Power and renewables

Mobilizing the younger generation: Industry

In the seventh episode of the DNV Talks Energy podcast, hosted by Mathias Steck, Service Area Manager for Renewables Northern Europe at DNV, we explore the role youth groups and students will play in the future of the energy industry and how students around the world are supporting the energy transition right now.

Series 12 of the Talks Energy podcast looks at the human facets of the energy transition. Throughout this series we’ll be speaking to guests to explore the impact that the move to clean energy is having on individuals and communities across the globe, and the integral role people will play in driving the energy transition forward.



In this episode, host Mathias Steck, Service Area Manager for Renewables Northern Europe at DNV, is joined by Meredith Adler, Executive Director at Student Energy, to discuss the need for a real transition within the university system to equip students with the specific human and technical skills required to serve the energy industry’s current and future needs.  They also consider the role of government in filling the current training gap, and the need for an equivalent in clean energy and sustainability to the petroleum engineering programmes offered by oil and gas companies.

Read the transcription of this episode here

Transcript:
Transcript:

MATHIAS STECK     Hello and welcome to the 12th series of the DNV Talks Energy podcast, I'm your host Mathias Steck. In this series so far, we've explored a range of themes related to the impact people and communities are having on the energy transition and the way it is impacting on them. In this episode, we take a closer look at the future of the energy sector: younger people. What role are youth groups and students playing in moving the energy transition forward now? How is this positive action also supporting the development of skills, knowledge and experience that will develop the industry leaders of tomorrow, motivated by a desire for a healthy planet?

Joining me to discuss these questions and more is Meredith Adler, Executive Director for Student Energy, a global organization which is focused on empowering the next generation of sustainability leaders. We discuss what the future holds as today's students ready themselves for important careers in the industry. We hope you enjoy the episode.

First of all, many thanks Meredith for joining me today. For the benefit of our listeners, could you give us an introduction to yourself, your role in student energy, what the organization focuses on and what inspired you to support young people in the energy sector?

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MEREDITH ADLER     Thank you very much for having me. So I'm Meredith Adler, I’m the Executive Director at Student Energy. So I oversee the whole global organization. We're an organization that represents 50,000 young people in 120 different countries who are creating the next generation of energy leaders and our organization really focuses on two pillars. So one is the skill and capacity building of young people. So we offer programmes that do everything from teaching you what a solar panel is all the way through to launching your career or your first business. Then we also have a big pillar of programming that we call Space for Youth where we do youth-led research on energy specifically and what young people want from the future of energy. And then we work with governments, companies and organizations on meaningful youth engagement and on facilitating intergenerational collaboration to move forward the energy transition.

When I was in university, I was actually very focused on human rights. I was really passionate about that topic area.

I actually hadn't thought that much about the environment, but as I went forward studying policies that were impacting people, I really came to be quite fascinated with energy policy and with how energy intersects and really impacts so much of people's lives, whether you have access to energy or not, obviously the unsustainability of our current energy system. And so from there, I just became very determined to work in energy, even though I had actually only had two or three classes on it.

But while I was doing this, I actually had done a lot of youth empowerment work. I ran my first youth empowerment conference when I was 16 years old. Some people invented apps. I was like all about youth leadership. And so when I graduated, I got a job doing research on clean energy and then slowly but surely found out about Student Energy, the organization I run now and realized that this was the intersection of all the things I really cared about. It was youth empowerment, it was energy, and then it was also international. And I moved abroad a good bit, and so those things were all really important to me. And I was able to find the organization at the right time. The current Executive Director was leaving, and they needed somebody who understood the non-profit landscape a little bit better. And so I was able to take over that role and then grow the organization from there.

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MATHIAS STECK     That's a really impressive story. Thank you for sharing this with us. We will come onto discuss the role that young people will play in the future of the energy industry, but I'm keen to understand about what's happening today and in what ways people of school and university age around the world are supporting the energy transition right now.

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MEREDITH ADLER     Today, we're in a really interesting position in that young people are very passionate about addressing climate change, but also you're encountering this climate anxiety. So a lot of young people who are very nervous, frankly, about what the future will hold. You're seeing a lot of people who are in their late twenties stating that they don't believe that they'll ever have children because in their opinion, it's not a responsible thing to do. So you're starting to see really big impacts on how people are living their lives based on anticipation of climate change or the climate impacts that we're having now. But then at the same time, young people really want something to happen. And so you've seen the climate protests that have reached almost every country at this point and are pretty pervasive. And so right now, what you're seeing really is the voting movement. I think you've seen a lot of governments across the world be elected based on climate policy. This happened in Denmark, it happened in Canada, and a lot of those have a high correlation of youth voters turning out for their first time.

