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Getting to grips with the sustainability skills gap

There is growing recognition that the impacts of climate change, social inequalities and other sustainability challenges currently exceed the capabilities of today’s companies and workforce to respond effectively. Termed the “sustainability skills gap” — or “green skills gap”, when the focus is specifically on environmental issues — this mismatch emphasises the importance of both upskilling current professionals and preparing future talent to effectively identify and achieve tangible sustainability goals.

Why "sustainability” instead of just “green” skills?

The term “sustainability” is frequently thought of in terms of specific ideas like environmental protection or even just climate change. In reality, however, the idea is much broader. In order for any society – or community or even organisation – to sustain itself for the long term, each of the social, environmental and economic aspects must be balanced and sustainable.

According to the definition put forward for the Rio+20 Conference: “Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Seen as the guiding principle for long-term global development, sustainable development consists of three pillars: economic development, social development and environmental protection.”

In that context:

  • Environmental protection refers to practices and procedures that are designed to avoid, minimize, eliminate, or reverse damage to the environment and to environmental systems.

  • Social development is about improving the wellbeing of every individual in society so they can reach their full potential, linking the success of society to each and every citizen.

  • Economic development (in the context of sustainability) aims to create a balance between economic growth, resource efficiency, social equity and financial stability.

Coming together, those three pillars create a viable sustainable economy, while preserving the environment and respecting the needs of the people involved. To be truly sustainable, a solution or initiative must hit this “triple bottom line” (often known informally as the Three Ps — “profit, people and the planet”). Therefore, while “green skills” implies a focus solely on environmental sustainability, “sustainability skills” encompasses the breadth of the challenges we face — and the scale of the opportunity to find and build innovative, systemic solutions that consider and balance all three sustainability pillars.

"150 million individuals will need upskilling or reskilling in the next decade."

What is the scale of the sustainability skills gap?

Effectively addressing all of the world's social, economic and environmental sustainability challenges can feel like a daunting prospect; and the scale of the skills required for a green economy transition is massive. Research suggests a staggering 150 million individuals will need upskilling or reskilling in the next decade. With a mere 17% of firms on the trajectory to achieve their sustainability benchmarks, business leaders across industries urgently need talented employees with the sustainability skills and mindsets to help propel them forward. Meanwhile, LinkedIn data shows that globally just one in eight employees has one or more green skills; with that dropping to one in nine in the European Union.

A study by Microsoft and BCG revealed that 76% of participants identified the infancy of sustainability skills as a critical challenge in the workforce. When it comes to addressing the problem, however, acceleration is still needed; for example, less than 40% of UN members cite skilling plans under the Paris Agreement. That means that not only are there an insufficient number of skilled people to fill roles, there is also a lack of accessible, relevant training and resources available for those who are eager to learn.

A graph showing the highest priority skills for sustainability work. The graph is based on data collected by BCG and Microsoft.

Why are sustainability skills so vital?

Sustainability is about more than ticking a box or neutralizing a business’ negative impact with positive actions. It encompasses a set of hard and soft skills that enable individuals to assess the adverse environmental and social impacts of a company’s actions, develop solutions to wicked problems and move towards regenerative action. This is not limited to technical know-how (although that can be important; for example, for understanding of global standards and regulatory requirements, like the EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive). It also includes broader ‘transferable’ skills such as creative thinking, radical empathy and stakeholder engagement, as well as the ability to lead an organisation into a more sustainable future

While some individuals may choose to pursue sustainability-focused Master’s degrees or undertake specialist courses, to close the sustainability skills gap we need to stop treating sustainability as a siloed, highly-technical subject and begin seeing it as the future of business. To make meaningful, organisation-wide change, sustainability needs to stand at the core of decision-making from the C-suite downwards — but this demands a certain level of fluency in the subject across all departments and roles. This is why over three-quarters of CEOs today expect every job will need sustainability skills in the next decade. It’s also why developing a sustainability lens for your professional work is one of best ways to both advance your career and make a positive impact at the same time!

What’s more, to build a just and sustainable future, we need to assume collective responsibility and learn to collaborate across disciplines. This can pose a challenge, since such an integration of knowledge doesn't always naturally occur. But by creating a workforce equipped with sustainability literacy, a culture of responsibility becomes an interwoven dynamic, allowing visions like net-zero carbon footprints to become achievable

"To make meaningful, organisation-wide change, sustainability needs to stand at the core of decision-making."

Closing the sustainability skills gap benefits individuals, companies and economies

For companies, it can be challenging to understand the benefits and costs associated with supporting the transition to a sustainable economy. Often, this is because of the complexity associated with grasping the entirety of the sustainability transition strategy when it requires a long-term perspective. Yet, when it comes to accessing the best talent, the benefits of a strong sustainability strategy are clear. 

Increasingly, the majority of people (particularly those from Gen Z or younger) are only interested in employers with sustainability values and high ethical standards. In fact, a PWC report found that 75% of workers want to work for an organisation that will make a positive contribution to society. With an estimated 395 million new jobs set to be created as a result of corporate sustainability transitions, companies must act quickly to attract individuals with the know-how to fill these roles, as well as recent graduates hungry to channel their climate anxiety into action. By integrating sustainability learning initiatives into their overall learning and development offering, companies can attract professionals keen to develop careers with positive impact, as well as encouraging current employees to enhance their own skill set. 

These newly-skilled employees will also unleash potential and innovation back into the company, contributing creative ideas, spotting gaps and finding ways to incorporate sustainability into business operations. 

"75% of workers want to work for an organisation that will make a positive contribution to society."

But the responsibility doesn’t lie with companies alone. Higher education institutions also need to integrate sustainability focused learning into existing curricula across disciplines, valuing experiential learning as highly as traditional knowledge acquisition. 

Through sustainability focused training programs, aligning corporate goals with sustainable objectives, and refining educational curricula, we can narrow the skills gap and move closer to a greener future.


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