Blog: A vision of the Future – what does the next 10 years look like for the resources and waste sector?

A recent webinar, the latest in the series co-hosted by CIWM and SUEZ, examined what skills our sector may need for the future and which sectors we will need to collaborate with to maximise resource recovery as part of the UK green recovery. In this blog Dr. Adam Read (External Affairs Director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK) and Dr Jane Beasley (Director, Beasley Associates) reflect on this very timely webinar which forms part of Dr Read’s CIWM presidential theme for the forthcoming year (June 2021- June 2022), namely ‘skills for the future’.

Panel members participating represented a wide variety of sectors including our own , plus chemicals, energy, utilities,  materials, minerals and mining and including Roger Morton from EMR, Charlotte Lester from the Royal Society of Chemistry, Steve Barret from, Energy Utility Skills, Colin Church from IOM3 and Sarahjane Widdowson from Intelisos. As in previous webinars in this programme, the panel was chaired and facilitated by Dr Read.

So what must we respond to in the coming decade?

Addressing the carbon emergency will be a future priority for us all. According to the Local Government Association[1] in 2018 there were 185,000 full-time workers in England’s low-carbon and renewable energy economy. In 2030 across England there could be as many as 694,000 direct jobs employed in the low-carbon and renewable energy economy, rising to over 1.18 million by 2050. The resources and waste sector will play a significant part in reducing carbon emissions but to do this we need to upskill our current workforce and increase carbon literacy so that we can make the right choices as we transition (both as businesses and organisations and in supporting our customers and supply chains) to a low carbon economy.

Digitisation will also continue to increase in pace and scope. The Green Alliance recently stressed in their Smart and Green report[2] the need to join up digital and low carbon agendas sooner rather than later. The report also highlighted a lack of skills and internal capabilities, with over 11 million people across the UK lacking in basic digital skills, especially those aged over 55. This chimes with the findings of the recent World Economic Forum report which stated that 50% of employees will need reskilling by 2025. A huge task, for all sectors, globally, but the webinar focus was very much on the immediate and medium term opportunities in the expanding resource and waste sector, and the role that our sector could play in helping other sectors meet their own green recovery and decarbonisation targets, and this was the exam question set to each of our expert panellists.

Today’s challenges?

The current pandemic has brought its own more immediate challenges, but has helped set new trends for future employment and necessary skills. Homeworking has accelerated the digital transition with many employees having to work from home for the first time, setting up makeshift offices and learning to work outside the company network etc. Softer skills have also come into their own partly driven by the requirement to manage remote workforces but also by the need to rapidly implement business continuity programmes, drawing from both change management and crisis management skill sets. These are just some of the new skills required for the ‘distance economy’ which we are all becoming more accustomed to, and highlight the increasing importance of transferable skills in a modern workforce.

The pandemic has also driven societal changes that have resulted in significant economic pressures in many sectors, as businesses have faced closure and bankruptcy if they didn’t innovate and adapt. This change has driven more entrepreneurial thinking, with businesses pivoting existing models of operation to survive in the ‘new normal’. And these skills are expected by many to be core in a new low carbon economy.

These softer skills have also been cited by the World Economic Forum within their Future of work report[3] as being key to delivering on many of the big ticket items society is currently facing, including decarbonisation, digitisation, resource risks, and global pandemics etc.  Almost all of the top 10 skills identified for 2025 will be a requirement for our changing sector if we’re going to deliver against these large global agendas. Multiple sources of evidence pinpoint the fact that there is a significant skills mismatch between what is needed and what is currently available, and helping to equip our sector with the right skills to meet these imminent demands will be central to ensuring our sector is prepared for this period of transition, whilst rightly underpinning the green recovery currently being proposed for the UK. And this is why the CIWM and SUEZ devised this webinar, with the mix of panellists to ensure we are doing the right things to prepare ourselves for the changes that are coming and the challenges we must face.

What will the waste and resources sector look like in the next ten years?

