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Deep dive: Iron & Earth’s plan for a prosperous transition

Iron & Earth is a worker-led organization with a mission to empower fossil fuel industry workers and their communities to build and implement climate solutions. It was formed in 2016 around lunchroom tables in Canada’s oilsands—after the 2015-17 oil price crash resulted in over 100,000 workers losing their jobs, they launched Iron & Earth with the vision that “fossil fuel industry and Indigenous workers will play a leading role in building the policy and infrastructure required to reach global climate targets.”

One of Iron & Earth’s main goals is to help ensure that Canada’s transition to a net-zero economy by 2050 is a prosperous one that supports the workers who will be impacted by the shift away from fossil fuels. Much of their work involves helping fossil fuel workers understand how the skills they already have can be translated to careers in the renewable energy sector, and providing relevant training to facilitate the transition.

In 2021, Iron & Earth commissioned a survey of over 300 fossil fuel workers asking how they view their role in a net-zero economy, and what they would need in order to thrive in it. The survey helped guide the creation of their Prosperous Transition plan, meant to be a “guide for the Federal Government of Canada to not only set a bold course towards net-zero by 2050 and meet or exceed interim 40 to 45% greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets by 2030, but to do so while creating opportunities for Canada’s existing workforce to participate and thrive in the net-zero carbon economy.”

The survey, conducted by Abacus Data, asked participants a wide range of questions about their hopes, fears and anticipated obstacles relating to a clean energy transition—and its results clearly show that fossil fuel workers see opportunity in the net-zero economy. 69 percent of those surveyed expressed interest in switching to jobs in clean energy, and 58 percent said they believed that they would thrive in the net-zero economy. But they also reported several fears related to the potential negative effects of the transition—job loss, reduced wages or benefits and needing to move to find new work, among other things.

When asked about what factors would influence their decision to transition to the clean energy sector, the majority of those surveyed expressed interest in career coaching, learning about the variety of jobs available in the sector, understanding how their skills translate and paid job training. Incredibly, 84 percent of respondents said they would be interested in completing a ten-day, funded rapid upskilling training program to prepare for a job in the net-zero economy. Across the board, paid training or upskilling was the most popular factor that would affect workers’ decision to change jobs.

The survey results provide an incredible wealth of data about where fossil fuel workers see themselves in the net-zero transition, and what supports are necessary in order to ensure the shift away from fossil fuels doesn’t lead to job loss, economic precarity and other avoidable harms.

The Prosperous Transition plan is a roadmap to getting this done, making strategic recommendations about how the federal government can uplift fossil fuel workers and Indigenous communities in the decades of rapid change we’re about to experience. The Prosperous Transition plan is Iron & Earth’s version of a just transition framework—it emphasizes a transition out of fossil fuels that puts industry workers, Indigenous knowledge and local communities at the front of the conversation.

The Prosperous Transition plan has four key focal points:

  • Upskilling initiatives to help fossil fuel workers transition their careers into the net-zero carbon economy
  • Repositioning initiatives that support businesses in retooling manufacturing capacities and services to meet emerging demand in net-zero industries
  • Retrofit and repurpose initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of existing infrastructure
  • Indigenous-led climate solutions focused on climate mitigation and adaptation

We know that workers want to participate in the clean energy economy, and many see themselves as having existing transferable skills that can help them transition with minimal upskilling. The Prosperous Transition Plan proposes a $61 billion federal investment in the initiatives above to ensure that workers aren’t left behind and that Indigenous-led solutions are at the forefront of the transition.

Since the plan was initially released in 2021, Iron & Earth is working on publishing a second report that explores their work over the past year and expands on the ideas featured in their initial plan. They’re also building on their existing survey results by conducting 100 additional worker interviews to make sure that worker voices are heard and reflected as the Canadian government continues to roll out its just transition policy. If you’re interested in speaking with them or want to help spread the word, learn more about the interviews here.