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The Sustainability Skills Gap: We Have the Will, We Need the Skill

The shift to a more sustainable economy is underway with businesses prioritising climate action to differentiate their companies from competitors, enhance their brand, meet customer expectations and improve their bottom line. But although firms are waking up to the reason why reaching net-zero matters for their survival, it’s who can deliver climate action that’s the biggest challenge. A 2022 survey by UN-backed SME Climate Hub reveals that 63% of small businesses are delaying climate action because they don’t have the right in-house sustainability skills and knowledge needed. This is mirrored across sectors and firms of all shapes and sizes.

The green labour shortage is seeing industries competing for the same workers with climate experts in high demand. In 2021, over 10% of job listings required at least one green skill. In 2022, that number is increasing with sustainability expertise in short supply. According to an estimate by the International Energy Agency, 14 million jobs (including 117,000 in the UK) will need to be filled by 2030, to service the world’s growing green energy infrastructure. Across the UK economy, over 6 million jobs could be affected by the drive to reach net-zero requiring workers to acquire new skills. When it comes to the environment, businesses have, it seems, the will but not the skill.

Esin Serin, a policy analyst at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, a unit of the London School of Economics. says that “matching the speed of the workforce transition with the urgency of investments in technology and infrastructure is a huge challenge”.

Mind the UK Green Skills Gap

The latest research from the Green Alliance shows that every major sector in the UK, needs to close this significant skills gap to reach net-zero by 2050. Sectors with the most pressing emissions reductions (housing, transport, and land use) are already facing eco skills shortages just to maintain the status quo, let alone achieve carbon neutrality. Aside from attracting new green talent, a focus on transferring existing skills and retraining is vital. The sustainability skills gap is most evident in 4 sectors:

1. Housing - buildings are responsible for 16% of UK greenhouse gas emissions and the sector currently employs 1.3 million people in the UK. To meet the UK’s climate target, almost all the UK’s current housing stock needs to be retrofitted with energy efficiency measures and low-carbon heating systems. The big challenge in this lies with a shortage of skilled workers. Analysis by IPPR indicates that 750,000 construction workers could retire, or be on the verge of retirement, by 2035. This coincides with the UK government’s ambition to retrofit all homes to EPC band C energy rating and to phase out the sale of gas boilers. A skills shortage is also behind the postponement of the Future Homes Standard to 2025, with developers claiming they do not have the staff or skills to meet it earlier. Green jobs in the building sector most in demand are: installation of low energy lighting and low carbon heating solutions, such as heat pumps or heat networks, and other energy efficiency measures in buildings, manufacturing energy efficiency products such as insulation and low carbon heating equipment, maintenance of low carbon home heating products and efficiency solutions and digital skills for the roll-out of smart meters and heating systems. Over 300,000 more skilled workers are urgently required.

2. Circular Economy - the waste sector is responsible for 6% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. It currently employs 144,185 people. With a focus on reuse, repair, remanufacturing and recycling, growing the circular economy could create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the UK. Existing manufacturing skills could be drawn upon to deliver some of the new jobs required. New skills could be cultivated in declining sub-sectors, like switching from manufacturing to remanufacturing. The most urgent skills gaps in the circular economy are: reuse - where resale retail staff and second-hand buyers and sellers are growing in demand; repair - from technical engineers, to electrical and mechanical and also redesign skills for fashion and other retail sectors; remanufacturing – this includes both mechanical and technology engineers; recycling – where scrap collectors and waste operatives are needed. Growth of the circular economy and waste sectors will support between 40,000 (in a low ambition scenario) and 472,000 (in a high ambition scenario) jobs by 2035 across the UK. Additional gaps exist in waste sorting and reprocessing, repair and manufacturing, circular economy business planning, and the material sciences.

3. Transport - transport is responsible for 31% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, with the sector currently employing 1.4 million people in the UK. Transport is the highest emitting sector and the challenge to decarbonise transport is not simple. There are multiple travel modes that require their own strategies. It will impact a huge number of jobs in various subsectors and supply chains that overlap with other areas of the economy, such as recycling facilities for batteries or hydrogen supply for alternative fuels. The green jobs needed in the transport sector include: sustainable aviation – with green aerospace engineers, alternative fuel experts, and green hydrogen electrolysis engineers; electric vehicles specialists - charging infrastructure designers, manufacturers, and operators, battery development experts, micromobility manufacturers, and regulators; experts are needed in the active travel market, including urban designers and city planners; in public transport, there is a shortage of green bus and coach manufacturers, and rail electrical engineers.