So that's why I would say you're starting to see it is within this moment. And then I would say that the current interest in ESG at a corporate level, there seems to be a strong reaction to the fact that these future voters and consumers are really trending in this direction as well.

And so, I would say in the public support is where you're seeing it. The challenge is that our current university system by and large really isn't set up for energy transition roles, it is not  helping people to see these – these career paths, and I think many people who are currently working on sustainability have a story, something like mine. Where they seem to have flocked into it, but were passionate about it and it made it work. And while that is a fun story to tell, ultimately we can't scale anything that you can't replicate. And so I think there's a big training gap right now between the passion that young people have to address this and the ability for us to accurately train and prepare them for these careers and especially careers in something like the energy industry, which is so complex and involves so much risk. This isn’t a social media app where we can just like, try our best and see what happens. These are people's lives and economies that depend on the energy system.

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MATHIAS STECK     So do you have any specific examples of people with a story like yours or students playing an active role within the industry today already?

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MEREDITH ADLER     Definitely. I mean, we have some great examples at Student Energy, but some of the most interesting ones really are coming from where students have taken hold of certain ideas and been able to really ground them within their communities. One example is not a board member but an alumni, Rainka Kimbo, who lives in Uganda and he is one of these stories where he came to our International Student Energy Summit in 2015 as a business student. Did not know much about energy, definitely not much about engineering. But a speaker kind of flippantly said to him “you know, you're from Uganda. There's waste everywhere. You have this clean cooking problem. Maybe you could put those things together. And so he did. He went home and he worked with the engineering faculty to develop a clean burning briquette made of street trash that you could pick off the street in Uganda and then hired a team of students to do this trash picking and developed this whole briquette system and now has a wide customer base in Kampala, where he is providing a clean cooking solution for people based on waste recycling. And so, so you can see these things all the time where young people are able to take snippets of ideas from different places and put them together in their local context and then mobilize communities around it. So that's a really interesting thing young people are doing on an entrepreneurial level, and we've seen lots and lots of stories like that.

The other interesting thing that's starting to happen is in certain companies, there's being more space made for the opinions of their of their younger workforce. So one thing Student Energy does do is host and facilitate youth advisory councils. So where young people will actually work with the C-suite or the top of the sustainability committee or what have you on what does it actually look like to transform a company's goals or processes to start to meet the expectations of the young employees?

And those have been very interesting because you're really starting to get the rubber to hit the road on what are the core crux of the issues between different generations? What are the timelines that young people expect because they're much faster than what current leadership is looking like and really starting to see a bit more of a compromise on what can we do, how far can we push? And so those stories are a little harder to tell in detail as they have a lot of, you know, IP involved, if you will.

But I think that there's a huge opportunity for corporates to really start to think more creatively about how are we transparent with our younger employees? and how do we provide the opportunity to push? and then provide that opportunity for them to help us put the pieces together. I would say by and large, that's what we're seeing with a lot of our young entrepreneurs and our network, everything from industrial waste heat processes all the way to solar start-ups. We're seeing people just putting the pieces together in new and interesting ways and really getting at our deployment problems. I think a lot of the energy transition talk is around, you know, can we get to the next nuclear fusion or that type of thing? Whereas actually, what young people seem to be really good at is taking what exists and putting the pieces together in a new way to make it a bit more effective.

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MATHIAS STECK     Student Energy has also launched a Ventures programme this month. Can you tell us what this is about and how this will motivate young people to be part of the energy transition?

