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How to fill the ever-growing sustainable skills gap

How do we ensure we have the skills in place to achieve our sustainability goals? Paul Wrighton, Director of Sustainable Infrastructure at Johnson Controls, has some answers.
By retaining their current talent pool and introducing new talent in tandem, businesses will be well positioned to capture the huge opportunities a low carbon future has to offer.

How do we ensure we have the skills in place to achieve our sustainability goals? Paul Wrighton, Director of Sustainable Infrastructure at Johnson Controls, has some answers.

The green jobs market continues to expand exponentially as businesses begin to implement meaningful strategies to meet sustainability targets. As green technology continues to evolve, with developments happening across sectors – from clean energy to manufacturing – potential career paths will evolve, too.

This is good news for net employment prospects. The drive on sustainability could help to create 30 million new jobs by 2030. Businesses know that they need to act fast if they are to capitalise on this opportunity – not just in terms of creating a greener business but for financial growth too. A workforce that is equipped with expertise in sustainable technology will be the key to untapping the potential for a low carbon future.Setting goals is all well and good, but you need knowledge and skills to drive any agenda forwards in meaningful ways.

Presently, demand for talent is exceeding the number of available skilled professionals. If leaders can prioritise making sustainability part of the workforce now, they can make the most of an enormous opportunity. As Johnson Controls’ CEO George Oliver has stated, we have the technology, financing, partnerships, and people to turn buildings from one of the greatest challenges, into one of the biggest and quickest net zero wins.

People are central to green tech evolution

We often say that any serious initiative ‘takes a village’ to make it happen. But when it comes to net zero, it’s more truthful to say that it takes an army. As competition for talent heats up across industries, demand for qualified candidates is running at record highs.

Innovation in tech and its wide potential is grabbing headlines, pulling focus, and pushing the drive for sustainable talent to the top of the business agenda. There has been a surge in interest in the role next-gen green tech has to play in driving down emissions. The adoption and innovation of climate tech can deliver real solutions, combined with a trained and equipped workforce to deliver it.

Nurturing a green workforce

When plotting the path forward, enterprises need employees who can help design and implement net zero strategies that deliver for the environment and the business. They need skilled engineers to build, monitor and maintain these systems, and they need a broad range of skills in specialised areas such as solar and heat pump technologies.

As a £90 billion industry that can be unlocked further, there is huge promise in the UK’s growing net zero economy, in connection with the country’s levelling up scheme across major UK cities and regions. It’s a unique set of circumstances spurring emerging interest in reskilling and upskilling programmes, with the goal of taking sustainability full throttle, plus the bonus potential of employee engagement and competitive edge.

To succeed, these new systems will need to be supported by better models, operations, and people strategies that empower workforces as agents of change. The good news is we don’t need to make the switch alone. Tackling challenges and building agility into a business’ DNA is an exercise in collaboration at its heart. Doing this effectively means change across workforces and operations. Despite the challenges we have a clear call to action: set a whole new standard through one powerful trifecta of people, technology and processes.

Successful reskilling initiatives demand company-wide buy-in

A successful approach to upskilling takes a brand-new company-wide way of working, and a full review of processes to ensure practical delivery. Beyond the operational changes, you need a collaborative workforce that understands the positive impact of sustainability, and the right tools to implement these new sustainable measures.

Bold upskilling plans start with a highly competent and passionate core team to champion the culture shift and set the right tone for company-wide buy-in. The next step is all about taking a top-down mindset that involves all teams across an organisation playing their part in the process. 

Businesses that promote general sustainability competency and help employees combine their current functional skills with the necessary sustainability skills for their role are bringing all the parts of the process together and will be best positioned for success.

Creating incentives to drive progress

Businesses in the upskilling phase are aided by the core team of sustainability experts established in the mobilise stage. If they step up their enablement efforts as they start to change the way the business operates, they can move quickly.

By utilising green partnerships with educational institutions, businesses can identify the skills and knowledge needed in the workforce and ensure that education and training programmes are aligned with their needs for now, and the future.

Government plays a big role too – by raising public awareness about the benefits of green jobs and the importance of transitioning to a low-carbon economy. This will help to create demand for green jobs and encourage more people to pursue careers in this field. Strong incentives include those to strengthen the focus on apprenticeship and internship programmes within the green sector, and the significant reform to equip 11-16-year-olds with the vital skills needed to implement effective green governance in the future. This is a vital age group, as one in three young people in the UK are concerned about both their futures and the successful transition to sustainability.

To support the younger generation who will soon enter the workforce or finish education, businesses can encourage practical, on-the-job training and work experience for people who are interested in pursuing green careers. When evaluating a company’s culture and values, just over one in four (26%) of the adults surveyed by the World Economic Forum in Europe said that sustainability is one of their top non-negotiables. Professionals now have a strong and growing desire to work for an organisation that values the environment and where they can make a difference in combating climate change.

Future generations provide much-needed optimism

Young people’s fresh ideas, methods and viewpoints will be invaluable in addressing climate change issues in the years to come. With the demand for innovation and the development of new technologies likely to spike in years to come, we need to cultivate a green talent pool now rather than later. Skill development doesn’t happen overnight, so it’s also integral that businesses lean into upskilling schemes for their current workforce. By retaining their current talent pool and introducing new talent in tandem, businesses will be well positioned to capture the huge opportunities a low carbon future has to offer.

It’s of course important that companies set an example by showcasing their understanding of issues such as diversity, ethics and employee satisfaction. But more than this, businesses need to demonstrate that any goals which are set are then achieved through real-world action. This is where companies will reap the greatest reward. Businesses are well-positioned to promote and drive forward sustainability goals on both an internal and external level.

Sustainable practices should be integrated across every level of an organisation and should permeate within its objectives and practices. For this to happen, the workforce should be kept informed throughout and offered rewards where possible – for example, compensation for C-suite committees in line with sustainability and diversity targets. It’s true that there is a significant amount of work to be done. However, there is every reason to feel optimistic. Employees can become a fundamental part of the sustainability journey with the right mindset and buy-in in place. 

We have seven years to meet the 2030 net zero target. It’s achievable if we act now and invest in the sustainable workforce today.

Paul Wrighton

Director of Sustainable Infrastructure at Johnson Controls

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