In Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning novel Shuggie Bain, the main character relocates in the early 1980s to a bleak former mining community on the outskirts of Glasgow.
Stuart’s description of the local miners’ “pink hands that looked free of work” recalls the real-life fate of many British workers when big industries shrank or disappeared completely.
It is a description that has relevance today. The UK government’s official climate advisers on Wednesday urged politicians to heed the lessons from the closures of coal mines and steelworks, as the country tries to reduce its dependence on oil and gas.
“Net Zero need not carry the same risks,” said the Climate Change Committee. A CCC paper suggests the UK’s 2050 net zero emissions target could add anything between 135,000 and 725,000 net new jobs if the government plays its cards right.
The problem is that oil and gas workers do not share this optimism. In areas such as the north-east of Scotland, communities that depend on North Sea oil and gas for income and jobs worry they will go the same way as the former coal towns.
“There is a lot of concern amongst workers that there won’t be a future either in oil and gas or renewables,” said John Underhill, director of Aberdeen university’s energy transition centre.
Making it easier for oil and gas workers to transition to low-carbon energy industries is important not only for job security, but also to ensure the UK has enough people with the right skills to help meet its net zero target.
One current barrier is the cost of retraining, according to a recent report by the campaign groups Platform London and Friends of the Earth Scotland.
Large integrated companies such as BP move employees internally between oil and gas and wind projects. But for contractors who want to switch back and forth, retraining often has to be paid for out of their own pockets because the sectors have different accreditation bodies. This can be a particular source of frustration if workers feel there is duplication, unions say.
“Sometimes it’s £7,000 to get the various courses which might allow them on a [wind] job,” said Jake Molloy, who worked on these issues for years for the RMT union.
Unions have long pushed for a “digital skills passport”, so that workers would not have to duplicate training unnecessarily. Training standards bodies insist they are working on it. Opito, the oil and gas standards group, said it and other groups involved hoped to make the passport available “later this year”. But there have been reports of different vested interests creating blockages. Politicians must apply pressure until it is delivered.
Some oil and gas workers are also dubious about green job promises. They remain scarred by years of overly optimistic forecasts. In 2010, then prime minister Gordon Brown estimated that the offshore wind industry would create 70,000 jobs by 2020. The most recent data suggests the industry supports just under 20,000 “direct” jobs and a further 11,500 across the supply chain. RenewableUK, a trade body, says it expects total jobs to rise to 97,000 by 2030.
Critics of UK energy policy have complained for years, though, that most of the highly skilled wind manufacturing work takes place abroad. Conscious of this, the UK government has sought to attract more clean energy manufacturing facilities to low-tax “freeports”. The Scottish government has a 10-year, £500mn “just transition” fund to help develop the supply chain and promote domestic technologies. Requirements for companies to spell out how they will source more components locally are now included in processes such as seabed auctions.
Of course, not all oil and gas workers want to change. Some highlight lower salaries in the clean energy industry as a disincentive.
But overcoming downbeat perceptions also has consequences for the next generation, said Aberdeen university’s Underhill. The number of students studying geology at undergraduate level in the UK fell by almost 10 per cent between 2014 and 2019, he added. That is the case despite the fact that those skills will be needed in newer technologies such as carbon capture and storage.
Optimistic employment forecasts are all very well. But oil and gas communities still need to be convinced that they are not destined for the same outcome as that depicted in Shuggie Bain if the UK is to achieve its climate goals.