A new era for recruitment

1st August 2023

Tom Pashby examines the changing employment patterns for the sustainability sector

Many of us, especially newer entrants into the sector, might think that a significant proportion of the business community has always taken its environmental and sustainability-related responsibilities seriously. This, of course, is not true. Climate science only reached maturity in the latter half of the 20th century. As public and business awareness of the importance of being environmentally responsible has grown over the past 30 years, recruitment into the sector has changed dramatically.

Today, many candidates for entry-level environmental roles have an undergraduate degree, a master’s, perhaps an internship during university summers or involvement with relevant student societies. The volume of people undertaking postgraduate education has also grown markedly over the past 15 years, from approximately 300,000 in 2006, to around 500,000 in 2022.

Yet this is not a simple story of candidates with more qualifications leading to more effective employees and organisations. Paul Gosling, national director of sustainability at the recruitment firm Hays, believes there was still an “oversupply” of candidates 30 years ago. “The challenge in environmental recruitment has always been that the number of people doing these types of degrees, because they’re interested in them, is greater than the number of junior-level positions.”

Gosling adds that of his own 90-strong cohort of environmental science graduates in 1991, only around half a dozen went on to develop careers in the environmental space. While university degrees are still important, other factors are growing in significance in the candidate versus prospective employer relationship.

Zofia Bajorek, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, says: “A lot of younger people are looking for organisational values when they look for jobs. They’re not just looking for a job that matches their technical expertise. They want an organisation that matches their values and where there’s a cultural fit, in terms of what an organisation is saying and what an organisation is doing.”

When asked about the impact of the expansion of qualifications per candidate, Bajorek says: “It’s sad because we are basing people on technical knowledge, rather than other tangible skills that somebody can bring to a role.”

In selecting candidates solely on postgraduate qualifications, she believes employers “might be cutting off a large section of the population who could be brilliant for your organisation, but they just might not have been able to afford a master’s degree.”

Recruitment processes and technology have also changed beyond all recognition. It wasn’t until 2002 that most UK homes had a computer. Gosling, who started his first recruitment job in 1995, remembers: “I didn’t have a computer on my desk when I started working in recruitment. I had a filing cabinet full of CVs, categorised by the skills they had.

“We’d physically open up the post in the morning, review CVs, ring up a client and say we’ve got this fantastic candidate and then fax the CV across or put it in an envelope. And then two days later, we’d ring up and say, ‘did you get that CV I sent you in the post?’”

On top of CVs moving from paper to electronic format, the decision-makers involved in recruitment in the environment and sustainability space have also changed. “There are many more layers between you as the candidate and the person you’re going to be working for in many organisations. And that’s one of the complicating factors, partly as a result of the size and scale of the businesses now,” Gosling adds.

Another major factor is the growing population of middle managers. These are often people who, 10 or 15 years ago, benefitted from higher education that was free at the point of access and had the career-relevant qualifications needed to progress.

Bajorek says: “When we’re looking at existing talent and management, we’re at risk of having middle managers who are more technically competent, but maybe do not have the people and managerial skills.” She advocates for the benefits of on-the-job learning, for example, apprenticeship degrees.

New forms of learning are already happening. Businesses, educational institutions and government will need to coordinate effectively if we are to deliver the green training, skills and jobs needed to transform our economies into ones that benefit future generations.

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