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Coils of steel are seen at the Direct Strip Production Complex at Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in 2018. The company is recruiting and retraining workers to overhaul its mill so it can rely on clean hydro to cut emissions by 70 per cent.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

John Stackhouse is senior vice-president, Office of the CEO, at RBC. Pedro Barata is executive director of the Future Skills Centre.

Canada will need to mobilize tens of billions of dollars a year if we stand a chance of getting to net-zero carbon emissions. The financial capital looks like it’s there. The human capital, less so.

Coming out of the pandemic, a global energy transition is being shaped by countries that are building the right combination of green skills in engineering, skilled trades, management and other professions. Ironically, after setting a policy standard with carbon pricing, emissions regulations and cleantech incentives, Canada may be short of the skills we’ll need to put those policies to work.

To make the most of our net-zero strategy, we’ll need to do more with postsecondary education, reskilling and immigration. A new study by RBC Economics and Thought Leadership estimates more than three million jobs – or 15 per cent of the current labour force – is about to undergo a green-skills transformation as employers and entrepreneurs seize on the energy transition. Another 400,000 new high-skilled jobs will be needed to reimagine and rewire the economy, according to the RBC report, Green Collar Jobs: The skills revolution Canada needs to reach net zero.

Architects will need a better sense of environmental footprints. Logistics managers will need to balance efficiency with emissions. Accountants will need to count climate costs with financial costs. And in engineering, architecture, utilities and manufacturing, managers will see at least half their tasks shift because of the energy transition.

This is already happening in Canada. Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie is recruiting and retraining workers to overhaul its mill so it can rely on clean hydro to cut emissions by 70 per cent. In Oakville, Ont., Samuel Son & Co. is teaching new graduates to craft the materials of a low-carbon future, for electric vehicles and 3D printing. Such employers know that an investment in green skills will help them overcome shortages of skilled tradespeople and environmental workers and stay ahead of future ones.

The same approach can support people whose jobs are disrupted by the transition with reskilling opportunities. Indeed, with sufficient retraining, pathways to “clean economy” occupations will open up to workers in high-risk, low-mobility jobs, according to a Conference Board of Canada report funded by the Future Skills Centre.

To do that, we’ll need to accelerate changes to retraining and lifelong learning, which the pandemic showed to be unprepared for a disruptive future. And we’ll need to get serious about how we recognize international credentials.

Fortunately, Canada has a number of advantages, including colleges and universities, and an immigration system, that are admired around the world. We can start with collaboration, with governments, businesses, educational institutions, professional associations and labour groups taking a role in the green-collar revolution.

We must ensure that we have the right compass to orient our work force toward the dynamic and comprehensive changes required by the green shift. The federal government and partners must collect and analyze data to inform labour market policies and assess how the work force is evolving in a rapidly changing economy.

Businesses must step up, too, embracing green skills as a critical component of their net-zero strategies. Work-integrated learning and on-the-job training will become even more important, particularly for small and medium enterprises and entrepreneurs that account for almost 90 per cent of private-sector employment.

Colleges, universities and other institutions must also look beyond traditional disciplines, and create new approaches to education for a net-zero era. Stanford University and Columbia University have created climate schools to bring together different disciplines to forge new research avenues and better prepare a new generation for the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Labour organizations also have a key role to play through new commitments to lifelong learning agendas, backed by efforts to ensure that training and skills programs are responsive, timely and widely available. One example: The EDGE UP project that helps mid-career workers displaced from Alberta’s oil and gas industry transition into jobs in the burgeoning information technology sector.

Canadians know we face a historic challenge in making this shift. But by putting skills at the centre of our climate strategy, we can ensure our transition is designed, built and delivered by Canadians, for Canadians.

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