4. Agriculture and Land Use - Agriculture and land use is responsible for 12% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. The sector employs around 475,000 people in the UK with the majority in agriculture and supporting industries. The workforce is skilled but has a higher proportion than other sectors of workers with no formal qualifications. The sector’s contribution to the UK’s carbon emissions is small, at 1.6%, but it is the dominant source of the potent greenhouse gases nitrous oxide and methane, at 70 and 50% respectively. Green jobs in agriculture and land use include: sustainable farming according to ecological farming principles, agroforestry, and agroecology, farming advisory for farmlands and landowners that want to change their practices and nature restoration As well as needing to cut their own emissions to as close to zero as possible by the middle of the century, agriculture is crucial to the net-zero transition because it is one of the few sectors that can generate negative emissions. Expanding forestry and developing bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) has the potential to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while good husbandry can change soils from being sources of emissions to carbon sinks. Sustainable food systems, conservation, planning, natural environment restoration, and forestry offer most of the green jobs potential in this sector.

Upskill for the Future

Aside from the retraining and upskilling of current workers and unemployed people, a major rethink of sustainability education is underway. Students themselves are the drivers with universities and colleges facing increasing pressure to offer climate-relevant education and training. Teach the Future founder Joe Brindle’s research found that a mere 4% of students feel well-informed about the climate crisis, whilst 68% say they want to learn more.

In response to this, by 2025, for every student at Sheffield University sustainability education will be compulsory. Sustainability manager James Merryclough is unequivocal, “This is responding to what our students want and this generation is looking for. We know employers will want these skills too. They’ll want students who understand global challenges, and the macro environment of where they fit into the world.” The next 3 years will see every academic department reimagine their curriculums through a sustainable lens. Last year, for example, landscaping students studied the climate drivers behind increased flooding on the East Yorkshire coast, and examined how better planning could reduce risk. Similarly, the university is currently looking at how arts and humanities students can collaborate with scientists, using their skills in words and music to find more compelling ways to talk to the public about the climate crisis.

Sheffield’s initiative is one of many major changes being implemented across UK universities, in response to a student-led campaign to address what campaigners say is a significant skills gap across higher education. A survey of 16-18-year-olds published by the University of Winchester, showed that although 54% see climate breakdown as the second biggest threat to the UK (after the quality of the NHS), under half (46%) rated universities as doing a decent job of addressing it. At the University of Winchester, trainee teachers will have the option of enrolling in a dedicated course, the first in the world to equip teachers with accredited skills on climate change. All undergraduates will be able to study activism as an optional module, and all campus policies will be required to cover climate breakdown.

As part of its new carbon-neutral plan – which saw beef banned from campus outlets and divestment from fossil fuels – Goldsmiths University is well on its way to delivering a carbon-neutral plan which has seen beef banned from campus stores and divestment from fossil fuels. It has also committed to “greening” its curriculum by 2021. The new MA in art and ecology will teach artists to create work around climate breakdown, pollution, and biodiversity loss.

What Does the Sustainability Skills Gap Mean for Your Business?

What’s clear is that businesses need support to address the green gap. Solutions won’t come through siloed thinking and it simply isn’t possible to recruit your way out of the problem. Workforces need to upskill, to understand how to deliver on sustainability targets and their role in the race to a low-carbon economy. In most cases this means gaining new skills, expanding the scope of work, business model innovation, and collective responsibility. Companies are in need of strategic and practical input around the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on the specific business and sector, where and how to get started, plus knowledge of and access to practical tools and the partners required to deliver sustainability.

3 Ways Companies Can Bridge the Sustainability Skills Gap

The key to sustainability delivery is partnership. Given the specialisms and new types of expertise needed, the most effective route to net-zero for business is via smart partnerships. Here are 3 types of partners that can save businesses from their own extinction.

1. Sustainability Delivery Partner: experts who have an overarching understanding of the different facets of sustainability and how this impacts your business. From scoping your sustainability potential, to delivering a decarbonisation roadmap, a sustainability delivery partner can not only help you get started but can help you tap into the $12 trillion sustainability market and bring the practical tools to ensure you are climate-ready.

2. Innovation Partner: with the ever-widening skills gap and ever-increasing climate changes, reaching net-zero is challenging decarbonisation is difficult. Innovative, creative, yet urgently deliverable solutions are needed. From reimaging your business model to ensuring your supply chain is climate and people-friendly, an innovation partner can bring the vision and skills you need to survive.

3. Community Partner: to ensure sustainability, businesses need to understand the communities that their companies impact. From customers, suppliers, and manufacturers to charities, community groups, and social enterprises, a community partner can unearth social capital, generate sustainable revenue and by collaborating with a community eco-system can ensure the road to net-zero.

Futuretivity delivers climate positivity with vibrant, socially impactful commercial power. We recognise that the how-to of sustainability can be overwhelming, so we empower businesses with actionable roadmaps, skills for the future and meaningful connections to succeed. Being a conscious business needn’t cost the earth nor cost your business.

For more inspiration and insights on sustainability for business go to If you are a company that needs help with sustainability in your business book a call with Futuretivity now and get sustainability delivered.


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