6 Ways To Close The Sustainability Skills Gap

Published on:
by Eric Burdon
Group of workplace colleagues looking at sustainable energy resources

While it is great to see many businesses across multiple industries make leaps and bounds in sustainability practices, companies are still facing problems. Problems that not even a handful of chief sustainability officers (CSO) can handle.

What companies need right now are not just more workers, but workers from all areas of business. And they need them to do one simple thing: think about sustainability and how it impacts their decision-making every single day.

They don’t just need a CSO, but product designers, supply managers, scientists, architects, economists, accountants, and many others to pool their knowledge and first evaluate unsustainable practices, then identify ways to improve sustainability, meet compliance targets, and maintain the resources for education so that, in some way, within the organization, every future job is a sustainability job. 

Sustainable Development Needs Skills

What this has done is create a large influx of 'green' jobs. A LinkedIn Global Green Skills Report showed that green jobs were increasing by 8% each year for the past 5 years. The only issue is that green talent in the global workforce has only increased by 6% each year.

In other words, while demand is continuing to increase, supply is drying up. There is a massive skills gap, and it’s only getting worse as fewer people are going to colleges and universities where those skills would be taught.

That being said, there are several ways for us to close the gap between the influx of jobs and getting the skills necessary. As with automation, industries where automation was introduced changed over time. Sustainability skills aren’t so different, as any current employee could use this opportunity to bridge the gap using any of these methods.

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University Programmes

As hinted above, universities and colleges are implementing these skills in many of their programmes now. Today, it’s not out of the ordinary for a product designer or economics student to take a class in sustainability approaches.

Closing the gap for those beginning to enter the workforce is given a significant boost by taking a university programme. However, for those already in a career, going back to school might not be the best option. In those cases, a competency-based approach could be ideal, such as creating strong leadership, how to identify opportunities, and creative problem-solving.

Micro-Credentials

Alternatively, mid-career employees can bridge the gap by simply taking short courses. Many universities offer these quick refresher courses, and they offer a wide range of skills that motivate the learner to return to work with desirable knowledge that can be project-specific or generally useable. For example, a micro-credential could involve taking a group of courses or workshops that focus on a specific skill set relevant to your industry, such as incorporating ESG criteria or learning about wind energy technology.

This option also works for lower-income individuals who want to train for sustainability jobs without having to get a full-fledged degree.

Specialisations

Similar to the methods above, specialisations are nice add-ons to industries that need them. Google is a prime example, as they provide an online course for project managers, and Arizona State University offers a sustainability specialization that comes with the completion of that programme.

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Making Sustainability A Priority

These efforts shouldn’t just fall on individuals, businesses themselves can be more involved. Beyond paying employees to be specialised, receive micro-credentials, or go back to college or university, businesses can extend beyond those actions. One particular strategy is to make sustainability a much larger priority than it already is, to put sustainable practices at the centre.

When a company makes a major change, employees adapt and change along with it. If businesses are able to offer support during the transition and explain why changes are being made, employees will, in turn, be more open to those changes.

We already see this behaviour when companies offer volunteer programmes to their employees. Many companies proudly show off how employees engage with local communities while doing various jobs. If sustainability is part of the company's goals and is readily available, people will engage with it, and they will foster a direct understanding to the social or environmental issues, for example, connected with climate change.

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Upskill Via Training

Internal training programmes are another consideration that shouldn’t be ignored either. They’re sometimes all that’s really needed for those looking to work long-term for a particular business. What’s also nice about internal training programmes is that they come in different forms. You could consider workshops, but also online courses, staff-led group sessions, mentoring programs, and internships. 

This leads on from the last point, as when teaching happens internally, employees (and employers) may develop a keener commitment both to sustainable practices, and the basic need for change within an organization. If the first step is to discover opportunities for change together, as a team, then that's a strong foundation for productive growth.

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Sustainability Practices In The Employee Lifecycle

Sustainability is a good goal to work towards, but for many, the focus is on the present. What’s more advantageous is when companies step back, look at the bigger picture, and try to incorporate sustainability into everything.

A Harvard Business Review study found that when sustainability targets and social impact considerations are put in place for recruiting and attracting workers, employee engagement and retention rates increase. This makes sense because employees want goals for their work. They want their work to have some meaning.

Not only that, but goals ultimately encourage people to change and improve. In order to meet sustainability goals, it helps to know what that means and find skills that make achieving that goal easier. There may be no singular framework for 'success', rather many different ways that benefit different members of the team.

Build Critical Thinking, Close The Skills Gap

Closing the sustainability skill gap is going to be tricky. Understandably, this is most often seen as additional to regular operating practice, and not every business can pay every employee to go to college or go through workshops to get the necessary skills immediately. There is also the learning curve itself, as business owners, managers, and employees are all learning about new things.

But applying any or some of these methods will make a difference in the long-term. This is because, at all levels, any of the above suggestions requires a company to stop and take stock of itself in order to see where change may be needed. This necessarily requires a degree of critical thinking, an ability that we should all develop. Stopping, observing, analysis, then the inference of what may be required and which decision pathway to follow, perhaps the most critical of skills required to make informed choices after solving problems.

What's certain is that, with more companies concerned about the environment and ESG overall, there is going to be more pressure to make each company unique in how they handle ESG and, more importantly, sustainability. That will require more attention from employers to help develop the skills needed in the workforce to adapt and grow together.

Looking for online or in-person sustainability learning opportunities? KnowESG provides a curated listing of ESG Courses, updated daily for your search.

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