Opportunity knocks for environmentalists

8th December 2011


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Jan Chmiel tells Paul Suff why it has never been a better time to be an environmentalist

Opportunity should be the watchword for the environment profession in future, believes IEMA chief executive Jan Chmiel. “The list of environment issues facing organisations is getting bigger,” he says, “and many of them, such as resource constraints and tighter legislative control, are coming fast down the track.

"Organisations do not quite know how to respond. But the need for a response is growing. That presents the profession with an enormous opportunity. If environment professionals are up to the challenge, they can make a real difference and really start extending and broadening the way they are adding value for their organisations.”

He concedes that the economic downturn has resulted in some environmental jobs disappearing, particularly in the hard-hit public sector, but maintains that environment professionals are uniquely placed to benefit from the recovery, as long as they seize the opportunity.

“From a business perspective, as the environment moves up the corporate agenda, it’s about both risk and competitive advantage. Environment professionals understand risk. And because much of the profession is built around environment systems such as ISO 14001, they have an unparalleled view of the whole organisation. They understand the environmental challenges right across the value chain. They talk to the facilities people, the finance people, the procurement people etc. They see risk in a way that nobody else does,” he explains.

“Increasingly, however, organisations are also seeing the opportunity to create competitive advantage through understanding the complex and integrated nature of environmental and social constraints,” he adds. “Managing environmental issues in complex supply chains, for example, lends itself entirely to new ways for organisations to do business.”

Chmiel uses his recent discovery that a private equity company has made an environment scientist a core member of its senior management team to illustrate the potentially crucial role that environment professionals can play in organisations.

“This guy, who is an IEMA member, told me that when he goes around the various businesses his company is considering investing in the first people he speaks with are the health, safety and environment managers. Why? Because HSE people are the ones who understand the risks. In talking to them, he is able to find out how the environment impacts on the business and how it can cover the risks,” he explains.

“Also, their exposure to the issues across value chains gives them a unique insight into opportunities.” He does offer a warning, however. “If environmentalists do not position themselves in organisations to lead on environmental issues there is a danger that things might fragment. You’ll get carbon managed by the finance department, CSR managed by the marketeers and so on. That’s fine. It’s not about holding people back, but that sort of fragmented system will not benefit organisations, and certainly not the environment,” he says. “You need people who can see the bigger picture. That is what environmentalists offer.”

Mapping the future

Ensuring that environmentalists are equipped with the skills and knowledge to make the most of emerging opportunities is something IEMA is addressing through its recently launched environmental skills map.

Its development is something that Chmiel is proud of. “Everyone knows what a competency framework is, but it was the absence of one in the environment profession that made it seem that the profession wasn’t focused on development. It links the graduate with those in senior positions. It’s one framework and is like the ‘golden thread’ that weaves together pretty much everything IEMA does,” he explains. Chmiel believes the environmental skills map achieves two key things.

First, it sets out the complexity of the profession. “People say the role of an environment institute is a difficult one, because the profession is so varied, the job roles so broad. You’ve got people working in compliance and operational roles, specialists, consultants and academics. Plus you’ve got everyone from students and graduates to people in very senior positions. The map embraces every type of role and every type of member,” says Chmiel.

The second key thing the map achieves is to provide environment professionals with a clear structure for planning their own personal professional development and career path. “The growth of the profession and the services, like training, to support it mean there are lots of courses to choose from. That can be incredibly confusing,” comments Chmiel. “The framework makes the link between the individual and what he/she wants to achieve in their career and everything that is out there in terms of developing themselves to go as far as they want.”

Although the skills map was first conceived as a resource for members, its value is now more widespread. “We decided to take it to organisations our members work in to see it if made sense to them. It is only by showing it to organisations that we have realised its value. So, it’s not just a resource for members but something that organisations increasingly regard as valuable,” says Chmiel. That value includes ensuring staff have the necessary competencies, such as at Tata Steel.

