Opportunity: The 12 actions to power First Nations jobs in clean energy

In National Indigenous Times by David Prestipino

A new report released Tuesday has found the transition to clean energy will require the development of a skilled workforce – creating new career opportunities for Indigenous people.

The First Nations Clean Energy Network report ‘Powering First Nations Jobs in Clean Energy’ launched with Federal Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen offered 12 recommendations across climate, energy and industry policy to be taken by Federal and state/territory governments, industry and training organisations.

First Nations communities are critical partners in the clean energy transition, including in the establishment of the workforce required to service the sector, the report found.

There was significant opportunity to increase First Nations employment broadly, including targets in renewable energy zones from 1.5 per cent to as much as five per cent, and even 10 per cent in some regions, to assist the clean energy industry’s need for more workers and to meet the government’s target of 82 per cent renewable energy generation by 2030.

Six of the 12 recommendations that can be implemented now include:

1. Mandating minimum Indigenous Procurement Policy and Australian Skills Guarantee compliance in Capacity Investment Scheme merit criteria

2. Negotiating minimum First Nations employment targets in Renewable Energy Transformation Agreements for solar farms in renewable energy zones supported by pre-employment programs to provide job candidates

3. Reviewing ARENA’s and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s procurement guidelines to incorporate employment and training targets for First Nations

4. Setting up a coordinated scheme for wind farm apprenticeships

5. Mandating employment and training targets in the delivery of First Nations housing retrofixt programs supported by training and pre-apprenticeship programs

6. Setting up a First Nations Clean Energy Cadetship Program for First Nations school students in the clean energy sector

The report’s authors reviewed industry and government policy, programs and targets across the nation to find out what was working and what was not, and found significant potential through collective action to improve First Nations employment outcomes.

The authors also examined renewable energy zones (REZs) in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland, and found the First Nations population share averages significantly higher than the national population share.

First Nations residents in REZs are also typically younger residents – just over 50 per cent are 19 years or under, compared to  approximately 25 per cent of the REZ population, providing a large pool of early career candidates.

Co-author Dr Chris Briggs, research director at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, said currently the numbers of First Nations Australians working in clean energy were low.

“First Nations in REZs are a ready-set-go workforce for the clean energy sector,” he said.

“Our results indicate if the clean energy industry could attract and train even modest proportions of young people, this would make a large contribution to the achievement of First Nations targets in most REZs, and to Australia’s transitioning economy as a whole.

“For example, there’s a great opportunity to train First Nations students as mechanical technicians to maintain the turbines over their 20-year lifetime and create jobs on-country.

“For example, there’s a great opportunity to train First Nations students as mechanical technicians to maintain the turbines over their 20-year lifetime and create jobs on-country.

“Equally, our findings show that by using targeted pre-employment programs, jobs for the unemployed or those ‘not in the labour force’ can be created on solar farms with enormous social impacts in regional First Nations communities.”

Dr Briggs said that First Nations employment targets in REZs of 5–10 per cent overall are achievable over time.

“The key is to combine ‘supply’ measures to increase workers with the right skills with ‘demand’ measures to ensure there are job commitments from industry,” he said.

“Supply measures on their own too often become ‘training for training sake’ without leading to jobs.

“Demand measures on their own mean industry can’t find enough workers with the right skills.”

Co-author Ruby Heard, steering group member of the First Nations Clean Energy Network and founder of Alinga Energy Consulting, said developing initiatives for school students was also paramount, given the high proportion of younger people in REZs.

“Our people want to work and students and those leaving school are a great place to start leading into entry-level positions, training programs and apprenticeships,” she said.

“Government investment is needed to develop quality regionally-based Registered Training Organisations and TAFEs in areas where the renewables industry is growing.

“We need quality, local training opportunities that are culturally appropriate and provide the specific support that many First Nations people will need to upskill for the clean energy sector.”

Ms Heard said the clean energy industry must keep up its end of the bargain.

“It must deliver on its promises, be culturally aware, offer competitive salaries, and establish supported training pathways that compete with jobs in mining,” she said.

“Collaboration is key. Ensuring First Nations are part of the design and implementation of jobs and training pathways is crucial to success.”

First Nations Clean Energy Network co-chair Karrina Nolan said this should be the final report for government and industry on enabling and achieving employment and training outcomes for First Nations people in the clean energy sector.

“Nearly every year the Australian Parliament delivers a report into First Nations employment outcomes, challenges and barriers,” she said.

“We recognise there’s ambition, but cut-through isn’t happening. Rather than waiting for another report, we can use these 12 recommendations and the opportunity provided by the clean energy transition to get in the driver’s seat.

“We must focus on where people are living, the energy projects being negotiated with Traditional Owners in those areas, the jobs First Nations can do on those projects, the community-controlled / First Nations providers that can deliver training needed, and the systems that are working or need fixing.”

Ms Nolan said it is critical to create jobs on Country, for people – where they live.

“And that’s possible with solar, wind, hydrogen and the many projects that may occur on lands where First Nations have consented,” she said.

“The Australian government knows it needs more people in energy-related jobs, with Budget 2024 establishing the $44.4 million Energy Industry Jobs Plan and $134.2 million for skills and employment support in key regions.

“Let’s use a percentage of these funds to invest in the economy of the future, set First Nations targets, deliver First Nations outcomes, and make the clean energy transition happen.”

The full report can be downloaded online.

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