Closing the green skills gap

28th May 2021

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Jonathan Tomkins

Ben Kite talks to Chris Seekings about how the UK’s skills gap threatens to undermine the country’s environmental ambitions

Despite being one of the UK’s most long-standing ecological consultancy firms, your company, EPR, has had to turn down work due to a lack of skilled workers.

As managing director and an IEMA Practitioner, tell me, how has it come to this?

The 2008 financial crash was the cause of the problem. Ecological consultancies weren’t hiring anywhere near as many juniors to train up as they needed, so all the people who should now be more senior ecologists don’t exist.

This is combined with the significant growth in the development sector and consultancy market that has occurred since – it’s basically a ‘time lag’ whereby a temporary decline in recruiting is working its way through the system. It’s relatively easy to find very senior people or those who are just starting out in their career, but the people in the middle who you’d want to manage medium-size projects are in short supply.

Did the government ignore ecologists during the crisis?

All the skills needed to facilitate its aspirations for sustainable development and a new green economy seemed to be an afterthought, and it’s the same now. Politicians say we need to ‘build, build, build’ without thinking about the expertise that’s needed down the line to plan properly and make sure it works.

There needs to be greater awareness of delivery capacity and all the supporting human resources infrastructure that’s needed. Ecologists need to understand development as an industry and how it affects the environment, not just the ecology of animals and plants;it takes a lot of time to develop a person with all those skills and that experience. That can’t be created overnight – it has to be a long-term investment.

“Politicians say we need to ‘build, build, build’ without thinking about the expertise that’s needed”

Is this lack of skills an industry-wide problem?

Yes. I sit on a consultation panel for the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, which represents professional ecologists, and my fellow members all seem to be in the same boat. I know from discussions in meetings that junior people are relatively straightforward to find, but it’s really hard attracting and finding experienced people who you can just hand a job to and say, “oversee that and get it done”.

What can be done to address this?

It’s about getting employers together with educational institutions so that the courses they offer are not just producing ecologists who have a set of scientific skills, but no idea how to use them in the world of work. If I recruit a new graduate, I can’t usually expect them to know about development and planning policy and consultancy, so this must be taught on the job. They’ve got the science, but no experience whatsoever in applying it.

One of the things we’ve done as a consultancy is a placement arrangement with the University of Reading, where we take their masters students on and they do a year of salaried work for us, assisting our ecologists in the field. The government must provide more support to run those sorts of placements.

Do you think education providers also need to change?

I would like a school curriculum that’s more focused on British natural history. We have biology GCSEs and A Levels, but they’re very broad and tend to cover all the mechanics of biology. There hasn’t been any focus on the need for a natural history GCSE or something that focuses on the habitats and species we have in this country, what the constituent parts are, and how they all interact.

If you had people going into university with a basic understanding of all this, universities could take those students, develop their scientific skills and show them how they can be applied in the world of work, such as in ecological consultancy. Employers could then find ways to recruit people, hone their skills and develop their experience.

This skills gap must have been particularly challenging given the fluctuating demand during the COVID-19 pandemic?

We’ve gone from a situation wherewe had too many people for the work available when COVID-19 first impacted the construction sector, to a situation where we are struggling to keep up with requirements. Unfortunately, that has historically been the pattern that’s contributed to the skill shortage. We need more support so we’re not cutting ourselves back when work is less available and then having to quickly expand capacity when work is available.

There is little point in the government demanding that developers and local authorities aim higher with their environmental aspirations if there are no ecologists in local government, or at regulators such as Natural England and the Environment Agency, to check that this is happening. I want my reports for developers to be checked and read by skilled ecologists working for decision makers and regulators who demand a high standard. It helps to build a sector where high standards are the norm and the expectation. If nobody is checking reports, poor practice can creep in.

IEMA has called on the government to produce a strategy for green jobs and skills. Is that the sort of thing needed?

We need a sector-wide skills strategy and a long-term strategic approach, but we also need co-ordination between sectors. There is a mismatch between environmental ambition and other policies coming out for other sectors.

For example,the planning white paper is all about simplifying the process and removing tiers of environmental assessment – but that’s at odds with delivering more green development, because there needs to be greater environmental analysis and guidance. Without the ecologists needed to design and plan sustainable development, I think there is a risk of greenwashing a non-green economic recovery.

The incoming Environment Bill includes many environmental ambitions, such as a biodiversity net gain requirement for all new developments. Is that possible, given the current skills gap and lack of joined-up planning?

It’s going to be challenging for a number of reasons. The biodiversity metric that Defra has come up with isn’t easily applied to small sites, and its value will be lost if there isn’t a counterpart to me in the local authority who understands how to read the metric – but a lot of authorities don’t even employ an ecologist any more, because we’ve been through a decade of austerity and posts have been cut left, right and centre. The bill also introduces a requirement for local authorities to produce a local nature recovery strategy for their area, which sets out what their aspirations are for creating and restoring habitats.

There could also be an issue with quality. There are some people purporting to be ecologists who will, frankly, produce a piece of paper that says whatever the client wants it to say. There aren’t many, but they do exist. Life will be easier for them if there are lots of desperate clients and too few skilled ecologists to choose from, so I hope that we can plan to create a skilled-up and more regulated profession.

The government has also said it will create 250,000 green jobs. Are you confident that the government and industry will deliver?

There’s a difference between jobs that are connected to green industries, and jobs that actually involve an environmental qualification and the application of environmental skills. They’re related – the more wind farms you build, the more ecologists you’ll need to assess the impacts of those wind farms – which goes back to the need for more joined-up thinking.

The government tends to come up with headline-grabbing sound bites such as ‘we need 250,000 green jobs’. Okay, how are you going to achieve that? What are you going to build? Who’s going to build it? Who’s going to maintain it? What skills do you need to do the environmental due diligence and get a planning commission? There’s a chain of jobs there, because somebody’s got to design it and do the environmental assessments on it, then somebody’s got to build it, then somebody is going to maintain it and then decommission it. Unless you have that holistic picture, you can’t really match your aspirations to reality.

Image credit: Getty Images

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