Environmental sector jobs to see growth in spite of pandemic, report says

ECO Canada expects to see higher job growth rates within sub-sectors such as energy efficiency and clean and alternative energy. Photo credit: visoot, AdobeStock.

A new environmental employment outlook report from ECO Canada forecasts moderate 8.1% growth from 2019 to 2029, representing more than 50,000 new jobs in spite of an economy hit hard by COVID-19.

Now, the environmental sector just needs people to fill those opportunities.

According to the fall 2020 report, From Recession to Recovery: Environmental Jobs and Hiring Trends in the Decade Ahead, environmental employment demand is projected to persevere over the next decade, while other markets may face longer recoveries ahead. But, how and when the environmental economy rebounds will depend largely on market forces, regulations and decisions made by governments and employers, says Calgary-based ECO Canada.

“Given the drivers for environmental employment, they have not gone away because of the pandemic,” says Kevin Nilsen, President & CEO of ECO Canada, a sector council that offers a wide range of support for growing the environmental workforce.

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Shortage of Environmental Workers

ECO Canada, short for “Environmental Careers Organization”, has prepared sector employment projections for nearly 30 years, but 2020 was the first time that the workforce development organization has had to run a campaign on social media to actually find job seekers, despite the large number of companies hiring.

“It was really bizarre to me in this climate why we would have more employers looking for workers than job seekers looking for jobs. So that was quite puzzling,” says Nilsen, who expects that ECO Canada will have a new report in the coming months about the current supply of workers for the environmental sector.

Nilsen said at least two things could be happening: workers with the necessary skills could be sitting back and waiting for the pandemic to end, or they could be incorrectly assuming that there couldn’t possibly be jobs available in the current climate.

At present, ECO Canada estimates that 620,100 Canadians are, in fact, working in the environmental sector. Half of  these are considered part of the “core” environmental workforce, who require specialized environmental competencies, regardless of industry employer. That core environmental workforce is actually anticipated to grow at a slightly faster rate than the total environmental workforce, at 8.5% or 24,200 new jobs, the outlook report, funded by the Government of Canada’s Sectoral Initiatives Program, states.

Together, expansion and replacement demands for environmental workers combine for nearly 233,500 net job openings by 2029. This adds up to nearly 38% of 2019 employment, says Nilsen.

The new report projects that the largest opportunity for environmental workers will come from the gradual retirement of an estimated 183,400 employees. Within the next decade, nearly 30% of the current environmental workforce will vacate their mostly mid- to senior-level roles, creating career progression opportunities for current and future workers, according to the report.

“As the economy rebounds from the pandemic, heightened government investment in these areas can lift the sector further and position Canada as a global leader,” the report states, adding that the government will need to keep environmental mandates and the  workforce front of mind to meet workforce needs.

In June, Natural Resources Canada announced $15.8 million in funding for job and training initiatives for youth in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), energy, clean technology, earth sciences, mining and forestry.

Over the last year, ECO Canada itself has facilitated nearly 3,000 jobs in the environmental sector and provided over $23 million in wage funding to employers across all industries. As part of the Government of Canada’s Youth Employment and Skills Strategy Program, a total of 2,218 student placements were completed between July 2019 and July 2020 for 549 employers across the country. Recently, the organization received $5.8 million in wage funding to facilitate 280 placements for post-secondary graduates in environmental jobs that require digital abilities, such as computer programming, digital marketing, software development, IT and data management.

“Cleantech, in particular, is a promising sector that will benefit tremendously from the Digital Skills for Youth program,” Nilsen says, noting that it could grow from the current estimate of $1.2 trillion to a projected $2.5 trillion industry by 2022.

ECO Canada hopes that its new outlook report may help some workers and students identify where the greatest prospects are for green jobs related to their areas of interest and study, especially considering that many may have misconceptions about the number of job opportunities available.

The report is also designed to help educators and trainers fill gaps.

“Online instruction and learning have unexpectedly become a requirement and could become complementary to classroom instruction indefinitely,” the outlook report states. “Educators and trainers are devising safe ways to deliver lab and field instruction to smaller groups or even remotely, while exploring applied learning modules to help transition from class to career.”

