Green skills research: resourcing the green revolution

Green jobs

Circular magazine’s editor Ian Farrell asks what jobs will society need to make the transition to a greener circular economy.

That’s the question the government’s Green Jobs Delivery Group is grappling with right now, and CIWM has a seat at the table.

A period of huge change is coming to the global economy as humankind tries to tackle the environmental problems that threaten our very existence. The way we make energy, build cities, grow food and manage resources will all be transformed over the coming decades, and at the centre of this sits the waste sector – ready to play a crucial role in helping to manage the transition.

A fundamental aspect of planning for the future is jobs. Society is going to need people to work in new roles with new skills if we are to change the world for the greater, greener, good. And that is something CIWM is heavily involved with.

Green jobs for the future

Green jobs

Former CIWM president Dr Adam Read, whose focus during his 2021-2022 tenure was ‘green skills’, has a seat at the table of the UK government’s Green Jobs Delivery Group – a multi-sector committee that is looking at what skills will be needed in the coming decades.

Read has been involved in the committee since its conception in 2020, although he admits the ‘governmental musical chairs’ of the past 12 months have caused some delays and uncertainty.

“At one point we lost two of our ministers overnight and that put the group at risk because they were its sponsors,” he says, recalling the Truss-Sunak handover. “The group, and the comms channels that surround it, all went quiet. We didn’t know who was going out and who was coming in, and neither did the civil servants. But the government has now re-committed to the project, so our work continues.”

That work sees roughly 15 industries reporting back over 12 months on their plans for the green transition, to identify areas where the sectors can collaborate and help each other instead of competing for resources.

“It’s one of the few government groups that I know of that is truly multi-sector and multi-departmental openly and honestly. Everyone has a vested interest in this: we all need to transition together and get this right. If we don’t, then it’s going to cost us an arm and a leg.

“We could all be competing for the same resources at the same time if we don’t all sit around the table and plan correctly. Government needs to help us with the right messaging and timing, investing in the right university courses at the right times, for instance. But we also need to pitch to make our sectors look appealing to those entering the job market,” Read says.

Everyone has a vested interest in this: we all need to transition together and get this right.

The three ministries represented on the Green Jobs Delivery Group are Defra, the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), with the waste sector falling under the auspices of Defra.

“It’s exciting to have all of those departments in the same room, along with all of these different sectors,” says Katie Cockburn, professional services director at CIWM, who works side-by-side with Read on the project. “This level of communication is really the only way that a circular economy actually works.”

She says: “The fact that we are looking at the future from a skills perspective is very important. One of the challenges we’ve always faced – across all sectors, not just in waste – is that skills lag behind demand.

“Industry realises that it needs a level of expertise and it takes providers and universities six to 10 years to catch up.

“I think if government and industry all said ‘yes, we are going to give you the certainty and commitment you need to make our economy circular from tomorrow’ I don’t think we would have the skills to deliver it. So, I like that government is asking “what skills do you need” but we can also push back and say “we also need policy and financial support to get those skills here”. If all that works, then we have something that can really work well.”

The Skills for the Future Working Group

Green skills

The opinions and positions that CIWM takes to the Green Jobs Delivery Group are informed by its members – a process that involves the institution’s Skills for the Future Working Group (SFWG). Sarahjane Widdowson, of the consultancy Intelisos, has surveyed members and presented her findings to the SFWG. They will be used to produce CIWM’s official position, which will be taken to the Green Jobs Delivery Group.

“Much of this work builds on what we did for Adam’s presidential report – the specific skills that we will need for the future – but the survey also emphasises that we are a sector in change,” Widdowson says.

Her findings also show that getting the right people for the right job is not just a problem for the future, but one that is causing difficulty now. “60% of respondents have had problems filling vacancies in the past 12 months. That ranges from drivers and operatives to lawyers and technical consultants. Lots of businesses are feeling the pinch,” she says.

The findings also reveal that many of the organisations in our sector recognise the need to evolve, but are uncertain of the waste sector’s boundaries.

Every move towards a circular economy is a move away from our traditional activities.

“What is our sector?” Widdowson asks. “We have already evolved from a ‘hump it and dump it’ linear economy into an industry that is concerned with recycling and returning materials to a circular economy. Now we need to evolve again, to consider carbon more carefully. Every move towards a circular economy is a move away from our traditional activities. That’s no bad thing, but what does that mean for the identity of our sector?”

Read is bullish about this point.

“It’s exciting. We are talking about the waste sector in its truest sense: with blurred boundaries. Defra, CIWM and ESA could never have predicted this. I’d even go so far as to say that, for us to be successful, we need to remove the waste sector – get rid of it completely and exist by being embedded into other sectors instead. That’s how I see the world – and it makes me a bit of an outcast at times,” he chuckles.

Read adds: “I also think Defra is the wrong ministry for us to be under. We should be associated with BEIS because we are all about growth, business and income. If we go down the positive-growth model, instead of the protect-the-environment model then you’d see a waste sector moving much more quickly than we are.”

Changing the narrative

Green skills

Read, Cockburn and Widdowson all talk a great deal about narrative and its importance. “We need to transition in a way that people are comfortable with. That’s a huge part of change management,” Cockburn says.

Each of the big waste companies will be having the same conversations with its staff as we are at Suez,” adds Read. “We’re explaining that some of our waste services won’t be as prevalent as they are today, and that’s OK because there are upskilling opportunities and new roles.

“Landfill is a great example: at the moment you have lots of people digging holes and driving compactors, but these sites will look very different in 10 years when they have been returned to nature. Then we’ll need staff to monitor the gas coming off them and make sure they are accessible for people walking their dogs or going for a run. But this is OK because we’ll help the people who work there now transition to HWRCs or novel carbon-capture facilities.”

Cockburn adds that 2023 should see all of the sectors at the Green Jobs Working Group present their visions, challenges and requirements to the rest of the committee. “This is why CIWM is committed to working with the government and sector to ensure we have the right skills-development opportunities happening at the right time,” she says.

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