Tech Insights

Retraining Oil and Gas Engineers in Renewable Energy

November 30, 2023 by David Weldon

According to a study of Alberta's oil sands workers, engineers working in oil and gas transition to renewable energy with minimal retraining. EEPower spoke with three specialists in employment and energy for more details about preparing for renewable energy jobs.

The available job opportunities for oil and gas workers in the renewable energy sector are a burning issue on the minds of many engineers. Few job markets illustrate the urgency more than Alberta, Canada.

 

Opportunities are increasing in the renewable energy sector.

Opportunities are increasing in the renewable energy sector. Image used courtesy of Pexels

 

More than 20% of the province’s GDP and nearly 6% of all employment in Alberta is tied to the fossil fuel industry. That sector employs more than 35,000 workers. It is estimated that 97% of all oil stores in Canada are in Alberta. And the province ranks third globally for oil and gas exports.

This dominance is threatened by several factors leading to a decline in the oil and gas industry and an increase in renewable energy sources. Solar has become the cheapest form of energy to produce, and the sale of electric vehicles (EVs) has skyrocketed. Last year saw record sales for EVs, and this year is on track to break the record.

 

The Good and Bad About Fossil Fuel Industry Jobs

The news is not bad for oil and gas engineers—whether in Alberta or any other North American fossil fuel industry job market. Jobs abound for fossil fuel engineers in the renewable energy sector, driven largely by rapid growth. 

The renewable energy industry is eager to welcome workers transitioning over, especially engineers, and the costs of retraining in skills needed to make the transition are manageable, according to a recent study of Alberta’s oil sands workers. The study reviewed the retraining of former oil workers for the solar industry and found the majority needed only minimal training.

 

Power from renewable sources is expected to continue to increase.

Power from renewable sources is expected to continue to increase. Image used courtesy of EIA

 

How Engineers Can Make the Transition

Two of the biggest factors in whether a fossil fuel engineer can transition to renewable energy jobs are transferable skills and attitude, according to Matt Sadinsky, an executive consultant and recruiter serving the energy sector and founder of PREP (Prequalified Ready Employees for Power). 

Sadinsky told EEPower that many of the core skills needed in each sector are the same. The devil is in the details: specialized skills acquired for specialized job roles. While those skills may have served an engineer well in the oil and gas field, they aren’t always the prime skills renewable companies want.

Michael Beavers, senior recruiter at VoltaGrid, an energy management company, agreed. 

“My worry regarding workers in the fossil fuels sector is centered on their specialization within the industry,” Beavers explained in an interview with EEPower. “For instance, individuals skilled in drilling operations, gas processing, or well and reservoir engineering possess highly specific expertise. Although these skills remain in high demand within the fossil fuel sector, transitioning to renewable energy may present significant challenges.”

The good news is that both renewable energy and fossil fuels have areas of overlap for engineers, Beavers stressed.

“The demand for power continues to increase alongside the increased power from renewable sources. Power generation, transmission, storage and distribution will be safe bests for years to come, and easily transferable,” Beavers said. “For skilled trades, I expect the safest transferable skills will be instrumentation, controls, industrial electricians, and generator maintenance. Mechanical, electrical, and software engineers will easily find opportunities on both sides.”

 

Taking Stock of Skills Gaps

It would be unrealistic to assume that just any oil and gas worker can seamlessly jump into a new job role in renewables. Some engineers may find the jump challenging, Sadinsky said. The key is approaching the move as one step in a career journey, not just a job change. Some training or retraining may be needed. 

If they haven’t already, engineers in the oil and gas industry should assess their current experience, expertise, skillsets, and even personality traits and map them against skills sought in the renewable energy sector. Where gaps are found, the worker should immediately target those areas for training and career development.

 

Growth in renewable energy jobs by source.

Growth in renewable energy jobs by source. Image used courtesy of the White House

 

Workers should start to build transferable skill sets viable across the energy sector, Beavers advised.

This is especially important since engineers in the fossil fuel industry frequently have the advantage of gaining practical experience while on the job, Beavers said, typically starting as roundabouts or apprentices and gradually progressing within the field.

“Renewable jobs are a bit more specific and expect more specific domain knowledge,” Beavers continued. “Renewable employers haven’t historically been as flexible in their expectations. You’re seeing more degreed work in renewables, especially at early-stage startups that haven’t received large capital investments for a real project.”

 

Commonalities Among Fossil Fuels and Renewables

“Renewable energy and fossil fuels share significant common ground in several key sectors: power generation, transmission, and distribution,” Beavers said. “Balance your specialization where you maintain expertise in a specific area, but also develop broader skills and knowledge to remain versatile. If possible, continue to cross-train while in the fossil fuel industry to these transferable skills.”

Most importantly, be willing to take a step back to move forward, stressed Wayne Schofield, co-founder at Night and Day Resume.

“Network with friends and former colleagues to find a great company to work with. Reputation is very important in the field, so be safe, stay positive, and work as a team,” stated Schofield when EEPower asked how to make the transition easier.

While there are plenty of reasons to fear long-term employment opportunities in Canada’s oil and gas sector, the resources needed to retrain the workforce can be easily made available, according to a study of retraining Alberta’s oil sands workers for the solar industry.

The study estimated total costs to range between $91.5 million and $276.2 million, representing just two to six percent of the oil and gas subsidies paid by the government in one year.