According to a new report, while corporations continue to make sustainability commitments, they struggle to find a qualified workforce to help implement them.
The new report from Microsoft and the Boston Consulting Group finds that 57 percent of sustainability professionals don’t have sustainability-related degrees. More than 40 percent of professionals had no more than three years of experience in a range of sustainable areas of focus.
“The gravity of the [climate] problem has led more than 3,900 companies, including Microsoft, to announce climate pledges,” the report authors wrote. “As we work, internally and with a large majority of these companies, it’s clear that the coming business changes will be massive. They will impact a wide variety of processes and operations, in part based on new applications for digital technology, including cloud services, AI, and dedicated services like [Microsoft’s] Cloud for Sustainability. But, as we’ve learned, this will also require an equally vital effort to equip companies and employees with a broad range of new skills needed for climate adaptation and sustainability transformation.”
The demand for green jobs is on the rise
The lack of experience comes as the number of “green” jobs increased by eight percent between 2016 and 2021—that’s two percent more than the growth of the sustainable skills talent pool. To fill the gap, more than 60 percent of companies are turning to internal hires—often team members who are unqualified to measure sustainability metrics.
To date, most companies at the forefront of sustainability transformation “have been scrappy, growing the ‘home-grown’ talent they need,” the report reads. “Our research found that employers so far have tapped 68 percent of their sustainability leaders by hiring from within their own company. Some 60 percent of sustainability team members joined without expertise in the field. Employers mostly have tapped talented insiders with the core transformational and functional skill sets needed to create change in a company, even though they lacked formal training in sustainability. They then upskilled those individuals to accomplish critical sustainability work.”
Over the course of a year, the researchers studies 15 companies leading sustainability innovation, including Microsoft, and interviewed nearly 250 employees in jobs with sustainability components.
“The impact on jobs across companies falls into two broad categories,” reads the report. “The first is specialized sustainability positions emerging quickly across the global economy. For example, a company like Microsoft now employs individuals who pursue full-time the purchase of long-term, high-quality carbon removal. The second is much broader, as existing jobs expand to encompass sustainability subject matter. A good example involves engineers and materials scientists who design hardware devices. They now have to assess not only the capabilities of materials that go into a new device but also the sustainability implications of those materials.”
Filling the skills gap
“As companies move to create and fill these jobs, they are confronting a huge sustainability skills gap. This gap encompasses three categories. First, some employees need deep and specialized sustainability knowledge and skills in areas like carbon accounting, carbon removal, and ecosystem services valuation. This includes the skills needed to address these issues through new climate-specific digital tools. Second, broader business teams need readier access to more limited but sometimes deep knowledge in specific sustainability subject areas, such as climate-related issues that have become important for procurement and supply chain management. Third, a great many employees need basic and broader fluency in sustainability issues and climate science fields that impact a wide variety of business operations and processes. “
The report found that while there is indeed progress in moving toward more sustainable jobs and commitments, it is not moving quickly enough to address the urgency of the climate crisis.
“The historical importance and current breadth of the sustainability skilling challenge are difficult to overstate,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s vice chair and president, writes in the report. “The creation of a net-zero planet will require that sustainability science spreads into every sector of the economy.”
But there’s hope; the report outlines a three-part action plan aimed at helping corporations, educational institutions, and governments address the skills gaps. “In the history of civilization, few generations have needed to do as much in as little time as we must do now,” the report reads. “At its most fundamental level, this is the single greatest challenge and opportunity of our time.”
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