As well as the aforementioned global themes, Roger Morton of EMR also highlighted a number of sector specific issues  that will help shape the next ten years. Roger predicted that recovery and recycling of material will take place at an earlier stage in the product / material lifecycle and that there will be closer working between designers, manufactures, and recyclers to ensure materials are easy to capture, harvest and return to the circular economy. This transition will require skills development across the sectors and the waste and resources sector will have an important role to play in upskilling other sectors as they look to improve the design of their packaging, products and processing.

Roger suggested that consumer demand will be the ultimate driving force behind these changes rather than regulation. The rise of the conscious consumer, in light of the carbon agenda and living through COVID, will mean that there’s increased demand for more recycled content and ‘better’ products. This will require more innovation in product design and manufacturing – which will again require support and advice from the sector’s end of life specialists, that’s us!!

In terms of operational issues, Roger highlighted his expectation that there will be more creative approaches developed for collection of target materials, including optimising back haulage, and increasing return options for consumers etc. This would further strengthen supply chain links around specific material streams and increase the need for cross-sector collaboration.

He also suggested that future technological advances will centre on the use of Artificial Intelligence at a commercial scale, for example in the development of gripping technology to maximise the use of robotic sorting options, as well as improving sorting at transfer stations and MRFs.

The waste sector has a clear and growing responsibility to help other sectors in greening their systems, materials and sites, including maximising resource recovery when they finally reach end of life. The sector must work together in educating and supporting the range of other sectors becoming engaged in resource use and waste management, to ensure greater alignment and a focus on quality materials and extending product lifetimes through design for repair etc. Roger predicted that the ‘waste system’ will become part of mainstream manufacturing in the future and that we’d need upskilling at all technical levels to achieve this. One way of delivering this may be through the development of a network of training centres, collaboratively with waste managers, where designers, manufacturers and other key actors within the manufacturing sector can come together and understand how to recover materials. This is one of the key proposals being put forward by the UK Resources Council to Government, to help reposition the resources and waste sector at the heart of the UK green recovery agenda.

Collaboration with other sectors was a commonly raised theme throughout the webinar and led to the first audience poll  which considered the other sectors that the waste & resource management sector must align with going forward:

Poll 1: Which are the priority sectors the waste and resources sector should be collaborating with in the future?

The panel agreed with the audience that design and manufacturing were key sectors for collaboration, reflecting the obvious shifts happening around packaging in light of planned EPR and DRS legislation and the consistency of collection plans in England, but also highlighted wider sectors for consideration such as technology and AI plus construction. There are possibilities across all sectors that use resources and create waste materials, and we must identify those with the greatest potential or who are most open to greater collaborative working at all scales as we move towards net zero carbon.

Bonding with the chemicals sector and engineering relationships with the materials sector – how can we collaborate more effectively?

Charlotte Lester from the Royal Society of Chemistry presented next providing a summary of the Royal Society’s latest study: Chemistry’s Contribution – Workforce trends and economic impact. The study provides evidence on the scale and skills of the UK’s chemistry-using workforce and its substantial direct and indirect contribution to the UK economy.

Charlotte demonstrated that chemistry professionals underpin a wide range of business, organisations and activities, confirming that chemists are highly skilled and the workforce is highly qualified. The value to the UK economy is through their significant contribution to innovation, research and applied engineering and manufacturing in particular.

There are real challenges in recruiting and retaining chemists and the decline in chemistry professionals in some parts of the UK is at odds with the UK Government’s regional levelling up agenda. By coincidence, two members of the webinar panel (Colin and Sarahjane) did in fact study Chemistry at university but then went into other sectors to progress their careers.

A question from the audience focussed on the opportunistic links between the chemicals and waste and resources sector and asked whether we’re upskilling chemists so that they understand the end of life impact of chemical additives in products and packaging? Charlotte responded that it’s very much on the agenda, and that materials are being designed and built with the circular economy in mind. However she acknowledged that the challenge is engaging and sharing experiences more generously across the workforce, but she hoped that there are real opportunities for the two sectors to work more closely together in the immediate future. Colin Church from the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) highlighted that 9 in 10 workers will need some form of upskilling by 2030 in the UK, with 26 million needing to upskill as their role changes and a further 5 million needing to retrain as the demands of their role change with time Surprisingly, approximately 40% of UK workers are in an occupation for which they are not properly qualified! The need for skills training is stark and this statement promoted a flurry of audience questions and panel debate.

