Are you old enough to remember the Y2K scare of 1999? The time when approaching the excitement of a new millennium was nearly overshadowed by a global fear that the world’s computers would stop working due to a glitch in the computer’s data-keeping system? Nothing happened as the clock ticked past midnight on New Year’s Eve that year, but around this same time, we were going through a definitive shift in how the world worked.
We were in the middle of the transition from an analog to digital world of work, and there was a new demand for data scientists, web programmers, and digital graphic designers as companies transformed their businesses to keep up with the changing times. To respond, the education sector supported the digitalisation of many existing professions by adding in the critical skills for the 21st century.
Now, we are going through another massive shift to the way we work, with new skills needed to support the changing times we are in; except this time, it’s about the reality of the global environmental crises, the supply chain disruptions, the pressing need for social equity and the ever-apparent impacts of climate change. There’s also one other key difference: there aren’t quite enough workers getting trained to fill the needed roles. We are lagging behind the shift in skills needed to keep up with the demand for professionals equipped with capabilities that will help us transform our economy to be circular and sustainable.
There is a massive gap in the green skills market
In the last few years especially, the world has come to terms with the immediate need for action on climate change, and a transition to a circular and equitable economy is underway. Companies of all shapes and sizes are realizing they need highly skilled workers to fill the demand for the transition in the way products are made, supply chains are run, and business operations are managed. Realizing that they must respond to the changes afoot, industries are demanding that governments answer their call for more educated and skilled workers in all the associated fields of sustainability. For example, the UK construction industry has called for significant investment in the upskilling and recruitment of sector workers who can meet the needs and requirements of the UK government’s commitment to achieve net zero by 2050.
The kind of green skills needed are; technical capabilities in delivering sustainability, be it through environmental impacts assessments, ESG rating, sustainable product design, reverse supply chain engineering, life cycle assessments, green materials scientists, circular economy advisors, environmental accounting experts, green energy transition technicians and the list goes on. Right now, though, there is a gap in even a basic comprehension of the strategies and approaches needed to transition businesses to sustainability, because there has been limited investment from universities and companies in the skills training needed to address the growing green economy needs.
The number of mainstream degrees that include robust technical skills in sustainability sciences or even the fundamentals of how to assess impacts and design solutions that reverse them is still small relative to the demand for such services from industry. MBA’s don’t adequately teach and demonstrate responsible investing or environmental accounting; instead, they mostly teach the methods that made the old linear economy. People want to learn about climate change and how to help make a positive impact, but across the education sector, we are seeing a lack of integration of this type of valuable knowledge.
Then there is the lack of on-the-job-training that enables people to upskill in the workforce. Through my sustainability-focused educational initiative, The UnSchool, I have seen a significant increase in demand from companies wanting to train their employees, and individuals taking it upon themselves to gain new skills in sustainability, systems thinking and creative change-making. Sustainability, especially in business, is thankfully no longer seen as some nice side thing that a group of well-intentioned people do on their lunch break.
For many employees, there is a strong desire for a sincere and holistic approach to addressing environmental and social issues, rather than a simplistic, tick-the-box style response. This is driving organizations to create strategic sustainability roles, which need to be filled with people who have technical skills—but where do these skilled people come from when we have been underinvesting in this area for so long?
“Skills gaps are already recognized as a major bottleneck in a number of sectors, such as renewable energy, energy and resource efficiency, renovation of buildings, construction, environmental services, manufacturing. The adoption and dissemination of clean technologies requires skills in technology application, adaptation and maintenance. Skills are also crucial for economies and businesses, workers and entrepreneurs, to rapidly adapt to changes as a consequence of environmental policies or climate change.” – The International Labour Organization
Green jobs for a green recovery
They are being called “green jobs,” which are roles that help companies transition to a “green economy” across all sectors, often inline with government targets to achieve net zero or track along with the Sustainable Development Goals. But defining what a green job skill is proves difficult, as all jobs impact the environment—and so the term covers a vast array of roles, responsibilities, and possibilities.
Green jobs can only be filled with people who have the comprehensive or specific green skill set required to achieve the role. This often requires specialized knowledge and capabilities. Under the current market, people have had to seek out this training themselves. Then there are existing jobs that are going green, whereby on-the-job training needs to be offered so that the occupants can adapt their existing knowledge to include green skills.
Over a decade ago, the UK government reported that, “The green economy is defined as one in which value and growth are maximized across the whole economy, while natural assets are managed sustainably. Such an economy would be supported and enabled by a thriving low carbon and environmental goods and services sector. Environmental damage would be reduced, while energy security, resource efficiency and resilience to climate change would all be increased,” (Skills for the Green Economy Report, 2011). Yet only 1.2% of all advertised roles in the year to July 2021 were related to green jobs, according to consultancy firm PwC, and for every one green job created, a further six are created as a result, having a net benefit on the economy if invested in.
The idea of a green industrial revolution or the green recovery have been touted by governments around the world. Investment in infrastructure and transitions to renewable and low carbon technologies is part of the package of solutions committed to addressing climate change, so there is a clear demand for capabilities growing in the market.
Some might still argue that the world’s companies are lagging behind when it comes to sincere and significant action on climate change and the array of environmental and social crises that we face. Some might argue that it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the “right thing” is done. But the reality is that we are in the middle of a great shift in the way society operates, in part being forced upon us, because of the stark and obvious need for a transformation to systems that work for us and the planet, away from the polluting, extractive and exploitative linear economy. Those that embrace this now will benefit, whereas those that choose to ignore it longer will be playing catch up. This applies to any size company, as well as academic institutions. The truth is that every job is a climate job, and we need organizations and academia to embrace that now to prepare for the future that works better than today.
