The transition to net zero is going to become the defining trend of the next few decades. The scale of the challenge is slowly becoming clear – to governments, businesses and individuals. But with huge challenges come opportunities too, and our profession has a key role to play here. 

Last month, the CIPD published a new report, Putting people professionals on the road to net zero. At the CIPD Scotland conference a few days later, over 300 people attended the session built around it. The demand for more guidance on the topic from our members is clear. And no wonder. The key theme running through the report is that its people in a transforming labour market who will be at the heart of the transition to net zero. Which in turn means people professionals will be at the heart of the transition too.  

The report is written through a northeast Scotland offshore energy lens, using the transition from high-carbon oil and gas to low-carbon hydrogen, carbon capture utilisation and storage, and offshore wind, as a case study to draw out broader conclusions for people professionals and policy-makers. Based on a series of interviews with senior CIPD members, it zoned in on three key themes – sustainability, workforce planning and skills development.  


Employees across organisations of all sizes are very likely to have a mix of knowledge of sustainability, the just transition’ framework and net zero. This includes HR teams too. A first step on any organisation’s sustainability journey is therefore to spread an understanding of environmental and sustainability issues throughout the organisation. For HR teams, it is important to start with ourselves, for example by tapping into the range of free online resources available or accessing external training.  

Of course, the improved understanding of the sustainability agenda does not have to be limited to activity in the workplace – employees may also welcome information and guidance on what steps they can take at home. Given the link between energy usage and energy costs, this may be a particularly welcome intervention.  

For sustainability to be built into organisational culture, HR should become its champion – this is what we do best. Some organisations have dedicated sustainability staff, but in the absence of additional resources, providing some additional time to existing staff to serve as sustainability champions can be an alternative.   

Once organisational challenges are understood, terms defined and goals and targets set, a key part of the sustainability journey is a review of all company-wide workplace practices to ensure they make a positive contribution. This can range from flexible working, through the reward package to creating zero-waste workplaces.  

Workforce planning  

One of the running themes that emerged during our interviews was the desire to ensure that the net zero transition does not repeat the perceived mistakes of past industrial transitions. Much of the existing oil and gas workforce will be key to unlocking the less mature offshore energy sectors, underlining the importance of our profession in managing this shift.  

However, the social and community dimension of prioritising redeployment and retraining over redundancy must not be ignored. The net-zero transition is not only an economic opportunity for the northeast, Scotland and for the UK as a whole. It is also an opportunity to ensure that a decline in one industry (oil and gas) does not result in a rise in unemployment, but has a positive transformational effect on local communities instead.   

On an organisational level, some employers have put in place specific plans that outline the steps they are taking to smooth the just transition for their existing workforce. SSE was one of the first companies to do this in their Just Transition Strategy. SSE’s commitments to skills transfer and development, and job quality included networking and mentoring for former high-carbon workers, the removal of specific industry experience in job adverts and an offer of permanent contracts as standard.  

Skills development  

On a public policy level, we conclude that Scotland’s skills development system needs to work better in three areas. First, we need to develop and manage transferable skills. Not only do we need to ensure that existing employees with transferable skills can cross industries, but we also need to embed such skills into the system now for transitions decades down the line.  

Second, we need to introduce new and additional pathways to meet labour market demand. Skills and labour shortages are already constraining growth in the offshore industry, and we are only in the infancy of sectors like hydrogen and CCUS.  

Third, we need an increased focus on lifelong learning. There are thousands of employees across high-carbon industries who will face unemployment unless given the opportunity to upskill or reskill.  

However, our conversations suggest that there are some key barriers that need to be overcome for this to be a smooth transition. For example, there is considerable uncertainty about the pace of change. This means that there may be a lag between the loss of existing job opportunities (for example in oil and gas) and the emergence of new job opportunities (for example, in hydrogen). Organisations and policy-makers will both have a role to play in bridging an eventual gap.  

Furthermore, future skills requirements are likely to change in ways we can’t predict today. Good labour market intelligence will have to play a key role and the skills development system as a whole will need to be more flexible and responsive to accommodate fast changes in skills demand.  

Key takeaways  

Both of Scotland’s governments (UK and Scottish) have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to become a true global leader in net zero. The foundations are there, but building our net-zero future will have to be a joint endeavour.  

For people professionals, this is an opportunity to use our values-led approach and take a lead on the journey to net zero by:  

  • driving the sustainability agenda through organisations of all sizes 

  • approaching workforce planning with a just transition lens 

  • focusing on upskilling, reskilling and redeployment for their employees. 

To aid organisations on this journey, policy-makers need to ensure there is an enabling public policy environment. They need to recognise that, as a country, we have an opportunity to ensure that, unlike in the past, the upcoming changes benefit individuals and communities by:  

  • providing funding and signposting resources 

  • ensuring skills development systems are ready 

  • driving fair work principles throughout the transition.  

About the author

Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser for Scotland

Marek joined the CIPD in October 2019. He leads the CIPD’s public policy work in Scotland, focusing primarily on fair work, skills and productivity. Prior to joining the CIPD, Marek spent nearly a decade working at the Scottish Parliament as a political adviser responsible for policy-making across devolved areas of public policy.

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