

The transition presents unique economic opportunities necessitating the need for South Africa to build a skills roadmap that addresses the Just Energy Transition, says the author.

The transition presents unique economic opportunities necessitating the need for South Africa to build a skills roadmap that addresses the Just Energy Transition, says the author.

Published Oct 25, 2023


By Devan Pillay

The global climate change impacts pose significant challenges to economic growth and employment anticipated to increase in the medium and long-term.

At the same time, fossil fuel energy sectors will experience declining jobs and opportunities necessitating new programmes for training, upskilling or reskilling programmes for existing workers. It will bring profound shifts in employment, including massive new opportunities.

The employment conundrum of the Just Transition also needs to address the value chain where these jobs are located, including raw materials, manufacturing, construction, utilities, and wholesale, new built projects including operating and maintenance of plants.

The most dialectical response to these crisis-cum-opportunity is for workers to lead the transition and be true to their proletariat principle as foremost members of the community and society before they are workers. For these thousands of workers, beyond the anxiety and uncertainties, an unjust transition poses an existential risk to their employment and their livelihoods, but equally there are opportunities for a transformed labour market into the future.

It is common knowledge that the transition will not only see shifts in the coal and power generation sectors, but rather a reverberation through the whole economy and the labour markets. It there beholds all of us to lead the scaling-up of transition strategies and related skills needs of employers, workers and communities who are the value chain workforce behind these sectors.

A critical enabler for the energy transition will be to have the availability of appropriate and suitably qualified skills. However, South Africa suffers structural mismatch between the demand for skills and the supply of skills. What mechanism do we need to have in place to enable demand-led skills interventions for the Just Transition?

As the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), we have identified a need to unpack the skills in the extended and connected value chains in the renewable energy, green hydrogen, sustainable transportation, energy storage, smart technologies, and mining industries, which has critical implications on current jobs and new occupations and skills for the energy and other productive sectors of a net-zero climate-resilient economy.

In May, we released a report titled “A Critical Appraisal of the Just Energy Transition Investment Plan”, in which we made recommendations to the President that the estimation for skills development in the Just Energy Transition Investment Plan is inadequate for the upskilling the workforce and new entrants, reskilling of affected workers, curricula development, capacitation of trainer etc.

Therefore, a review of existing skills and training programmes can provide valuable insights for others embarking on their own energy transitions.

The Just Transition requires us to unpack skills in extended value chains for emerging industries. These include green hydrogen, sustainable transportation, energy storage, renewable energy smart technologies and mining for critical minerals. What are the challenges with planning for emerging industries and how have you as an organisation overcome it?

Additionally greater emphasis should be placed on long-term research programmes for future skills development planning with a focus on answering what kind of skills needed and what approaches should be considered for this, the labour market transition and transformation.

The Energy Skills Roadmap, which was developed by South African National Energy Association in partnership with Wits Business School’s Africa Energy Leadership Centre and the University of Witwatersrand’s Centre for Researching Education and Labour, identify that skills requirement for the energy sector system necessitates an ecosystem and integrated approach and acknowledgement of the transformative process that is occurring over time and in local geographic areas.

On November 1, the PCC will host its Inaugural Skills Indaba to interrogate the skills landscape of the decarbonising economy, seeking to explore the implications of the climate transition for future labour market and skills requirements, to understand current or planned research in relation to climate transition-induced labour market shifts, and to explore integration of climate transition into existing skills planning system.

It is important to start identifying the skills required and build a skills development map, to “ready” the skills system for new value chains and competences.

This means that the skills system needs to be prepared ahead of the energy transitions and technological developments. Such a system can only be harnessed by investment in curriculum development, trainer capacitation, internship programmes, job shadowing and fast track the upskilling of high priority skills to minimise importation of these technical skills.

The transition presents unique economic opportunities necessitating the need for South Africa to build a skills roadmap that addresses the Just Energy Transition.

As the PCC, we can only find comfort in a human resource development strategy (HRDS) that seizes the novel opportunity to redesign, streamline and realign the education and skills system.

Devan Pillay is the Presidential Climate Committee head, Skills Development and Economic Diversification.