The values-based economy
Because of these emerging issues, we are also seeing a significant cultural shift in the workforce, whereby people are demanding meaningful and purpose-filled work within companies who share their values for a just and safe future.
Studies done by Deloitte shows that Gen Z and Millennials are deeply concerned about environmental issues such as climate change, and many want to both work for and buy products/services from companies which recognize these values. Recent studies such as Mercer (2018), World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), report “Complex disruptions to the Future of Work”; Harvard Business Review and The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019 also demonstrate these trends. Investing in training and development around green skills should not be seen as a moral obligation but as a business imperative as the world’s economy is shifting away from fossil and polluting activities, to green, renewable and regenerative practices. Every sector is impacted by this change, so there is also an argument around competition and productivity for a significant investment in green skill development.
As part of a project that my organization Disrupt Design completed in 2020 in partnership with Unily, where we looked at the future of work (all graphics in this article are from the report), we came up with the top 10 green jobs that the market needs right now, from chief sustainability officers to reverse supply chains engineers, through to low-impact food advisors for the Food and Beverage Industry, as well as sustainable product designers and customer service providers who assist in the delivery of products as service models. In short, there are so many new roles from higher education though to HR and professional development instructors that will require a rapid upskilling in the workforce.
Our society is set up so that people get educated with the skills they will need to meet the demand in the economy. But our educational institutions are rigid and slow to react when it comes to rewriting curriculums and changing the way young people are skilled for their professional roles. We still have neatly-defined, siloed professionals that lack basic training in social and environmental impact assessment, let alone the practical skills required to help transform the economy.
As someone who created an experimental knowledge lab for adults (the UnSchool), I have my fair share of gripes with the mainstream academic sector. However, I was very fortunate to study a program in social science that majored in sustainability and equipped me with the knowledge and skills needed to go on to forge a career in advancing sustainability. I have taught at universities around the world and am always shocked at how little the idea of impact assessment and mitigation is integrated into most degrees, especially the types of professions that will have significant impacts on society and the planet!
The talent pipeline is still being stocked with reductive thinkers who are being trained to serve a linear and exploitative system. I meet so many people who feel grossly underserved by their academic training. They are desperate to get taught the skills needed to meet the needs of our time, not the ideas of an older generation who made the rules that they are still having to operate within. Engineers, designers, scientists, economics majors—they are all calling for content that helps them respond to climate change and meet the needs of a changing world in order to be responsible, value-led citizens.
Sustainability should be seen as the fourth functional skill of education that we teach, in addition to reading, math and writing. Given how fundamental these are to participating in society, so too should the ability to know and identify the impact of our actions and see the relationships that people have to the planet.
Ideas on activating green skills:
- Master’s and MBA programs integrate impact assessment and mitigation decision-making into the core of the academic program. How can we create the leaders of tomorrow without teaching them how to assess the impacts of their actions and ensure that those actions are not damaging to the environment and people? I say to start with these higher level degrees, because they are training the leaders of today, and we need action right now on climate.
- Offer on-the-job training to upskill staff who are interested in shifting their work roles to sustainability initiatives. This does not have to be complicated, basic comprehension of sustainability, cause and effect relationship assessment and the ability to make informed designs about the social, economic and environmental impacts of actions within a role, are the best place to start.
- Go beyond the obvious; just as a company offers basic company-wide training in GDPR guidelines, you should be ensuring that all of your employees are up to date on how to do sustainability, what your company’s policies are and align on the goals to achieve sustainability.
- Collectively we need to rewrite the narrative on what “green,” “sustainable” and all the other sub and associated terms mean, so that we get over the old and archaic idea that it’s an add-on or the responsibility of an NGO to deal with. Impacts on the environment affect all of us, so actions taken by individuals and organizations should always be taken with consideration for the effects that they have on the environmental systems that sustain life
- Equip HR managers with the capabilities to discern green skills in potential candidates.
- Create new roles and support them with the right team, infrastructure, salary and timescales. Invest in leadership development for career progression in the green skills sector.
- Create apprenticeships and skills-based training programs so that technical skills are transferred.
- Shift curriculums so that sustainability, and the ability to consider impacts as part of decision-making, are seen as functional skills that are taught across all levels of education.
- Offer tax credits to companies providing significant upskilling or reskilling in sustainability sciences and green job skills.
If you are interested in exploring the data, demand and impact of the green skills gap, here are some great recent reports on the issue:
- Closing the UK’s Green Skills Gap, 2022, Green Alliance; download the report here
- The International Labor Organizations Skills for Green Jobs reports; available here
- The UK Government’s Green Jobs Taskforce report; available here
- Mind the Skills Gap assesses the gaps in the supply and demand of skills required to deliver sustainable communities by the Academy of Sustainable Communities, 2007; available here
- London School of Economics, Are Green Jobs Good, 2021; available here
- OECD, Employment Implications of Green Growth: Linking jobs, growth, and green policies, 2017; available here
- Project Drawdown offers a comprehensive guide to addressing climate change at work; available here
- Take our 4-week Sustainability in Business Sprint; available here
Dr. Leyla Acaroglu is a social scientist who developed the Disruptive Design Method. She is founder of the UnSchool of Disruptive Design.
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