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MEREDITH ADLER     Definitely. And so this is partly inspired by Bryan and others whose stories I've just told. But Student Energy Ventures is a first of its kind programme that's working to combine all of the different factors that we know young people need in order to get their first energy business off the ground. And so – so what we're looking at is doing direct youth funding like we grant investments to help people have the first funding into their projects, paired with two years of pretty intensive coaching and mentorship, as well as open-source IP for standard energy projects like Energy Efficiency, Solar Clean Cooking, a few different coming down the line. And the reason for this programme is really that we've been doing skill and capacity building for the last 10 years, and we've had a lot of success. But unless somebody is coming from a place of power or privilege – and that comes in different forms – what you'll find is that it takes 5 to 10 years for them to get their first funder. And we're really looking at honestly between five and thirty thousand dollars. And so in the grand scheme of the energy industry, that's not a lot of money. But getting somebody to invest in you for the first time and have that kind of confidence in you is a huge barrier. And this is especially a big barrier for indigenous young people or young people from the global south, those who have typically been excluded from the energy industry. And so our real goal is to prove that young people are capable of these projects and that we can really scale up deployment and deployment capabilities if we start to trust young people with funding and then give them this wraparound support that they need.

Because another challenge within the global world of accelerators and incubators and things like that is that often you're going to one source for your initial funding and you're going to another source for your mentors and another source for your technical training. And that process of having to move around and put all the pieces together yourself is also delaying how we can really build these skills at scale. And so we want to create that one stop shop for it, if you will, and also provide - this is also meant to be a very entry level programme. A lot of other accelerators and incubators, you're looking at a certain level of technology or a bit of customer traction, different things like that to qualify to enter. And while those makes sense for those programmes, there's really very little going on at the level of just simply building the pipeline and getting more people into this ecosystem who are capable of taking on these projects and deploying them in places we don’t have them yet.

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MATHIAS STECK     Meredith, you mentioned climate anxiety, but on the other hand, you gave us great examples where people turn crisis into opportunities. So based on your experience of working with young people, what fresh perspective do they bring to the energy sector that those entering the careers 10 or 20 years ago perhaps didn't have to the same extent?

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MEREDITH ADLER     So the first thing I think we're seeing en masse is really a determination around the timeline for the transition. So a lot of companies five or six years ago would be saying that at 2100 would be the earliest that we could transition. Many, I think, still feel that way now. Whereas what we're seeing from young people is, by and large, they really want this transition to happen faster.

Our global youth energy outlook shows that over 85 percent of young people globally want net zero by 2050, and about 60 percent of them would like to see net zero by 2030. So that's vastly different than what you're hearing necessarily from governments or from the industry. And so while that level of impatience might be challenging, if you're someone's boss, I think it is really helping to push the dial on what can we do. And often what you're seeing from young people in the industry is they’re really, when given the opportunity, able to pull pieces together in a different way or ask questions about why is it that we do it that way? And perhaps there was a very good reason, you know, in the 1950s and the 1960s, to do it that way. But if nobody has been coming in and questioning that, it can very much be that there are new processes and new things that can be put in place to help meet these goals faster.

I think the other thing that's really crucial for the energy industry to think about and that they're really starting to reckon with is that young people are really focusing on energy issues in an intersectional way, which can be really challenging. What I mean by that is that often for a company, you'll have your CO2 mitigation policy over here and your goals around net zero over here. And then you'll have your community engagement and other human centered goals over here. Maybe they aren't as much of a factor for you. But what we're seeing from young people is that the social side and the environmental side are equally important and they see them as firmly interlinked. And so a lot of conversations with companies that we're working with where, you know, I'll sit in front of the CEO and say, you know, they want you to work on your carbon goals, but they actually are very concerned about your environmental justice and human rights issues at the same time, you know, and it is a little bit sometimes like giving somebody really complex math equation where there's this idea that we should be separating these things often within industry because it's easier to work on them in different areas.

But what young people are really expecting is this holistic action, and that can really be quite a bit of a challenge in terms of how you think through challenges. And I would say, if you look at the ESG conversation, it seems like there is a lot of progress happening on the environmental side. But I would predict that by the emphasis of young people, this social piece is going to become heavily critiqued in the not-too-distant future and going to become a really key centre point in a way that I don't think most companies have imagined the emphasis will be in the coming years.

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MATHIAS STECK     So Meredith, when we see how the energy transition goes now and what we expect to happen in the future, it's often the big corporates who do the large capex investments. But on the other hand, they are also really keen to work together with these young people and start-ups you mentioned earlier. So what specific skills do you think are needed to serve the energy industry's current and future needs? Is it more than just technical and engineering skills?

