The world of waste and resource management, and the shift to a circular economy, is developing at pace. But is the sector ready to adapt – and do we have the skills to level up and meet the challenges ahead? Phil Lattimore reports.
The scale of opportunity offered by a shift towards a greener economy is significant. The Circular Revolution report by Imperial College, London – commissioned on behalf of Veolia – estimates that the value of a fully circular economy could be £2.9bn per year for the UK gross domestic product and create around 175,000 jobs in a variety of sectors.
Matt Pitt, head of people development at Veolia UK and Ireland, acknowledges the critical importance of ensuring we develop the right skills. ‘Three of the biggest issues facing UK plc are developing the talent of our young people, upskilling our workforce and boosting productivity,’ he says. ‘It’s simple – we all need people with the right skills to drive our businesses forward, and we must remain committed to upskilling at every level to make sure this happens.’
Thanks to Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, and others who are signposting the way, there is now much greater awareness and ambition among young people to make a difference for the future
Pitt believes a ‘cultural shift’ has already reshaped the waste industry and sparked the development of thousands of high-tech green roles. ‘It’s been huge. Twenty years ago, we were landfilling everything – recycling was niche and mainly charitable. Now, it’s providing the raw materials for industry. It is no longer just refuse collection – it’s an engineering problem,’ he says.
‘The sector has already made significant changes to build the future workforce and adapt to the needs of a circular economy, but more needs to be done to develop circular economy career paths.’
Attracting high-quality young people into the changing resources and waste management industry is crucial. This means demonstrating the opportunities it offers and showing how the sector is striving to make a difference in terms of a greener economy.
Vicki Hughes, group business development director at Enva Wood Recycling, also sees a growing demand for new skills as the sector changes, but believes there are a number of areas in which the skills gaps could slow or hinder development of the circular economy.
‘For example, the move towards a more circular economy is going to place a far heavier emphasis on the use of technology,’ she says. ‘This will include the development of new processing technologies to transform “waste” into valuable secondary resources, and an improved IT capability to better understand material movements and aid decision-making. As a result, our ability to attract skilled engineering and IT candidates will become increasingly important.’
Hughes believes one of the biggest challenges for attracting talent to the industry lies in its image. ‘In the main, people’s interaction with the sector is limited to bins and waste trucks,’ she says. ‘As a result, the perception is that the only employment opportunities are in operational roles and dirty overalls. There is a lack of understanding that the sector offers a range of careers, including in technical, service, sales and support roles.
[…]We have the right image as an industry, because brand perception is a key driver in recruiting talent
‘The sector has been fairly reactive in its recruitment; rather than adopting more proactive strategies that harness the power of digital and online, candidates have been expected to find roles.’
The growing interest in the sustainability agenda among young people could, however, benefit the industry. ‘We need to attract the talent that can help build a more sustainable future through the circular economy,’ Pitt says. ‘Thanks to Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, and others who are signposting the way, there is now much greater awareness and ambition among young people to make a difference for the future. We need to harness this ambition and provide dynamic modern careers that are backed by the right policies and education that can make this happen.
‘We also need to ensure we have the right image as an industry, because brand perception is a key driver in recruiting talent. People want to buy from, work and partner with socially responsible businesses.’
The future skills issue has been acknowledged by CIWM’s President, Trevor Nicoll, who, in the last issue of Circular, said it was important to show young people the variety and breadth of the opportunities available in the sector. He commissioned a Careers Toolkit for teachers and schools’ careers advisers, to show pupils the routes into a wide range of roles related to the developing circular economy. It was produced by Global Action Plan (GAP), a charity working to promote education for sustainable development.
Luke Wynne, GAP’s head of youth and schools, says: ‘Teachers and careers advisers need support and a lot more training and materials to feel comfortable helping young people prepare for the growing green and circular economy. That’s a challenge, and organisations such as CIWM and ourselves must look at how we can fill that gap and give guidance, so they feel more confident, capable and up to speed with the rapidly changing opportunities available and skills needed.’
Wynne also sees a change in awareness and attitude among young people, encouraged by the rise in youth climate activism. ‘We are going to see more young people looking to have a career defined by making a positive contribution – making a difference,’ he says, and the industry needs to harness this. ‘On the face of it, “waste” isn’t the sexiest, most attractive industry for a lot of young people, but it is about helping them to realise there is a whole range of opportunities and interesting paths that they can pursue within the sector.’
Wynne acknowledges that a bit of ‘rebranding’ may be necessary to change perceptions, but he sees huge potential for bringing new skills and talent into the industry. ‘This is one area of industry that’s going to see massive changes and lots of exciting opportunities, particularly around Stem skills and experience with new waste-recovery solutions, processes and technologies that look to deliver more value and turn this linear stream into a circular one.’
For some firms in the traditional waste sector, the pace of change and focus on the circular economy poses significant challenges. As well as innovation from smaller companies, the changing relationship between resources and waste could result in firms that don’t adapt and have the right skill sets being eclipsed by players and disciplines from outside the traditional sector.
‘We’re seeing a lot more chemical engineering coming into this sector, for example – and logistics,’ says managing director of waste and resource management research and advisory practice Social, Environmental & Economic Solutions and a CIWM Fellow, David Greenfield. ‘It’s becoming a resources industry. How we collect and manage materials is going to be quite changeable over the next decade. ‘If firms in the sector don’t upskill, the sector may change around the industry, and it might be left behind.’
Inspiration could be taken from the armed forces’ recruitment, which now majors on the ability to develop a skilled career, with a focus on continued learning, apprenticeships and transferable skills
Collaboration is essential to address the potential skills gap, according to Hughes: ‘This will require a coordinated approach, including industry bodies, resource management companies, and the education sector. Repositioning the sector and improving communication will require money, and this is likely to need external funding.
‘Inspiration could be taken from the armed forces’ recruitment, which now majors on the ability to develop a skilled career, with a focus on continued learning, apprenticeships and transferable skills.’
Encouraging young people to consider a career in the circular economy may be part of the solution, but offering pathways and training to realise this and address skills shortages is crucial.
‘It has been estimated that, by 2022, there will be 2.5 million job openings for engineers in the UK,’ says Pitt, of Veolia. ‘Yet many companies in the industry are still sending out distress calls and hoping for the best, instead of taking control and ensuring they have a pipeline of skilled apprentices.’
Firms should stop expecting young people to arrive ready to suit their individual business needs, Pitt adds. ‘Instead, they should be looking for potential greatness in candidates, which they can develop over time while teaching specific requirements as part of an apprenticeship. It’s in our best interest to invest in the vital skills needed to make the business go further.’
This article has been edited for online use. The full article, ‘High Stakes’, features in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Circular.