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Canada faces potential environmental sector labour shortage: report

ECO Canada research shows nation will need to fill as many as 480,000 new positions to hit net-zero

Geni Peters, director of research at ECO Canada. (Courtesy ECO Canada)
Geni Peters, director of research at ECO Canada. (Courtesy ECO Canada)

A report released by ECO Canada is projecting a potential labour shortage in the nation's environmental sector over the course of the next decade.

Estimates show Canadian companies will be faced with the challenge of filling as many as 480,000 new "green worker" positions expected to be created by the ongoing transition to a net-zero economy.

According to the study, Green Goals and Great Opportunities: Canada's Environmental Labour Demand Forecast to 2033, the rising demand for environmental workers will likely exceed the capacity of the economy to meet this need.

This will lead to shortages that will be most acutely felt by companies in search of skilled professionals, particularly in the case of "certain occupations like management, occupations requiring a university degree, a college diploma, or an apprenticeship," the report states.

However, the drive toward sustainability "also presents exciting opportunities for governments, industries, communities, and individuals to participate in a climate-resilient future." 

Factors threatening a labour shortage

The report provides a detailed examination of how the decarbonization of the built environment, the transition to renewable energy, the electrification of the transport sector and the relentless expansion of our electric vehicle ecosystem will require Canada to similarly grow its skilled environmental workforce or face strategic labour bottlenecks.

"We are going to need a lot of very skilled, very knowledgeable workers specifically trained for environmental work . . . to support sustainable economic growth and help companies reduce their environmental impacts," Geni Peters, director of research at ECO Canada, said in an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada.

"The green sector will be competing with a lot of other industries for many of those workers as well. This includes IT professionals needed to support AI development and data analysis, engineers engaged in manufacturing, construction and heavy industry, as well as environmental consulting."

Potential green labour shortage exacerbated by skills gap 

The Green Goals report further found that one-in-five Canadian workers will reach retirement age by 2033 and two-thirds of the resulting job openings will need to be filled by employees with post-secondary education or managerial expertise. 

"The skill gaps resulting from the incoming wave of retirements are compounded by the workforce demands of the expanding environmental sector," read the report.

Future immigration will only partially alleviate this shortage. Much of the gap will need to be made up by "engaging underrepresented groups" and stepping up training programs to satisfy increased demand for skilled environmental workers.

"Three top categories of workers needed for sustainable growth across Canada broadly are: natural and applied science workers, a group which includes engineers, engineering technologists and scientists; business and business development professionals; and trades workers," Peters explained.

Shortage of trades workers a critical problem

"It's really the shortages of trades workers which is capturing the attention of companies involved in carrying out the deep retrofits to existing buildings that need to be undertaken." 

The lack of electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other trades workers poses a serious obstacle to the ability of the commercial real estate and construction sectors to meet higher environmental performance standards for new buildings. 

"Even just meeting the basic need of building enough houses is a problem. Canada is facing a housing crisis now and, energy efficiency and smart homes notwithstanding, we have a shortage with respect to having enough tradespeople just to build homes, period," Peters explained.

ECO Canada also expects construction sector companies to encounter significant shortages in the coming years in their quest for skilled labour in the fields of electrical and HVAC specialization, in addition to the lack of qualified construction millwrights.

"The challenge on top of that shortage of workers is getting those workers up-skilled to understand the technology involved in the advanced methodologies required for the construction of high performance buildings as well as the problem-solving and other skills needed for deep retrofits," Peters said.

Engineer and AI specialists urgently needed

Two critical environmental employment sectors facing looming shortages - engineering and AI - are particularly worrisome to Peters. 

"In the environmental sector, we're facing major shortages for engineers and engineering technologists, and that applies to engineers across the board - electrical, mechanical, chemical, mining, metallurgical and geological.

"We're also finding it a challenge to attract the data analysts needed for the big data AI efforts that many companies would like to implement going forward.

"There's a lot of interest in AI amongst environmental employers. They're looking to take the large amounts of environmental monitoring data being collected and draw the necessary insights to develop more effective technologies and solutions to reduce their carbon emissions."

ECO Canada's role in the environmental industry

ECO Canada, headquartered in Calgary, is a non-profit organization that has been a trailblazer in job creation in the environmental sector. The group aims to drive responsible, sustainable economic growth within the industry by helping companies prioritize environmental best practices.

For the past 30 years ECO Canada has been "actively forging academic partnerships, tools and research to train and certify environmental job seekers" and stimulate job creation in the sector.

As head of research, Peters, who earned her Ph.D. in economics from Texas A&M University, is responsible for analyzing the statistical data needed to identify environmental workforce trends and evolving labour supply and demand imbalances.

"Our mission is to ensure that there's an adequate supply of highly skilled trained environmental workers to meet the needs of Canadian businesses and government," Peters said.

"We want to built the world's leading environmental workforce . . . and help employers understand what the labour landscape looks like for them when it comes to being able to attract the workers that they need."

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