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MEREDITH ADLER     In terms of current skills, what we're definitely seeing is a need for these systems thinking generalists but also who have a strong data grounding. And so it's kind of an interesting skill set in that really a lot of what people will ask me for is someone who is one of these people I just described who can put these different pieces together and understand different parts of the business. But then also if you don't have enough of a technical grounding and understanding of the data and of the analytics that's really driving a lot of decision making in our information age, that's also a challenge. And so what we're seeing is a lot of these, you know, hybrid roles, a big emphasis on wanting these – technical generalists is sometimes how I refer to them. And so I think I think that's an interesting one that we’re definitely starting to see emerging. And then within the typical engineering skill set, I do think we will need a lot of engineers to make the energy transition happen. But once again, you're seeing a need for more socialized thinking and ability to understand more human elements of the different challenges. And I think this especially is true when you're looking at transitioning demand, when you're looking at how do we get more people into electric vehicles or taking public transit. Those types of questions are really requiring a more human centred approach, and that can be really challenging compared to your typical engineering education. So really across the board, I think what we're seeing is this need for more hybrid skill sets and a real transition within the university system and other systems to think about how are we really training and preparing young people because your typical research environment within a university setting really is not sufficient for the skill set that young people need to really work on this transitioning companies because it is such an intersectional technical and human management skills.

And I think finally, there is another piece of this, though, where many countries are running up against just a huge lack of skilled trade workers, people who can do construction, wind turbine technicians. There's a lot of trades in which people are really scrambling to find people who have those technical skills. So I think what we're really seeing is the need to rethink education in general. It might not be that PhDs are required for everyone. It really might be that we're looking at a different type of training programme to get at these skills that are necessary.

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MATHIAS STECK     You mentioned a bit earlier already that universities and how they teach currently are maybe not directly supporting young people to get ready for the energy transition. But how can a degree course prepare students for roles in the industry, including the preparation for future leadership and management?

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MEREDITH ADLER     I think degree courses that have a higher emphasis on practical implementation skills is really important. So I will admit that a lot of Student Energy’s programming focuses on people doing a project in some type of way.

And the reason that we focus so much on that is that is what tended to be missing from the university system, but is necessary is that if you can see a project through from start to finish, especially if you're looking for fundraising in that project, communicating, building a team. These are all kind of the skills that are missing.

So I think it's kind of that practical experience on implementation that universities could be focusing on more. And I think where universities are facing a big challenge is that they're mostly set up to be research institutions. And while we do need research for the future of the energy transition, I think that university administrators need to think really critically about who are the right people to be training young people and really investing in their ability to both gain these social and technical skills. And do we need to divorce that a little bit from the research-first model or from the researchers who are part of the university institutions right now? Because I think that's where the rubber is hitting the road is that a lot of researchers haven't necessarily worked outside of academia. And because academia is becoming such a different field from where corporates are at, you're seeing this kind of gap in ability to really prepare young people for these hybrid and dynamic roles that are quite different than they were in the early days.

And I think the final thing to say is that oil and gas companies, in particular, have invested a lot in universities, and they've invested a lot in training and recruiting and hiring and developing things like petroleum engineering programmes. And there is not currently an equivalent in clean energy and there's not currently an equivalent in sustainability. And I think the reason that is such an issue is that the industries are transforming a bit. And so when you don't have industry working hand-in-hand with universities, your training programmes just don't hit the mark in the same way. And I think there's a lack of diligence, I guess, on the part of the sustainability industry to really think about their pipeline development. And that I also think really comes from the fact that a lot of these companies are small start-ups. A lot of them do not have human resource capacity. They do not have the, you know, millions of dollars it takes to stand up a university programme, that type of thing. And so I think there's a big role for governments to play, actually to step in and start to fund the development of these training programmes to get ahead of the curve. Actually, what oil and gas companies have stood up are brilliant. They're great programmes in terms of getting the next generation in. We can't wait for clean energy companies to become as big and as powerful as that. We need to give these people skills now. And so I think that's a role for government to play is to fill that gap and help to make those programmes exist.

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MATHIAS STECK     So students finishing degrees related to clean energy now have excellent employment opportunities and companies are actually competing for them. What do you think employers have to do to attract talented young people?

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MEREDITH ADLER     Attracting the talent that’s ready to roll is really challenging at the moment, and I would say young people really are looking for the whole package. They're looking for companies that have really strong ethics and morals and that is being looked into more than you would imagine and then wanting to make sure that the work environment is also kind of copacetic with where they are. I think a lot of young people are very used to working in dynamic, different environments. They enjoy remote work, they enjoy kind of online management, all those types of things. And that can be quite different from where energy companies are at, especially if you're in a high-risk environment, if you're doing, which is a lot of the energy work. And so I think thinking about your management practices as well are really important.

