From education to employment

We need to change the record on green skills

Charlotte Bonner and Lexie Jones

The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) and Change Agents UK recently undertook a short piece of research for the Universities Partnership in Leicestershire, learning a valuable lesson in the process.

Our brief was to investigate the report that regional employers might be ‘finding it difficult to recruit people with the sustainability skills they needed.’ Our challenge was simple: understand the root causes behind this and identify how to equip regional stakeholders to improve relevant skills development and recruitment success. Off we went. 

Six months later and despite a project team with well over fifty years’ experience working in sustainability education, we found that we went into the research naïvely. It didn’t work out at all as we planned. But what we found out in the process – and hopefully some of our conclusions –  could be critical for others working in sustainability engagement, green skills and recruitment.  

Our experience was timely. ‘Green jobs’ are hailed as being crucial to our country meeting our net zero goals, broader sustainability commitments, achieving food and energy security and for our post-Brexit, post-Covid, post-Truss economic recovery. Green skills and jobs are the focus of many policy briefings, sector events and opinion pieces. Different sources quantify the opportunity differently – but the Government has committed to 480,000 skilled green jobs by 2030, and recognises that ‘green jobs will not be niche… sustainability and climate change will touch every career.’ 

Our research process was simple. We wanted to understand current perceptions and practices relating to green jobs, sustainability skills and recruitment. We needed qualitative data, so we established survey and interview questions and reached out through the networks of the Civic Universities Partnership that had commissioned the work. Very soon we had the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and local authorities supporting the work and sharing information about the opportunity to shape the region’s skills development. But despite various marketing and communication approaches, we simply weren’t getting the response we needed from employers. Engagement was exceptionally hard. People weren’t interested, or if they were, they weren’t getting involved. We were asking the wrong questions, in the wrong way, at the wrong time. Our question soon became: why is engagement with sustainability skills so difficult? 

Of course, the difficulties we faced weren’t unique. Contacts running sustainability engagement projects in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Kent all reported similar challenges. Despite having great offers to support employers, particularly small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), they ‘can’t even give sustainability away’ and find themselves engaging with the same organisations over and over again rather than expanding their reach and impact. 

So why is this? We reflected on the reasons.  

Firstly, people and businesses are more likely to focus on immediate problems as a priority over future challenges. Sustainability was famously defined by the UN as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ But globally, we’re way past that. Even in the UK, our ability to meet today’s needs is already compromised. The cost-of-living crisis with inflation at a 40-year high, labour market shortages in many sectors, supply chain issues and volatile energy supply and prices: unsustainability has led us to this. People and businesses are consequently in survival mode, focusing on the here and now. This is what is keeping people awake at night, not thoughts of a possible competency framework for 2030. When today is a struggle, anything with a whiff of ‘for the future’ is not a priority.  

But sustainability is for today. It is no longer just future generations who will benefit from sustainability action, the present generation’s burdens could be relieved by it too. For businesses, this could look like resource efficiency, reduced costs, improved staff recruitment, retention and satisfaction, alignment with customer values and being more resilient to commodity price shocks. These are all outcomes of good sustainability practice, but too rarely do we frame the dialogue in these terms. We mustn’t allow sustainability to be seen as the preserve only of do-gooders or used as a stick with which to beat ourselves and others; it should be a solution, not another problem.  

Secondly, the terminology surrounding green jobs and green skills is too abstract and unfamiliar to many. Research commissioned by IEMA earlier this year reported that 56% of people have never heard of green jobs and 62% don’t understand what ‘green skills’ means. These terms are now increasingly commonplace in our education system, but they often don’t mean much to those outside the groves of academe. What we actually mean is futureproofing, preparedness and purpose. Sustainability is the ability to carry on. Those leading on sustainability in education, including us, need to challenge ourselves and each other to be better. We must ensure we’re making sense to those with whom we’re seeking to engage and not get lost in an impenetrable language of our own devising. 

Finally, when people do try to make themselves and their businesses greener, there are often no end of hoops through which they must jump. They encounter the first hurdle of finding out what help is available, then the inflexibility of eligibility criteria and the often arbitrary funding timescales. We must make it as easy to participate in the green revolution as possible; a responsible small business owner who wants to opt into a sustainability support scheme shouldn’t be confronted with 74 pages of must-read application guidelines and a form that can only be completed using a black ballpoint pen during a crescent moon. People will just give up if we make it too hard. 

A wake-up call…

So, what started off as a small project has been a bit of a wake-up call for us: we want to challenge ourselves to do better and make more sense to more people. Maybe we’ll use the word ‘sustainability’ less and achieve more. It’s critical we change how we frame this work so that it is meaningful, accessible, and relevant to everyone. 

Sustainability will be achieved through collaboration (indeed, the 17th goal in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is ‘partnership’) and the requirement for Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) to give due consideration to the UK’s net zero emissions target, adaptation to climate change and other environmental goals presents a fantastic opportunity for local collaboration for educators and employers. Not only will this help the achievement of sustainability targets more broadly, but also ensure a ‘just transition’ so that those who currently work in industries likely to become obsolete in future can upskill and retrain, ensuring economic prosperity rather than the creation of regional hot and cold spots that further exacerbate inequality. 

Mistakes are often our greatest lessons, and we don’t consider it a failure to be honest about what’s working and what isn’t, especially when the alternative is maintaining the status quo and simply hoping for a different outcome. We’re finding this knowledge is useful and powerful so we’re now working collaboratively to change the record on green skills and jobs. We are hopeful. Come and join us.

By Charlotte Bonner, National Head of Education for Sustainable Development at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), and Lexie Jones, Chief Executive at Change Agents UK.

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