Green Skills: Time for Some Joined-Up Thinking

In the fifth and final part of ourseries, Michael Townsend looks at the skills challenge - and how we might close the gap as we move towards a sustainable and low-carbon economy.

In the fifth and final part of our 'Sustainable Business: As If people Matter' series, Michael Townsend looks at the skills challenge - and how we might close the gap as we move towards a sustainable and low-carbon economy.

"How each nation addresses the challenges of a resource constrained world will increasingly determine its future economic competitiveness."

Aldersgate Group

Given what we already know about climate change, diminishing sources of fossil fuels and increasing resource scarcity, the transformation to a low carbon and sustainable economy becomes an inevitable goal. It really is difficult to see any other credible alternative, if we are to survive and prosper in the face of these fundamental challenges.

It almost goes without saying, that if we are to transform the UK to become a leading low carbon and sustainable economy, we need to mobilise the right skills - in quantum as well as type. This is not an easy challenge.

There has been some work in this field, but I feel there is much more to do. I'm not yet sure we have a clear, far-reaching and shared vision for what a green, low carbon and fully integrated sustainable economy needs to look like, let alone the skills needed to support this transition. The obvious question has to be: skills for what, exactly? Forming such a strategic view is fundamental, as this context drives everything; it is not possible to define jobs and skills without it, in any meaningful way. More work is needed, and quite importantly, a new lens through which businesses and politicians look at the challenge.

The UK Government's recent publication 'Skills for a Green Economy' is somewhat limited, offering a high level view, arguably based on old economy thinking, with perhaps a little 'green' injected, for good measure. On reflection, it gives the appearance of little more than a brainstorming exercise based on what additional 'green' jobs might be needed in the current economy, plus a handful of generic green skills, rather than a robust, meaningful and dynamic approach to mapping skills for the future economy; all in all, a fairly disappointing exercise, given the rhetoric of decarbonising the economy as a major opportunity for economic growth.

Fundamental questions bounce around my perplexed mind. What does a green economy look like? In which sectors do we need to be successful, primarily in order to sustain ourselves, but also to create and distribute wealth? What goods and services will become important in a resource-constrained world? How do we ensure food and water security? What sources of energy should we cultivate? What should we make and keep for ourselves, what should we be looking to export, and what level of trade is appropriate? What resources do we need to support our economy? Should we re-localise production, in readiness for the coming energy and associated affordability challenges? To what extent will we end up on-shoring jobs and skills again - perhaps creating a new form of national self-sufficiency, as well as sustainable opportunity for the current and our latent workforce?

All these strategic questions, and many more, will need to addressed before we can even answer the question of what skills do we need. Recent studies by Aldersgate Group offer something more substantial: 'Greening the Economy', provides a strategy for growth, jobs and success by integrating sustainability principles through the whole economy. Aligned with this is 'Mind the Gap', which calls for a much deeper understanding of the nature of the transition and of the skills that will be necessary to transform our economy. This means not just so-called green jobs, but also the skills that will be required right across the economy. As Aldersgate Group also points out, we need a skills policy aligned with a more active industrialist policy.

Calls for establishing an industrial strategy are less a throwback to the bad old 1970s, but more a necessity in planning the inevitable economic transition. Without a coherent plan in these volatile times, we are lost. The call by Aldersgate Group is not an isolated case, either. Diane Coyle and Paola Subacchi made a compelling argument in the Financial Times last November, for a "modern industrial policy taking a strategic view of resources and assets, as well as the challenges we are likely to face." They also point out, quite rightly, that such an approach will also "help restore a sense of common purpose and to ensure that the economy develops in ways that serve the British public in general." I am sure that many would welcome a long-term view on (sustainable) industrial strategy and jobs at this time of continued austerity.

But as economist Mariana Mazzucato points out, the discussion needs to move beyond the fear about picking winners or losers, but to do something different, in causing types of economic activity to happen that would otherwise not happen - this role she describes as The Entrepreneurial State - an exciting prospect. Moving to the next level, there are then the important questions to be addressed within each sector of the sustainable economy. If, for example, we decide that the solar industry is indeed a strategic sector: one that could create national competitive advantage, as well as provide an increasingly important and affordable source of clean energy; how should the sector be configured for greatest advantage? What jobs and skills will the solar value chain need to include? And how should we mobilise such skills?

Do we simply concentrate our efforts on creating an army of installers, or should we also consider the full range of jobs required right through the value chain, and how these may change over time and with the lifecycle of solar products. For example, should we also be seeking to create solar manufacturing jobs, and if so, how do we compete against other countries, such as China, with their relative advantage of lower cost bases?

Perhaps we should also be thinking about innovation, and how we may create the next generation of solar PV technology, to generate cheaper solutions, while reducing the dependency on increasingly scarce resources, such as copper, indium, gallium and selenium? So, there are perhaps R&D jobs we also need to invest in. And what of the jobs and skills for re-use and recycling of old equipment? We really do need to think and plan ahead.

