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How the Power of Collaboration Means We Can Deliver Sustainable Benefits to Communities, Even in Tough Economic Times

27/02/2013 17:51 GMT | Updated 28/04/2013 10:12 BST

Today, I am proud to see the launch of the Transform programme that we have been working on with Global Action Plan and Accenture over the past few months. Through working together on this innovative programme, we will be able to train around 1,400 young people in valuable green skills over the next three years in some of Britain's most hard-pressed communities that will help them build their future careers in sustainability. What's more, by harnessing the business opportunities presented to us by the Government's Energy Company Obligation (ECO), we are able to offer 1,000 of these youngsters a job working on a project local to them which aims to transform the sustainability and energy efficiency of homes that need it most.

Strange bedfellows, you might think - an energy company, a global consultancy firm and a small environmental behaviour change charity. Well, that rather depends on your point of view. Business success in difficult economic times comes to those who take their responsibilities seriously and look for new ways to address the material concerns of their key stakeholders. For us at British Gas, this is the cornerstone of our corporate responsibility strategy.

Since August 2011, according to the Ipsos Mori Issues Index unemployment has consistently been one of the issues of highest concern facing Britain today, along with the economy. Since the start of the recession, youth unemployment in the UK has risen faster than any other G8 nation and there are currently over one million 16-24 year-olds not in education, employment or training.

As the UK's leading energy supplier, serving around 12 million homes in Britain - nearly half the country's homes - as well as providing energy to one million UK businesses, we have a responsibility to do something meaningful to tackle the issues that are most important to our customers and wider stakeholders.

Under ECO, which was introduced in January 2013, we are addressing energy efficiency in the domestic sector by supporting those households who need specific improvements to their homes in order to use less energy, therefore reducing carbon emissions, and consequently saving money on their bills. These properties are amongst the hardest to treat, and represent some of the poorest households in England, Scotland and Wales.

With ECO involving an investment of £1.3bn a year, of which British Gas's contribution is a sizeable chunk, we got to thinking about how we could use this opportunity to develop a holistic approach towards regeneration in the communities we'll be working in over the next three years.

Clearly, big retrofit projects need large numbers of skilled workers to make them happen, giving us the capacity to offer a chance of a career in sustainability with a focus on energy efficiency to local young people. However, the question remained how we could ensure that we were giving the young people in these communities the right tools and the best possible chance of being successful in this path.

Enter Transform.

As the UK's leading environmental behaviour change charity, and with a strong track record in partnering with business, Global Action Plan talked us through their Greenprint vision, part of which is to support people into the green jobs of the future. Add into the mix Accenture who, through its Skills to Succeed corporate citizenship agenda and the expertise of its global workforce, is seeking to equip 500,000 people worldwide by 2015 with the skills to get a job or build their own business. Suddenly, our initial conversations looked like they were turning into the beginnings of a cross-sector partnership that could really achieve something really great.

Through Transform, which is supported by Job Centre Plus, Global Action Plan delivers a free five-day BTEC course in Sustainability Skills to 17-25 year olds not currently in education, employment or training from the local area where our ECO projects are taking place. The course is bespoke, and was developed by Global Action Plan supported by Accenture as part of its Skills to Succeed programme. Every person who successfully completes the course earns a BTEC qualification and is guaranteed an interview for a job on one of our projects.

As well as the core sustainability skills, the course also contains elements of softer skills, enabling youngsters to build their confidence, practice their project management and presentation skills, and gain vital insight into how to perform well at interview.

In November and December 2012, Transform was successfully piloted in Walsall, Solihull and Glasgow where all 17 jobs on offer were filled. We received applications from 67 eligible young people.

The jobs in question are focused on real one-to-one engagement with the communities where we are operating, educating families about energy efficiency and the impacts on carbon reduction, and helping households to live sustainably by reducing their bills.

We are at the beginning of a long and exciting journey, but one which I believe is a real step-change in how collaborative working can achieve real societal and environmental impacts. Following our pilot in the Midlands, 94 per cent of course participants said they felt they had improved the ability to talk to others about environmental issues. 94 per cent also said they felt that the training had made them consider jobs involving sustainability, volunteering in their community, further education or further training. Best of all, 100 per cent of the young people felt they had improved their skills or confidence.

When we embark on a programme like this, with ambitious targets, we need to do it in a way that makes business sense, enabling us to maximise our strengths and opportunities. By working with like-minded partners like Global Action Plan and Accenture, I'm confident that we can create an inspirational blueprint for change in tough times. It's not called Transform for nothing.

I am a Corporate Responsibility Manager at British Gas. This blog was originally written for Business Green.