As renewables start pushing up the cost of fossil fuels, as oil companies admit that some of their reserves are unburnable, and as entire countries announce their intentions to go fossil fuel-free, we should all be paying attention to how a low-carbon transition might impact our investments, and our careers too.

That's especially true for companies and individuals who work for — or are heavily invested in — the industries fueling global climate change.

Transferable skills

The good news, however, is that much of the scientific, engineering and project management expertise that has been so important in the fossil fuel age will be equally as important in the age of renewables. As offshore wind energy becomes mainstream and oil prices languish, for example, folks who might previously have sought work designing, building or operating offshore drilling operations might do well to consider a career in wind. Similarly, as large-scale geothermal energy starts attracting investment, the scientific and engineering skills that made the fracking revolution possible ought to be decidedly transferable to a less destructive application.

Already, there are some high-profile examples of former oil industry specialists who have jumped ship. Tom Delay, for example, CEO of The Carbon Trust — a world leader in helping organizations plan for and transition to a low carbon future — spent more than 16 years working for Shell Oil before shifting to his current focus.

Switching sides

Similarly, Jeremy Leggett is a former oil geologist and class mate of ex-BP CEO Tony Hayward. Being a science-minded person (like many in the oil industry), he became increasingly concerned about global warming in the '80s, and eventually left to join Greenpeace in 1989. Following a stint as an environmental campaigner, he founded Solarcentury — a company which has grown to become one of Britain's leading solar energy installers, and which donates 5 percent of its profits to promoting solar lighting in rural Africa.

In Leggett's latest endeavor, he has been chronicling the run up to the Paris climate talks in a freely downloadable, serialized e-book called "The Winning of the Carbon War." Leggett's background in the oil industry is just as important as his perspective as a clean energy entrepreneur in informing his fascinating and decidedly frank commentary. Take this excerpt from October 2014 in which he eviscerates BP's retreat from clean energy:

“BP’s retreat from renewables has been so dismal to watch. After the high hopes of the Browne years came a shameless retrenchment to carbon under Tony Hayward’s leadership, notwithstanding hardening scientific evidence on climate change. Now, under Bob Dudley – who once headed BP’s solar unit – BP is on a dedicated mission to emulate ExxonMobil’s worst.”

A coming brain drain?

Stanford engineering studentsCareers in clean tech are likely starting to look more promising to engineering students. (Photo: Stanford Engineering/flickr)
Some in the oil and gas industries have been worried about a "brain drain" since before the current pinch caused by oil price crashes and uptick in climate commitments from businesses, investors and politicians alike.

Industry blog Energy Digital published an article lamenting this brain drain back in February 2014. Predicting what it called a "prolonged boom," the article worried about decisions made during the '80s oil crisis to cut back on recruitment and training programs. The result, it claimed, was a woeful skills shortage of expertise in mid-career oil and gas workers:

"The shortage is being felt right across the breadth of the industry, from the back office to the drill bit. The numbers speak for themselves. The average age of oil and gas workers is astonishingly high, at 56. Almost half of the industry workforce is now over 45, and over half of experienced engineers within the industry will be eligible for retirement in the next five to 10 years."

Given that, since this article was published, oil majors have been backing off exploration, laying off workers and idling drilling rigs, one can only imagine that the job for industry recruiters is getting harder, not easier, as time goes on, and that a career in clean tech might look decidedly more promising to a young engineer.

Divestment targets recruitment

Also worth noting is the rapidly growing fossil fuel divestment push. While the sheer amount of money divested so far is notable, impacting recruitment is often cited as an equally important aim of the divestment movement. Ben Caldecott who researches energy and climate change as director of the Stranded Assets Program at Oxford University, explained recently in a New York Times interview that the stigmatization that divestment movements create make it "much harder for stigmatized businesses to recruit good people, to influence policy and, occasionally, to raise capital.”

The fact that much of this has focused on college campuses — a key recruitment venue for fossil fuels and renewables alike — may have an outsized influence on future career decisions. Perhaps the most telling quote on all this, however, comes from fromer Duke Power Chairman Jim Rogers, when asked what he'd like to be doing if he was at the beginning of his career:

"I would come into the industry as someone who is an attacker, not a defender. I'd want the solar on the rooftop. I'd want to run that. I'd want the ability to deploy new technologies that lead to productivity gains to the use of electricity in homes and businesses. I would go after the monopoly that I see weakened over the last 25 years. My goal would be to take customers away from utilities as fast as I could, because I think they're vulnerable. Regulations will not be changed fast enough to protect them. The business model will not be changed fast enough."

I wouldn't be surprised if outgoing oil and gas CEOs start saying very similar things.