Why demand for “green skills” is heating up

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Last updated January 10, 2022

A pledge to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030. A commitment to reverse deforestation by 2030. A call to “phase down” the use of unabated coal and other fossil fuels. The goals that came out of the United Nations’ recent COP26 climate change summit are as ambitious as they are important. But none of them will be achieved without enough people with the skills to do so.

The need to develop a workforce well trained in areas such as environmental protection and sustainability goes well beyond Glasgow, where COP26 was held. Here in Canada, for example, the demand for “green skills” is growing by the day.

According to the most recent labour market research from Environmental Careers Organization (ECO) Canada, openings for jobs related to the environment grew by five percent in 2020, despite the waves of layoffs in companies disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. ECO Canada forecasts that by 2025, the demand for talent will continue to grow by up to 17 percent.

Kevin Nilsen, ECO Canada’s president and CEO, said the surge can be explained by a combination of public sector efforts to promote employment opportunities and an ongoing demographic shift.

“The baby boomers are retiring more rapidly, and the pandemic has spurred that on a little bit,” Nilsen told CourseCompare. “Then we’ve also had a couple of years now of intense government focus on job creation. And that has succeeded — we’ve created more jobs. But now there aren’t enough people to fill the jobs, which is a unique scenario to be in.”

As a result, Nilsen said ECO Canada finds itself balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders, including job seekers, industry and academia. The job seekers could be early or even mid-career professionals who are compelled by the mission and purpose of combating climate change. Academic partners need to ensure their accredited programs are building the right competencies. As for industry, it’s important to not only find skilled people but ensure they stay engaged and loyal.

“The turnover is artificially high at the moment because there are so many opportunities and people are jumping ship,” he said. “That problem will put pressure on the salary levels. There will be a little bit of an unhealthy increase where people will be overpaid, and when you have an unhealthy increase, you know you will also face a correction at some point.”

Three Green Skills To Consider

Part of the challenge might be defining what “green skills” are today, and what they will look like 10 years from now. ECO Canada has helped in this area by developing National Occupational Standards (NOS) for environmental work. These fall into three main categories:

Environmental Protection — This includes developing expertise in air quality, site assessment and reclamation and waste management.

Resource Management — This covers skills in managing energy consumption, fisheries and wildlife as well as managing other natural resources.

Resource Sustainability —  This encompasses skills in developing (or complying with) policy and legislation, research and communication to promote public awareness of the issues.

Canada’s educational institutions, including colleges in Ontario like Sheridan, are already establishing or building upon curricula that relates to these competencies, such as Sheridan’s graduate certificate program in Environmental Control. They’re not stopping there, though.

Dr. Janet Morrison, vice-chancellor and president of Sheridan College, says schools have to think beyond merely helping industry fill vacancies and meet the targets set out in their climate action plans.

“We have long defined moving to a greener economy as multi-faceted,” she said. “That means coming back to the (UN’s) Sustainable Development Goals, but also looking to integrate issues like equity, housing and food security.”

Schools have to ensure they complement the programming and research they offer with tangible efforts to contribute positively to the areas being covered in the classroom. At Sheridan, for instance, Morrison pointed to the college’s efforts to become a Zero Waste campus, its Medicine Wheel Garden rooted in traditional teachings that symbolically reflects the circle of life, and  Repair Café, which aims to divert broken items from landfills.

“Our organization’s job is not just to teach but really to facilitate learning,” she said. “That’s not just in classrooms but through engaging with municipalities.” Sheridan has partnered with the Town of Oakville, for instance, to plant native flowers and other activities as part of its Mission Zero initiative.

During a recent webinar hosted by Polytechnics Canada, Morrison and Nilsen spoke as part of a panel that also featured Dr. Larry Rosia, president and CEO of Saskatchewan Polytechnic. Like Sheridan, he said the school has been looking well beyond its ways to develop green skills.

Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s partnerships include an alliance with the City of Saskatoon and Saskatoon Travel Council to train Indigenous people to access jobs in water treatment and waste operations. A partnership with Saskatoon Polytechnic, meanwhile, is giving students in its mechanical engineering program hands-on opportunities to learn about strategies to reduce consumption and conserve resources.

“We’ll also be offering a green microcredential soon,” Rosia said during the webinar, “which will help give them those other skills they’re going to need.”

Transferable Skills The Green Economy Needs

There are also more traditional skills that might not seem “green” at first glance but which contribute heavily to success in all three areas, Nilsen said. During a discussion with a major environmental consulting firm, for example, he said he pointed to one big gap they needed to close: project management. Those who have expertise in regulated industries could also prove highly valuable in complying with environmental standards.

“It’s not a sector where you say, ‘You’re a civil engineer, therefore, you’re an expert in the environment. You really need to bring in the skillsets and technical abilities from a broad range of different types of competent people,” he said. “It is very STEM-focused science and engineering in particular, but it requires being able to synthesize those various aspects within the environment.”

Morrison agreed. She said we may be quickly moving into an economic reality where every graduate has an opportunity to consider a career in environmentalism or sustainability if they fall into the “skilled labour” camp. If they have any competencies around deploying technology to achieve organizational goals, all the better.

“What we hear all the time — whether it’s related to traditionally environmental roles or not — is that employers need new talent who can show agility, who can solve problems and who can communicate with diverse audiences,” she said.

Nilsen suggested there are parallels to be drawn from the IT sector. Many years ago, anyone operating a computer as part of their job might have been considered as pursuing a tech career.

“If labour market researchers hadn’t evolved their models, we would have 38 million IT professionals to account for today,” he said. “But more specific roles like chief sustainability officers are a really interesting case in point. A few years ago, that was a fluff role. Now they have a critical role within the C-suite.”

Morrison said she believes schools are ready to ensure Canadian students will develop the skills necessary to become the next generation of chief sustainability officers — or whatever other kinds of green roles emerge.

“I’m an educator, really focused on capitalizing on human potential,” she said. “The current climate crisis is the latest in the demands on the educator sector to deliver a different kind of talent. And we will.”

Shane Schick

Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate and manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing Magazine and B2B News Network. He is also the former Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief) at IT World Canada, a former technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada, and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca.

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