Youth Engagement in the Future Electricity Workforce
- The electricity sector needs to better brand itself as the leading force in Canada for decarbonization in order to attract youth talent and raise awareness of the sector.
- There is a skills gap in terms of what the energy sector needs to achieve its goals and what educational institutions are doing to train prospective energy workers.
- Youth, especially those from marginalized communities, face significant challenges in accessing careers in the energy sector.
Politicians and industry leaders for the energy sector need to turn their eyes to the potential of the youth to help transform the sector. Youths’ demands for decarbonization efforts should be harnessed instead of ignored, with resources and funding going into helping the youth better access opportunities in the sector.
What are the main forces reshaping the Canadian energy and electricity sector and workforce?
A big force reshaping the energy sector is the call for electrification in Canada and an increased demand for electricity as a product. When the climate strikes were happening, I met people from the electricity sector and we talked about how we were having climate elections where people were winning elections based on votes for the climate. We are seeing calls for electrification and decarbonization through the Fridays For Future movement and other youth movements.
The electricity sector needs to be prepared to both attract and train young talent, not to leave the political will for their sector on the table. The energy system is really complex and we need people who are able to grapple with this complexity and think about community-based solutions. Young people are well-positioned to do that. Those are the big challenges ahead for the electricity workforce: harnessing talent, interest, and momentum, and making a more inclusive sector where we train people for the challenges that we need them to address.
How interested are young Canadians in working in the electricity sector and what opportunities are available for them?
The electricity sector has a lot of work to do to brand itself to harness the talent that is coming out of interest in both the energy sector and climate movements. People are not making the connections they should be between being interest in a meaningful career that acts on climate and the need to work in the energy sector. Once they make that shift, there is a huge number of opportunities in the energy and electricity sector for young people.
“The electricity sector has a lot of work to do to brand itself to harness the talent that is coming out of interest in both the energy sector and climate movements.”
This includes anything from working in the trades to starting your own business or going to work for larger utilities. There is a ton of work to be done but there is a limited amount of time to do it. It is really about helping people to make that connection between the sector that exists today and what we need it to be for the future of Canada.
How can the electricity sector brand itself to be more attractive to Canadian youth?
The electricity sector needs to see itself as Canada’s leading vehicle for climate solutions. We need to be really ambitious about expanding our grid, increasing our transmission capabilities, and all kinds of different things that will allow for the sector to lead on decarbonization. In terms of recruiting young people to the sector, it really is on companies to think deeply about what it is they can offer and how it is going to look for young people going forward.
“The electricity sector needs to see itself as Canada’s leading vehicle for climate solutions.”
A big challenge in this sector is that right now, those in leadership are predominantly white, male, and thinking of the sector as more of a risk management sector where the focus is on mitigating risks. While mitigating risk is important for the electricity sector, there should be more than that. Having more ambition at the top and making sure that that permeates throughout a company is important.
A lot of the challenges Canada is facing with equity, diversity, environmental justice, and Indigenous rights tie back to our energy system. The role that the electricity sector can play to solve these challenges is often overlooked. People think about equity and diversity in terms of what kind of people are on the board or how the CEO identifies, but a lot of companies are leaving behind the low-hanging fruit of growing the next generation of electricity workers to be different and empowering young people who did not ever see themselves in the sector to make careers happen here.
What barriers to entry exist for Canadian youth considering a career in the electricity sector and how can they be overcome?
A huge barrier is that the career path is not as straightforward as some would like it to be. For some of the trades or apprentice programs, there are different things happening. To become an energy analyst or take on different roles on the corporate side, oftentimes there is a strange path to take where someone may have started out as an engineer and then pivoted into business development. The problem with this is that while these career paths are fun for those who have them, they take a certain level of power and privilege to get to. When you do not have a set path where you are certain about taking a university degree or getting into college to get into this sector, then that becomes a real barrier because we are not able to communicate what success will look like for young people if they choose to pursue a career in the sector.