Colin’s recommendations for the future included recognising the challenges in training and recruiting before trying to resolve them, acknowledging the lack of diversity across many of our sectors and planning to address this and also the need for better retention of graduates in engineering. The evidence shows that many of those studying engineering move on to different sectors so retraining for those lost valuable skills will be increasingly important.

However, most sobering was the realisation that 80% of the workforce of 2030 has already left education, which means that upskilling is vital, because we won’t solve this skills gaps by focusing on schools and universities alone.

Panellist Steve Barrat from Energy and Utility Skills spoke about the need for a more resilient workforce, identifying how the current pandemic has been the ultimate test of sector resilience. Steve also highlighted that society is looking to the energy and utility sector to play a critical role in reducing carbon emissions although the key drivers for this were felt to be more social rather than regulatory.

The recycling sector is well placed to extend its reach and Steve echoed other panellists in agreeing that collaboration with design and manufacture will become increasingly important as interfaces become more complex as we move forward towards more low carbon solutions.

There are a number of ongoing yet critical challenges facing the UK including the disparity between a constricting labour market in some sectors, with rising unemployment due to COVID in the hospitality and retail sectors. This is a huge skills mismatch but who is trying to close it? And looming on the horizon is Brexit. Efforts are currently being focused on skilling the UK for life outside the EU, with a focus on a safe, skilled and sustainable workforce that meets the demands from the UK’s energy and utilities sector. This is also true in the waste & resources sector, as we lose EC staff from our front-line services.

How do we prepare for jobs that don’t currently exist?

But what’s missing? The feeling, as mentioned by a number of panellists, is that there is enough good quality training already available, however, Steve stated that the big challenge is that the many jobs we will see developing over the nest 10 years do not exist at the moment and we don’t really know what they will look like. There is a lead time in getting employees to a level of competency so we need to act fast, in understanding what the roles of the future will be and what the core skills and competencies will be, before we can determine what training and qualifications are needed to be developed and implemented. Time is definitely running out to get this all done before 2030. Graduates need to see that green jobs are the future in a low carbon UK, and that these roles will develop and be in high demand. Perhaps there is a need for a number of sectors (from engineering and chemistry, to waste, resources and utilities) to work on their image with school children who are deciding what to study at university next year?

With many similar global themes being identified as shaping the future by the panellists the audience were asked to vote on what they believe will have the biggest influence on the waste and resources sector in the next 10 years.

Poll 2: What will have the biggest influence on the waste and resources sector in the next ten years?

Interestingly, there was a broad split of votes with changing policy edging out in front with 39%, perhaps a reflection of the immediacy of the step changes that this will bring in terms of services, materials and impact as the value chain?. The panellists commented that the results demonstrated just how many competing issues there are that the sector is having to address, and this may impact our ability to identify critical skills and training needs in the short term.

Your chance to contribute

Sarahjane Widdowson from consultancy Intelisos is leading the team that will deliver Dr Read’s presidential report on waste and resource sector skills for the future. The aim of the project is to understand what the next ten years might look like and what skills and collaborations our sector may need to seize the opportunities presented. Sarahjane explained that the project team are currently horizon scanning and interviewing a wide range of sector stakeholders to gain their views.  The project output being a routemap for CIWM identifying what skills are required and where collaboration would support the sector’s development, which will help shape the CIWM’s professional offering to its current and prospective members to help ensure the best possible workforce is available when it is needed. CIWM has already put in place a number of new initiatives to support its members this year to deal with the changing demands and needs of lockdown, digitisation and policy reform etc., including a mentoring platform, a large range of both technical and skills based webinars and its community connect platform which enables members to connect and share knowledge and advice.

