By Jessie Taylor

South Africa’s transition to renewable energy holds the promise of creating job opportunities while igniting the green economy. However, at the heart of a just energy transition is reskilling those already working in fossil-fuel sectors such as mining and electricity generation.

If the transition is effectively managed, not only will these workers be part of the country’s move towards cleaner energy use, but thousands of others could benefit from the new job opportunities it unlocks.

Growing job opportunities through the green economy

South Africa’s economy is dependent on coal-fired power, and the country accounts for 1.2% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. The transition away from fossil fuels is expected to create significantly more jobs than are lost by closing down fossil fuel value chains.

While the transition is likely to result in the loss of about 300 000 jobs, it will see the creation of as many as 815 000 new jobs up to 2050. Most of the job losses will be the high-emissions industries of coal and petroleum, but the gains will come from mining-related and renewable energy industries.

In addition to those new jobs created, industries supporting renewable energy sectors are also likely to see growth that may result in indirect job creation. While it is still uncertain how many indirect jobs could be created, case studies in other countries point to the number of indirect jobs being between 0.6 and 2.5 times the number of direct jobs.

The move towards renewable energy is also expected to improve the country’s competitiveness, and the resulting economic growth will likely create jobs in sectors unrelated to the green economy.

However, to take advantage of the potential job opportunities, the government will need to invest heavily in skills transfer programmes for those already working in fossil-fuels sectors. 

Reskilling and upskilling existing workers is a key element of a just energy transition. With South Africa’s staggering youth unemployment rate, young people will be a key focus for upskilling programmes and emerging opportunities in the renewable energy sector.

The skills needed range from electrical engineers, operations and maintenance managers and mechanical technicians. Skills in manufacturing, assembly and installation are also needed. Business skills such as sales, marketing, finance and general business operations will also be needed.

Many of the skills required for these jobs are in short supply in South Africa.

Upskilling coal-based sectors

But increasing skills training is not the sole guarantee that there will be a workforce ready to transition to renewable energy. More than two-thirds of South Africa’s coal mining takes place in four Mpumalanga municipalities, but just energy transition investments are taking place in provinces such as the Western Cape and Northern Cape.

These factors will need to be considered when creating the reskilling strategy, as coal workers are redirected towards new jobs sectors such as construction, electrical engineering and information technology.

Around R2.7-billion has been allocated for reskilling programmes across the country, according to the  Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET-IP). The document offers a guide for South Africa’s move to renewable energy. Under the JET-IP, the government plans to set up a national skills hub to advise on reskilling needs. An estimated R1.6-billion will be allocated to establishing skills development zones in Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape. 

These zones will be run by technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges and support the development of new skills and courses. 

In a bid to upscale the training of young people, South Africa will look to increase the number of students enrolled in TVET colleges. The goal is to increase student intake to around 2.5 million.

Some programmes are already underway to educate and upskill youth with skills required for the future economy, including partnerships with the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services SETA (MerSETA) to implement green skills capacity-building programmes. The programmes target unemployed youth to be trained as technicians in the solar energy sector for potential employment at solar farms or solar installation companies.

Another programme, the Reskilling Lab by the Renewable Energy Solutions for Africa Foundation, aims to reskill employees at the coal-based power plants value chain to be able to take up jobs within the renewable energy sector and new value chain.

President Cyril Ramaphosa added that at the heart of the country’s transition away from fossil fuels will be inclusion.

“New jobs and opportunities need to be created for workers in old power stations that are being decommissioned and in the coal mines that reach the end of their life.

“We need to skill, upskill and reskill workers who will be affected to take up positions in new industries. Affected communities need to benefit from the building of new renewable energy plants and new industries.”

Read more about youth employment initiatives in the June 2023 edition of Public Sector Leaders: