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By Virginia Heffernan

Layoffs can lead to despair, but they can also inspire. As job cuts started mounting in Alberta’s oil sands, a group of workers formed Iron & Earth, an organization dedicated to connecting oil sector employees with training and jobs in the fast-growing renewable energy sector. In the following Q&A, director Delia Warren explains how Iron & Earth is helping trades workers across Canada get back on the job.

Q: What was your motivation for starting Iron & Earth?

A: We identified parallels in the skills held by trades workers in the oil and gas industry and in the renewable energy industry, and with the drop in oil prices in 2014 and the resulting job cuts, our founders realized that conversations at the lunch table at oil sands facilities were turning to opportunities outside the oil industry. We started Iron & Earth in order to help connect trades workers with training and jobs in the renewable industry, to raise awareness surrounding the parallels between these industries, and to offer policy guideline suggestions to government and industry.

Q: Where does your funding originate?

A: Our funding comes primarily from non-governmental grants and private industry donations. We also have a membership base that makes donations, however this is not our primary source of funding. We have used crowdfunding to support our 365 Greenhouse initiative in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Q: How many members do you have?

A: We have over 600 active members in our organization, who represent a large demographic of the skilled trades found in Canada. We also have over 5000 pledges on our website asking the federal government to help support oil sands workers develop their skills.

Q: Why did you expand into Newfoundland and Labrador?

A: There was local interest in starting a chapter. Many Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans work in the trades, either in oil and gas or in the extractive/construction industry; many work or have worked in the oil sands. The drop in oil prices had a major effect on the provincial economy and local trades workers were seeing high rates of unemployment with no hope for the future.

Q: What training programs do you offer?

A: We are currently working on developing training programs with our partners. One such partner, Gridworks Energy, offers five-day solar PV installation and EV charging station installation programs, but we are planning to develop additional training programs with trades colleges and other relevant institutions. We are about to complete the first phase of our Solar Skills program, wherein 10 local electricians and community members will be trained in rooftop solar PV installation at the Louis Bull Tribe (a First Nations group) south of Edmonton, Alberta.

Q: Which job skills are transferable from the oil and gas sector to the renewable energy sector?

A: Whether it’s solar, wind, geothermal, small-scale hydro generation, or biofuel, there are ample opportunities for the trades. In many cases, some upskilling is required. Electricians can easily find work in the solar energy industry with minimal upskilling (five-day training course). To become a wind turbine technician, an electrician would be required to do a one-year training program. For a welder, boilermaker, crane operator, scaffolder, construction worker, etc. there would be little to no additional training required to switch industries. Harnessing geothermal energy requires nearly the same skill set as drilling an oil well. Offshore wind farms use essentially the same supply chain as offshore oil installations. The parallels are endless!

Q: What does your organization need to succeed?

A: For us to execute our mandate – to connect trades workers with training and work opportunities in the renewable energy sector – we need continued funding opportunities as well as the pledged support of workers. We are a young organization, but our rapid growth has indicated that we have a broad support base and that there is a need for a bridge between industry and environment. We are constantly seeking to grow our membership base in order to best target the needs of workers themselves. We also need to work with government and industry actors to develop policies that ensure that as our dependence on fossil fuels decreases, our trades workers aren’t left behind.

Q: Are the provincial and federal governments receptive to your message?

A: Governments are becoming increasingly receptive to our message. They recognize the challenges that come with a heavy reliance on the oil industry, and they have seen the job creation power of the renewable energy industry around the world. In the United States, for example, the number of jobs being created in solar and wind energy is rapidly outpacing job availability in oil, gas and coal. They recognize the economic opportunity that increasing our renewable energy industry presents, and they know that our trades workers have suffered and continue to suffer. We hope to work with governments to guide policy development and develop training programs in the coming years. We have offered our Workers Climate Plan, a report summarizing the results of a survey we put to our worker members, as a policy framework guideline that governments can use to develop a strategy to support workers as we transition to an economy with less reliance on fossil fuels.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge in having your voice heard?

A: Misinformation and misunderstanding of our messaging. We can be dismissed as an environmentalist organization when in reality we are a worker-led organization focused on increasing the work scopes of our membership through renewable energy. Although we recognize the need for a managed decline in our reliance on fossil fuels as a society, we do not actively oppose oil and gas developments. We also face misinformation regarding the viability of renewable energy technologies and opposition from those that are against the shift in direction that we represent. We are looking to the future, and in the long-term renewable energy will be indispensable. Not having a comparable financial backing to the industries that see us as a threat has made it difficult to get our message heard, but it has forced us to be creative and resilient in our operations.

Q: What is your ultimate goal?

A: An economy where trades workers have sustainable, long-term job availability and the opportunity to work in an industry that minimizes negative environmental impacts; an increased presence of renewable energy in our country in order to ensure that workers will feel less of an impact when volatile commodity prices leave them out of a job; economic development through sustainability and an increase overall job availability resulting from a strong renewable energy industry; and communities that benefit from local renewable energy projects where social impacts can be greatest felt, including indigenous and remote northern communities. 


More gems from Virginia:

Virginia Heffernan is a former exploration geologist who met her Welsh husband when they were both working on a gold project in Namibia. They live in Toronto with their teenage son. Virginia mostly stays put these days (she's now a freelance writer and member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada), but Roger continues on his global quest for the next big ore deposit. To check out Virginia's work, visit www.geopen.com.