Last reviewed 9 June 2022

What are green skills, and why do we need them? Laura King looks at the case for change, and how to start developing these skills in the workforce.

To reach net zero in 2050 and to secure a sustainable future, the UK’s business landscape will need to look very different:

  • energy sources will have shifted, and how we use and re-use resources will have become more circular

  • what we eat, how we get around, and what our cities look like;

these all will have to change.

To get there, the people behind the products we buy and the resources we use will need to have grasped the scale and nature of the change needed, and put their ideas into practice.

2050 is not so far away — and considering most people will work for 30–40 years, many people currently working will still be in employment. In essence, the people in work today are a crucial part of the transition, both in terms of addressing climate change, as well as other pressing issues such as over-consumption and biodiversity loss.

There has been a lot of focus on green jobs, but what of green skills? Both will undoubtedly be needed, but there are differences. Green jobs are part of the new and expanding industries that play a key part in the transition, such as wind turbine technicians. Green skills are broader, and encompass the knowledge, abilities and values that are required to tackle these environmental challenges that we face.

To realise a more environmentally sound 2050, these green skills are needed across all industries, and in all parts of the workplace. Indeed, in its most recent Global Green Skills Report, trends from LinkedIn data showed that the vast majority of green skills asked for were in jobs not traditionally thought of as “green” such as fleet managers.

What are the barriers to gaining organisational green skills?

Most commonly, organisations will have a specialist team of employees that will deal with environmental issues. For some, this might be a technical environmental management team, while for others it may be in the form of a wider sustainability team. Usually, however, “sustainability” is siloed — wider organisational sustainability skills are generally sidelined in favour of having an individual or small team with specialist knowledge, meaning that for many in the workforce, environmental issues are not part of the remit.

Furthermore, a recent report by Deloitte and IEMA on transforming the workplace also found in round-table discussions that as well as a widely held belief that green skills were only limited to academic and technical subjects, there was also a general lack of understanding of how green skills could be applied more widely.

Although sustainability does indeed require very specific and technical knowledge, this siloed mentality needs to change. Indeed, despite recognising the barriers, executives at the round-table discussions also acknowledged that in successful organisations every team member will need to have some level of green skills to be effective in their role. However, more than just a re-skilling of employees, this requires a cultural shift — in the same way that most people are aware of safe behaviour in the workplace, or the professional standards that are required of them, sustainable values, behaviours and thinking need to be ingrained and a core part of “how things are done”.

How does the company get there?

Most people intuitively know that people will generally work in accordance with what their organisation and manager expect of them — not necessarily what is best for the environment or wider world. Changing a culture and developing green skills that are actually used (rather than just being a tick-box exercise) also means changing the nature of this understanding between employee and employer.

This requires both formal and informal change to:

  • demonstrate that sustainable behaviours are what is expected within the organisation

  • build sustainability requirements into the job.

Demonstrating change

At the outset, to be clear about the need for change, the long-term ambitions of the company and its vision for the future need to be in place. A sustainability policy will not in itself be adequate; instead, sustainability needs to be embedded at the organisation’s very core — it needs to be part of its mission, vision and values.

If this is not in place, sustainability teams will struggle to convince other areas of the business of the value of change or re-skilling.

As part of this, environmental change also needs to be re-framed. No longer can sustainability be simply about “doing the right thing”; it needs to be synonymous with a successful business. Developing the financial case for change and how this feeds into different business units will demonstrate that environmental change can be profitable, and will also help convince others of the need to spend time and money on re-skilling staff.

Finally, with a clear vision and financial case, the actions of the company need to align with its words. For example:

  • are management decisions in line with sustainability principles

  • are sustainable behaviours in staff rewarded

  • are staff involved in change?

Training and building competencies

Building the foundation

At the most basic level, all employees should understand the main reasons why sustainability issues are so important. This could include information such as:

  • the main environmental risks and opportunities facing the business

  • the impact of the organisation’s services or products on the environment

  • key areas of legislation and any drivers for change

  • the role of employees in delivering the transition.

For top-tier management, tools such as directors briefings or high-level presentations might also be appropriate.

When considering how to build this foundational knowledge, remember that understanding the viewpoint of the audience and where their priorities lie is critical to buy-in. For many, there is still the perception that being “green” is a “nice-to-have” rather than what the new normal will look like. Understanding a team’s pressures and drivers for change, and relating any training to their reality, will be crucial.

Identifying skills gaps

For each area of the business, the emphasis for sustainability will be different, and there will be different skills that will be needed. One way to start breaking down what is needed is to conduct a skills gap analysis. This is a review of the current status of skills within the organisation and what will be needed in the future.

A skills gap analysis is often carried out along with HR teams. It provides a good overview of the entire organisation, identifying priority areas to target resources and helping with workforce planning.

Deloitte have also developed a toolkit that provides a blueprint for what green skills might look like, which can help to identify the critical skills needed to meet future business needs. For example:

  • customer service agents will be able to work across teams to address customer’s sustainability concerns and offer advice on products from cradle to grave

  • marketing executives will view sustainability as a key route to deliver value and will have strong knowledge of sustainability trends

  • procurement teams will provide net zero supply chain management and ethical sourcing that delivers value.

Summary

  • Business will need to look very different in 25 years’ time if we are to realise a sustainable future.

  • Transitioning towards this change needs to happen with current staff; consider that someone in their early 40s will have only just retired in 2050.

  • To develop green skills within the organisation, clear long-term objectives are needed, as well as buy-in at senior management.

  • Green-skill training needs to be structured, with a clear purpose and goal. It is needed across all levels, and within all areas of the organisation.