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U of A courses help students skill up for careers in renewable energy

Three programs aim to address shortage of skilled professionals in a fast-growing field.

  • October 15, 2020
  • By Bev Betkowski

The University of Alberta is powering up new continuing education courses to help meet demand for workers in the renewable energy sector—one of the fastest-growing in the world.

The Renewable Energy Technologies Series, delivered through the Faculty of Extension, is a trio of programs introducing professionals to how energy systems work and the design and technology of solar and wind power.

“Right now there is a skill shortage of engineers and technicians in all parts of the renewable energy industry,” said Cameron Jones, a professional specializing in renewable energy, one of two instructors leading the series and a U of A associate alumnus.

A fast-growing sector

Globally, the sector employed 11 million people worldwide in 2018, with growth estimated at one million new jobs added every year, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

The sector already employs more than 300,000 Canadians, including almost 27,000 in Alberta, according to Clean Energy Canada.

But with more projects coming online and international investment in renewable energy near $300 billion per year according to the 2019 UN Environment Programme, the demand for skilled workers should only grow, added Jones.

“Renewable energy is a rapidly evolving field, and there’s an opportunity here to be the workforce of tomorrow, to position for the industries of tomorrow, where we know there are material investments and opportunities.”

Thanks to lower prices for products like home solar panels—which dropped in cost by 76 per cent between 2009 and 2017—the renewable energy sector is growing in business viability, he noted.

“The result is there are very large investments in renewables, not just from utility companies but from major corporations like Google and Apple that are buying renewables to offset their emissions.”

A particular set of skills

Reflecting industry shifts, qualified civil, mechanical and electrical design engineers with specific knowledge of particular renewable energy technologies are especially needed, Jones noted.

Workers are also in demand by building developers seeking environmental LEED or BOMA designations, government agencies working on policy analysis, regulators, auditing and marketing agencies and investment firms.

That generates a need for skills particular to the field, including project management, cost-benefit analysis, stakeholder consultation, leveraging policy tools designed for renewables, and installation, he said.

The three U of A series, which start rolling out online in November, are geared to upskill everyone in those and other areas—from students building their resumés and workers retraining for the sector to project developers, managers, investors and business owners.

“We want students to finish the series wearing every hat necessary for an employer,” said Jones. “The goal with this series is to train individuals to be able to initiate and implement their own sustainable energy projects from A to Z if they want to do that.”

The courses include content (and guest lectures) contributed by government, academics and industries, including a company that is helping former oil and gas technicians transition into renewable energy jobs.

“They all have boots-on-the-ground experience in the sector, and their input helps students become well versed in any domain they could be interested in.”

Students who complete all three series can then write a Sustainable Energy Professional exam through the Foundational Technologies Institute, an international credentialing body in renewable energy technology. 

“It’s a designation that shows they carry a significant amount of knowledge in this field and have been tested on it.”

The certification also helps students build their marketability to employers, Jones said.

“The niche focus on renewable energy development makes them preferred candidates in many respects—they need less onboarding, they have a good ability to articulate what needs to be done and they can hit the ground running.

“That makes them stand out.”

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