The next stage of its development is to turn the framework into a “living”, practical resource. “Turning the environmental skills map from concept to reality is the next step and involves building the second layer, the training in knowledge and skills that people can experience, and the resources that members can access to help them as they progress through their careers. The investment IEMA is now making is in fleshing out the second level,” comments the chief executive.

“Now we have the skills map we can start to work in partnership with training providers to deliver the content,” he explains. “There is a mutual interest in getting it right. We’re currently discussing with training organisations how we can turn the map into a practical thing, so there are relevant courses at every level of competence. But what I want, as we develop it further, is for training organisations to come to us to demonstrate what courses and tools they have that feed into the map.

"Ideally, I want to see an ‘open-source’ model develop, with IEMA providing the framework and service providers delivering the content, the right courses focused on quality provision.”

Maintaining standards

Given the plethora of services and tools available with an environmental “tag”, Chmiel says IEMA is focused on keeping up standards throughout the profession. “There are so many organisations providing a ‘service’ in the environment sector, whether that is training providers, software developers or consultancies, that IEMA’s key responsibility is to maintain standards.”

Chmiel acknowledges that, historically, the profession hasn’t had a licence to operate: anyone can refer to themselves as an “environment professional”. He also believes that it is not up to the Institute to create one.

“It isn’t IEMA’s role to develop a licence to operate. It will be the organisations that employ IEMA members who will establish that, who will ask for particular skills and knowledge. We can’t create an artificial need, but the need is growing. There are really big environmental challenges out there and we need people who are qualified to deal with them, and membership of IEMA ensures standards that organisations will look for.”

Chmiel foresees a time when environmental skills and knowledge will be a requirement for people in other parts of a business, such as human resources, finance and marketing. There is already evidence of this happening. the environmentalist reported in October that construction company Skanska is sending every employee on a half-day session of IEMA-approved environmental training at least once each year.

“As environment skills and knowledge become more prevalent throughout organisations, and outside of the core environmental function, the need to maintain standards becomes even more important,” says Chmiel.

The next generation

Chmiel is insistent that IEMA’s responsibility for the profession extends further than its existing membership to embrace the next generation of environmentalists. The Institute has recently held workshops for students considering a career in the profession in five universities – Hertfordshire, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton and Sunderland.

“The workshop at the University of Southampton attracted 120 under- and postgraduate students, some missing a statistics lecture to attend,” reports Chmiel. The common question he gets asked is: “How do I get a job?”

“I tell them to grasp any opportunity to get their foot in the door. There are not enough environment manager jobs for everyone, but they shouldn’t get demoralised because there are opportunities, and they are growing. Once you are in an organisation, then you need to show you can make a difference,” he says.

To illustrate his point he tells the story of one IEMA member, who presented at the Southampton workshop.

“She couldn’t get an environmental job, so she joined her organisation as a personal assistant. She’s so passionate about the environment that she started to do things and that got her noticed. Now she has an environment position. If you can get your foot in the door there will be opportunities to make a difference, to have an impact. You can make an impact today.

“That doesn’t only apply to those starting out on their environment careers. People already in post can use their passion for the environment to think about what they can do today in their organisations to make a difference,” he explains. “It might be a cost saving here or identifying a risk there.”

He uses the example of the list of new regulations that appears in the environmentalist every month to highlight ways in which practitioners can demonstrate their value.

“Translating the plethora of regulation in a simple way for managers. That’s where the environmentalist comes in. The list of regulations is there each month, so there is an opportunity to take that, relate it to the organisation, and talk to your manager.”

Chmiel is adamant that the opportunities are there for those in the profession who want to help organisations better manage their environmental impacts and add value, but accepts that not every practitioner necessarily wants to take on such a role.

“IEMA’s role is not to make everyone in the profession an agent for change, but we do have a responsibility to ensure the profession engages in the change agenda and prepare it to play a crucial role. It is up to individual members if they want to play that role.

“There is an opportunity to do so, but not every member will want to do that. A lot of our members are happy doing what they already do, and we’ll help them be the best they can be.”

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