There are some groups within Canada, such as Canadian Colleges for a Resilient Recovery, that are trying to tackle this skills gap. We are talking a lot about the investment needed to decarbonize Canada, but we are not talking about the massive skills gap that we need to fill in order to decarbonize Canada. We need to find more inclusive ways to train people. Student Energy is working on that and we have a Leaders Fellowship program that is all about getting your first project off the ground. We work to support the SevenGen Council, which is a group of Indigenous youth working to entice other Indigenous youth to get into the energy sector. We are just about to launch their very first project-based program, the Indigenous Youth Mentorship Program.
“We are talking a lot about the investment needed to decarbonize Canada, but we are not talking about the massive skills gap that we need to fill in order to decarbonize Canada.”
There are a lot of things going on and we need to work faster and be more efficient. The sector needs to be more accessible to young people. It cannot just be a few different Master’s programs that get you into the electricity sector; it has to be something that is accessible at our colleges and other institutions all across Canada.
Young people are often seen as an adversarial force when it comes to energy and climate. Youth are out in the streets protesting, but that framing is a real misbranding of what the youth have to offer. Young people are looking for avenues to be part of solutions. Industry, academia, and government have a role to play in helping to create those pathways.
What programs, supports, or incentives are available to youth to prepare them for a career in the energy sector?
There are a lot of different programs that are available. Student Energy does a lot of online energy education helping people to understand the energy system. We have a fellowship program that is a 10-month course all about getting your first project off the ground and helping people to build a robust leadership skill set. We are even launching a new course around becoming an energy analyst and how to develop a core energy skill set around modelling policy analysis. These kinds of courses are difficult to find in universities and are often very expensive otherwise.
Outside of Student Energy, there is the Green Jobs Program that is being hosted through Natural Resources Canada with Electricity Human Resources Canada (EHRC) helping to facilitate. That has been a massive one for our organization and others to help us dive in, hire young people, and have the time and the capacity to train them.
“A lot of traditional university-based training programs are missing the mark in terms of what is needed, especially when it comes to systems thinking.”
A big missing piece is there are a lot of research gaps in our calls for action around the future of energy and there is also a disconnect in terms of the skills needed to take us there. By and large, a lot of traditional university-based training programs are missing the mark in terms of what is needed, especially when it comes to systems thinking and how to put together all the little components that make up bigger energy decisions. That is where things are really lacking.
One solution is to look at more project-based learning. We need to be getting more resources into the hands of young people to help them see how they can take on their first community projects and build skill sets. Systems thinking is very hands-on; you cannot just learn it by reading a book, you need to try your hand at installing a solar panel, troubleshooting problems with an electrician, understanding regulations, and communicating with government entities like city council. All of these are really important skills and the only way to learn them is by doing it yourself. That is a big gap that we are seeing. A lot of people are working on it but the funding needs to channel in the right direction and we need to think critically about our education system and how to effectively fill these gaps.
“Often, politicians try to rally young people for elections but ultimately, they do not really listen to or provide programs for them that work in the long run.”
Politicians in Canada need to wake up to the force that young people can be for the shifting energy sector. Often, politicians try to rally young people for elections but ultimately, they do not really listen to or provide programs for them that work in the long run. This leaves political will on the table.
People always say there are thousands of jobs, but for a 22-year-old university graduate, those jobs are nowhere to be found. The cleantech sector is small and so they are not recruiting or doing these big job fairs. There are a lot of challenges. Traditionally, the fossil fuel industry was the one that went into high schools and universities asking people to get into the petroleum industry. Now, that same effort needs to be happening to ask young Canadians to get into the energy sector and be a part of the solution, but the sector also needs to provide for young people to be able to do that.
What and who would you pitch to strengthen and improve Canada’s future energy workforce?
I would pitch to electricity company CEOs that they have a huge leadership opportunity to transform this country. You need to lean in and talk to regulators, the provinces, and the city to figure this out because leading on electrification is how we lead Canada. Furthermore, you need to lean into what young people are asking for. Rather than being scared of young people or asking them to temper their expectations, work with them to build up a new workforce that looks different than the one that we have today but that will achieve so much more for Canada.