Policymakers: Use foresight to plan for green jobs

April 5, 2023

Increased automation, labour shortages, and a changing climate. These, and other trends, will impact workers in the decades to come. And when it comes to new, disruptive green technologies, all these trends come together to create complex challenges that policymakers must navigate. Policymakers concerned about the green economic future are being tasked with creating training and education programs to ensure impacted workers are supported. But they often have many of the same uncertainties as workers themselves: Who will be impacted? Where will they live? Which skills will be required to fill new roles? And, how should funding and training programs be designed to meet workers needs? 

Given the uncertainty around what the future economy will look like, it can be difficult to know where to start. One approach, used by the team at the PLACE Centre in our research on the skills workers need in Canada’s growing green sectors, is to think about the question in two parts. First, policymakers need to reckon with uncertainty by using foresight techniques in labour market planning. Second, we need to think about the impacts new technologies will have on regional value chains, instead of thinking exclusively about occupations or sectors. In this first of two blogs, I explain the importance of using foresight exercises, and argue that they are more useful than conventional forecasting methods that spend time modeling out only one potential future. 

How are policymakers thinking about the future?

One certainty we have about Canada’s future is that we will need to adopt new, zero-emissions technologies at a scale large enough to meet climate targets. Manufacturing zero emissions vehicles in Southern Ontario, hydrogen production in Western Newfoundland, and installing renewable energy in the Northwest Territories are three examples of solutions that will contribute to meeting this target, and will require new skills to build, operate, and maintain. Yet the scale at which each of these solutions will be adopted, in Canada and globally, remains unknown. Policymakers responsible for planning for this shift need a future state to work towards in order to identify which skills will be needed, the scale of job growth or declines, and offer insight into the scale of social support that might be required. Many try to address this gap by using similar techniques to project green jobs as used in conventional labour market outlooks, such as those used by Statistics Canada, and in British Columbia

This approach is not a good fit for informing policy discussions around green jobs. Projections are often created by extrapolating current trends outwards to offer a singular outlook. Yet the uncertainty around cost, availability, and performance for different technologies illustrates that even small differences can lead to significant differences in labour market outcomes. Our report, As the Weather Changes, showed that differences in trade levels and technology costs could be the difference between Canadian companies creating 162,000 green jobs in manufacturing by 2030, or losing 31,000 roles - even if all of Canada’s domestic policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions remain the same. These two outcomes would have vastly different implications for skills training and education bodies in manufacturing communities, as well as policymakers trying to determine the best approaches for supporting industries and workers. 

How can we better think about the future of green jobs?

Projections are not in and of themselves a bad thing - but they need to do a better job reckoning with uncertainty to be useful in informing green jobs policies and discussions. To account for these limitations, our team at PLACE uses foresight techniques when modeling the impacts of changes. Foresight exercises are an analytical technique that considers multiple potential paths the future could take, and then compares the opportunities and challenges that could occur across each one. The goal of foresight is to help planners make sense of what the future could offer, and how they should respond today to ensure people are prepared. In labour market planning, foresight exercises can help conceptualize multiple versions of the future, driven by different trends or outcomes, and understand how each future might impact the workforce. In many cases, policy options or choices will become apparent if common themes emerge across all futures or specific outcomes (positive or negative) are identified. 

Our work has been using these approaches for some time. In our Jobs and Skills in a Net-Zero Economy report, three versions of the future in which Canada reaches net-zero emissions were modeled, each differing in the costs of technologies Canada uses to reach that outcome. The impacts on jobs and skills across all three scenarios were then compared to understand which policies might make sense to adopt across any future Canada may take. Through this work, it became clear that net-zero skills planning was needed to support this transition. In As the Weather Changes, four futures were modeled where Canada meets its 2030 climate target amidst various changes in trade levels and supply chain disruptions from conflict, natural disasters and pandemics. The impacts of jobs in different sectors were then unpacked across futures, and the need for industrial strategy discussions to talk more about workforce needs was evident.

The team at PLACE is also using foresight exercises within our ongoing work with Future Skills Centre, detailing how the emergence of green growth sectors in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia could impact workers and skills needs in each province. In all cases, foresight techniques are helping us reckon with uncertain futures and identify challenges policymakers will need to tackle across all futures. This, in turn, helps offer more value for supporting discussions around policies and programs to help workers enter green jobs. 

Helping navigate the future by acknowledging we can’t predict it 

Designing good foresight exercises can help overcome limitations of even the most robust projections. High quality foresight techniques recognize this and design futures based on principles that we understand will influence the future, while leaving space for fundamental changes in how we work, live, and play. If deployed thoughtfully and using technically-sound principles, foresight techniques can help overcome the limitations of traditional forecasting and better support discussions around creating green jobs and advancing climate action.