And then finally, you know, young people want to be working on interesting problems and sometimes within larger corporate structures, your role can actually be very narrow and very small. And there's a need to basically open that up and make sure that young people, especially talented young people, are able to work on those kind of next level challenges and able to contribute more, collaborate more with leadership to keep them engaged and excited. Because if they feel like they're just organizing one spreadsheet over and over and over, you know, they'll likely find somebody else's start-up or others who want to give them that challenge.

And I think finally, you know, the motivations are a bit different. A lot of folks who are in the energy industry now who are in their 60s, you know, will say something to me like, but we offer a good job. We offer a good pension. Why is that not enough anymore? And I think for young people, there has been so much uncertainty, especially in the last three years, that they're not necessarily, the concept of pensions, uncertainty is not really on their minds. What's on their mind, is my day-to-day interesting? Do I feel like I'm contributing to solving this problem. And so money is actually a bit less of a motivator than it used to be. And people are really looking to, you know, can I be part of solving climate change? So you need to be able to direct people in that, and tell them how yes they can at your company.

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MATHIAS STECK     Meredith, we talked about founders, we talked about people with degrees and clean energies or a PhD. When we take a step back and have a bit broader view on all young people, what should all young people be doing if they want to make a difference?

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MEREDITH ADLER     I think young people really need to work on finding their path to do something with their career and on the day-to-day. What we see from research is that even 74 percent of young people who attended a climate protest were not necessarily sure what they could do next. What else they could do to contribute. And I think that that's a real shame. I think, you know, we at Student Energy and companies and others have a big role to play in terms of demystifying that.

But if you are a young person who's interested in this, there's just so many opportunities, especially within the energy industry. It's not something that's often thought of as climate action work, but really choosing a career path and going forward is very important.

And I think another challenge is that a lot of young people are quite paralyzed by choice. You're not sure where to go, they're not sure which degree path to choose. And because you know, the pathways for it on what needs to happen can feel so fuzzy, it's very challenging to decide where to go. And I think the biggest piece of advice I have is really you can make an impact just about anywhere as long as you are kind of determined around this. And so every job will be a sustainability job in the next 15 years within their career. And so it's important just to pick a place and get started and learn a skill set. And if you really hate it, you can move on later. But there's always an impact to be made on the climate front, no matter what you're doing.

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MATHIAS STECK     Meredith, I have one more question for you, and that is to ask you what your hopes are for the future of the energy sector. And do you have confidence that today's young people we talked about will help to meet the climate change targets agreed in Glasgow last year?

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MEREDITH ADLER     I mean, my hope for the energy sector is that they really lead the way in how we address climate change, but how we also address human rights. I think we haven't talked a lot about it, but energy access is going to be a huge piece of how we achieve SDG 7 by 2030. And Student Energy has actually just launched our Solutions Movement, where we have a goal of mobilizing one hundred and fifty million dollars for 10,000 youth-led energy projects specifically to fill the skills gap. And so I actually view the energy sector as being a huge part of that goal, but also the other goals that have been put forward through the energy compacts and through U.N. energy, just in that – in the High-Level Dialogue for Energy, so just in the lead up to Glasgow. So I think that energy has been really overlooked, that people in the climate community don't necessarily understand the role that energy plays in such a large scale.

But I think there's such a huge opportunity for governments and companies and young people to come together and say “Look, we have this tool in a toolkit. We have this system that is a huge contributor to climate change, but also can be a big part of the solution. How are we going to actually work together to make this happen?” Because there is a lot of ingenuity in the sector, there's a lot of engineering capability and then there's a lot of young people who are looking for ways to make an impact. And so I really think that we can put all those pieces together and show the true collaboration and cohesive action we need to achieve these goals.

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MATHIAS STECK     Many thanks Meredith for your time today. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

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MEREDITH ADLER     Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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MATHIAS STECK     Meredith shed light on some of the barriers preventing young people from entering the industry and how we can support them in becoming the future leaders of the energy transition. She also discussed the need to prepare university students for the dynamic hybrid roles that the industry vitally needs. Join us next week as we continue our focus on young people, this time exploring the role they are playing in efforts to decarbonize.

To hear more podcasts in the series, please visit dnv.com/talksenergy.

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