In terms of sectors that may have been set back most by the pandemic and struggle to find new growth, the natural resources development sector stands out, says Nilsen. Prior to the pandemic, there may already have been evidence that a decline in oil and gas and mining was contributing to new growth and investment in the clean energy sector, he says.

“The beauty of cleantech and energy efficiency is that you bridge both the economic and environmental agendas. Companies are more willing to invest in something that will save them money here and now, and also give their organization a greener platform going forward,” says Nilsen, who adds that the green building sector in terms of retrofits has been particularly resilient.

For employers, ECO Canada says that they need to meet the demand and prepare workers to step into more senior roles, which will account for over a third of core environmental net job openings. There is also an advantage to considering diverse candidates like women, youth, Indigenous and immigrant workers, many of whom often have high levels of skill and experience, the report states.

“There are two key things we need to be doing if we want to continue building and supporting Canada’s environmental workforce,” says Nilsen. “We need to upskill traditional workers and create a clear pathway for young people looking to work in the sector. For that, strong investment is needed and that’s why programs like those at ECO Canada are in place,” he added.

Environmental Job Opportunities

ECO Canada expects to see higher growth rates within sub-sectors such as energy efficiency, clean and alternative energy, cleantech, nature conservation, sustainable transportation, green building and construction, as well as water quality. Environmental jobs associated with policy and legislation, research and development, communications and public awareness, and sustainability are also expected to grow over the long term.

Environmental job opportunities will exist in every job family in Canada over the next decade. The outlook report notes that through job creation as well as high levels of retirement, nearly 70% of all openings (158,700 jobs) will be in roles related to (1) management, (2) natural and applied sciences, and (3) business, finance and administration.

Engineering occupations, for instance, will account for over 23,400 net environmental job openings to 2029. Civil engineers, mechanical engineers and electrical and electronics engineers fill three of the 10 largest occupations with core environmental employment in 2019. The top three provinces offering engineering opportunities for core workers from 2019 to 2029 are Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

“The pandemic and pre-existing factors have had permanent or long-lasting impacts on certain industries, regions and occupations,” the report states. “With a national unemployment rate currently at 11% — some regions and industries measuring higher than others — displaced workers are a viable talent solution, and one that could also mitigate productivity risks, given their prior experience, applied knowledge and accumulated skill sets.”

Environmental Jobs Across Canada

Graphic courtesy of ECO Canada.

The outlook report’s data indicates that the majority of current environmental workers are in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia. Although less than 1% of the 2019 environmental workforce was in the territories, the region collectively has the highest EnviroShare at 6.4%. The 2019 EnviroShare is the proportion of environmental workers compared to all workers at the occupational and regional level — and by applying these to forecasted employment data.

Ontario is expected to contribute nearly 40% of all net environmental job openings to 2029, equivalent to 90,100 jobs.

Quebec, the second largest provincial employer of environmental workers, is expected to see reduced employment growth during the forecast period (3%), compared to the higher growth rates observed leading up to 2019. In fact, nine in every 10 net job openings in the province will come from workforce retirement rather than job creation. Quebec will, however, focus its environmental commitment on sustainably managing its natural resources, relying on renewable energy, reducing the use of plastics, and repurposing recycled materials, among other priorities.

Graphic courtesy of ECO Canada.

Alberta is expected to see the highest growth rate of environmental employment at almost 14%, resulting in 14,400 new jobs to 2029. Job growth will likely be driven by investment in cleantech, emissions reduction and renewable energy by businesses and individual consumers, and supported by retraining and upskilling the province’s unemployed workers. As well, many environmental consulting firms are based in the province. Factoring in replacement demand, the province will need to fill 44,900 net jobs over the next decade—or more than 43% of 2019 employment levels.

The Northwest Territories has the highest concentration of environmental workers at 7.2% EnviroShare. Yukon is a close second with 6.9% EnviroShare. The remediation of contaminated extraction sites is expected to provide significant environmental job opportunities over the next several decades.

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