Sarahjane noted that as a sector we have been fairly reactive in the past which was an inevitable part of being at the end of the supply chain (end of life). As the value of resources is better understood we’re becoming more proactive with activities that will maximise resource recovery and improve the design, handling and recovery of materials streams. Circularity of materials however is still not as widespread as it should be and to achieve it our sector needs to adopt a systems thinking approach and collaborate more readily than we do right now, but embracing wholesale change from managing end of life wastes to harvesting secondary and tertiary materials is not always an easy thing for existing waste professionals to handle.

Our sector has a clear responsibility to inform and educate others on how to minimise the impact of their resource use and ultimately limit waste production (and minimise any hazardous components). This step change is happening, and many resource management companies are doing this with their customers already.

The audience were asked where they felt responsibility for skills improvement lay and the result was an even split between the employer and the individual with government not far behind.

Poll 3: Where do you think the main responsibility for skills lie?

Commenting on the results Colin stated that in reality its all three groups that need to work together and play a role. As an economy and a society, we will get much poorer without skills. Employers need to help employees, bring them in and give them the opportunities, whilst employees must be willing to invest time in themselves, whereas Government needs to take a longer-term strategic view of what we need and when, and then actively promote and support it.

Charlotte also commented that balance is key, as all parties have a role to play. She also mentioned that instability in policy can be challenging, potentially reducing investment from employers and individuals in key training and skills development programmes.

When asked specifically about skills the audience felt would be key for the next decade in the waste and resource sector, the results were not surprising and perhaps the recent and ongoing pandemic was front of mind when voting as 43% thought change management would be the most critical skill for the next ten years (of those listed).

Poll 4: Which type of skill are most critical for the next ten years?

In response to an audience question about whether we should broaden the waste sector in terms of how it is defined, bringing together other sectors under one resource management roof, the feeling amongst the panel was that we should engage and collaborate rather than look for a single entity, as is happening with the UK Resources Council, which is seeking to help enable greater collaboration between aligned sectors and Government.

A last poll question was asked before the end of the webinar on how the audience expected to gain these new skills in the future. Almost half the audience (45%) chose ‘on the job learning’ as the primary option, whilst the panellists highlighted just how important upskilling would be in the future and the importance of employers investing in their staff as well as individuals taking the initiative.

Poll 5: How do you expect to gain new skills in the future (primary route)?

Skills development will be vital in the next ten years

In terms of final thoughts the panelists had the following insights:

  • Roger: we must develop everyone, from top to bottom;
  • Steve: collaborate and plan skills for the future or fail;
  • Charlotte: engage effectively and work with your staff to get the right results;
  • Colin: think big and act fast; and
  • Sarahjane: contribute your views now and shape the future.

The consensus was that skills development will be vital in the next ten years and that unless we collaborate with other sectors we will lose the opportunity to amplify our impact, which might only come around once in a lifetime.

The incoming President’s report on skills in the waste & resources sector for the next decade will be launched in June 2021, so there is plenty of time to get involved and help shape what the CIWM does with their training and development programmes in support of its members. So if you are interested in contributing your views on skills for the future and being part of the presidential project then please get in touch with the lead author Sarahjane (

In the meantime, the UK Resources Council, of which Roger Morton is a Board Member, will continue to promote the role that the waste & resource sector can play in facilitating green recovery in other sectors, namely transportation, chemicals manufacturing, packaging and agriculture. If you are interested in this then get in touch with Adam ( ), as the final submission to DEFRA and BEIS will be completed in early 2021.

There is so much activity in our sector right now, reacting to global issues, dealing with planned policy reform, responding to heightened consumer interest, and reflecting on what other sectors will need as they start to decarbonise. The opportunities are there for our sector to be front and centre of the green recovery, but to do so we will need more staff, new skills, upskilling, retraining and a clear vision of what we need and by when. CIWM, working with others, including the UK Resource Council, will look to provide this leadership, insight and vision in the coming months, and that is hugely exciting for all of us involved.

Once again, we would like to thank the panellists for their time, insight and honesty, and all of the delegates for their participation in the polls and for asking so many excellent questions, some of which we just simply ran out of time to ask.

To watch the recording of the webinar follow the link here.

If you are a CIWM member, you can also discuss this topic and other current issues on Connect where the panellists and chairs are ready to engage on these and many other hot topics.





Send this to a friend