We also need to be mindful of how jobs and skills will be change and evolve in response to the range of challenges and strategic drivers mentioned at the top of this article. Let's take the example of the logistics and distribution sector: should future jobs be configured for a conventional industry, with perhaps an injection of greener transport, or should we be thinking more radically about how the sector might change, based on a different post-peak oil world, with perhaps more localised production, distribution and consumption patterns? There is more to this work than trying to inject a bit of green into what we currently do.

All of which brings me to the main point of this article, of what skills do we need? When thinking about skills, we naturally need to think through roles, including: political leadership, business leadership, management, and trade level skills. Going further, sustainability skills are not just linked to the delivery of business activity, but also need to extend to consumers - who directly or indirectly impact on our ability to achieve a sustainable and low carbon economy - what awareness and skills do they need to buy green and influence a sustainable future?

We also need to think about skills in terms of an integrated approach, with sustainability running right through the middle (somewhat like a stick of rock), rather than fragmented roles and bolt-on skills. As with the Total Quality Management movement, sustainability should be everybody's job. In any case, many businesses (particularly SMEs) cannot afford a separate CR/sustainability department, but seek to integrate skills in all that all people do, in all functions of the organisation.

Let's look at an example of an integrated approach. When Apollo Motor Group was looking to integrate a trio of new sustainability technologies into its operation, it quickly became clear that it wasn't simply a case of plugging in new equipment, pressing the button, and away you go. They had to approach things in a very different way to 'unlock' the potential these technologies offered. This required a new ethos of 'repair' rather than 'replacement' of damaged parts, representing a complete change to the 'throw-away' culture that had emerged in the sector, as well as in society at large.

Apollo found that sustainability skills are as much to do with mindset as they are with technology. This is an important nuance, and one highlighted by Buddist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh In his recent podcast interview with Ecologist magazine, where he suggests that we first need to think and act with Mindfulness, before our technologies will work to best effect.

This leads to a further example, this time related to managerial skills. To enable its business to full embrace sustainability, Gazeley recognised that "people change, not organisations". They explored new ways of working and how to improve their culture, through developing emotional intelligence. For Gazeley the challenge for developing sustainability skills wasn't about technical training, it was about raising the consciousness of their approach; this way people would seek out more sustainable solutions on their projects.

There is definitely a worthy piece of work for someone to model more robust future scenarios for jobs and skills, integrating sustainability principles. When mapped out, I am sure this will reveal significant gaps between future state and current skills provision.

There is already evidence that one in three firms in the environmental sector is being hampered by a shortage of skilled staff, and one wonders what proportion of the workforce in the conventional economy has sufficient skills to fully embrace and integrate sustainability within their jobs?

And how will we close the skills gap? If we simply let the market address this fundamental challenge for us, while it is an approach favoured by some, we might have a long wait. As we have seen in recent years the market is not always so forward thinking, especially at a time of uncertainty. And never has our talent pool been so under-utilised, with current unemployment reaching 2.5 million in January, and predicted to rise by a further 100,000 by the end of the summer, according to think tank IPPR.

The pool of discarded workers includes people from all levels, and represents a huge waste of talent, particularly worrying for the younger generation (with youth unemployment at 22%), as well as driving increased social and economic costs. Should we not be seeking to mobilise the whole workforce in the urgent move towards a more sustainable world?

I was recently reminded by Jonathan Porritt about the important role that Business Schools need to play in developing the skills required by our business leaders and managers, and the kind of core competencies that they need in this area. He pointed out how important it is for the HE establishment to open its mind to what sustainable business models in a sustainable world really look like. He is right. There may be a few notable exceptions, like the Exeter One Planet MBA, but mostly we see a chasm between sustainability courses and the mainstream business MBAs, which are still largely based on 20th-century thinking. Even the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership is separate and distinct from the Cambridge Judge Business School MBA.

What we need is a common and fully integrated agenda for sustainable business success in the 21st century. While not impossible, I feel that meeting this challenge will take bold leadership and the ability to find a credible narrative that works to the advantage of business schools.

As with any transformation, there are of course many barriers to change, including a reluctance to invest in skills - this has always been a thorny issue for business. But behind this, perhaps there is something more fundamental? Could it be what Frances Moore Lappé describes as Thought Traps, the cultural filters and assumptions through which we see the world? Moore Lappé calls for us to develop our Eco-minds and find alternative ways of framing our challenges to effect real change. By tackling this one, perhaps we may unlock the enthusiasm to invest?

I have no doubt that we need a new lens, to redefine our economies, our businesses and how jobs and skills will support the necessary transformation to a sustainable and low carbon economy. We won't meet this challenge simply by injecting a bit of green. Such a transformation requires a robust foundation, synthesising economic planning, industrial policy, sector planning, business strategy, sustainability thinking, and also jobs and education planning. Allied to this, lots of joined-up thinking and doing too. Without a revolution in skills provision, the green economy will simply remain a low-carbon pipe dream.


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This blog is based on an article originally published by the author in Sustainable Business magazine.


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