Setting the pace for sustainability skills

13th February 2012

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Claire Lea addresses the need to narrow the gap between the skills available and those increasingly in demand by businesses facing a raft of environmental and sustainability challenges

The government’s recent report on skills for a green economy provides a ray of light for sustainability. The report recognises the skills that are often overlooked and yet are vital to drive the green economy and develop sustainable, resource-efficient and resilient businesses of the future.

The first step is having a good understanding of all the environment and sustainability skills needed, and ensuring these are well defined. The majority of previous reports have focused only on one part of the environmental skills equation – the skills required to develop and deploy new environmental technologies.

While important, it’s only part of the consideration. We have seen a similar pattern in business, where the environment is treated as an isolated issue or combined with health and safety or quality responsibilities.

As a relatively “young” profession, environment or sustainability job roles, and titles, are still developing and evolving – there are differing responsibilities, seniority and specialisms that provide a variety of work and opportunities.

For example, Jonathan Garrett of Balfour Beatty, commenting in the environmentalist in September 2011 on his role as group head of sustainability, said: “In addition to developing a sustainability strategy (2020 vision and roadmap) for a global organisation of 50,000 people, my role touches a number of core functions outside the traditional area of environmental compliance. These include embedding sustainability into our work activities, procurement and leadership development programmes to ensure sustainability becomes part of the organisation’s DNA.”

Garrett’s role and experience demonstrate that environment and sustainability issues don’t have to be considered in isolation. If they are integrated into the overall business strategy they become core to the business.

There are many different ways that organisations manage environment and sustainability issues for their businesses, depending on numerous factors, including scale and complexity of the business. Finding the right person to enable business to meet the challenge of increasing policy and regulatory standards is difficult and undoubtedly made harder by the confusing landscape of mixed job titles.

IEMA’s environmental skills map has been developed with employers and helps businesses to identify the environmental knowledge and skills they need in their organisations. It provides support to companies whether they are looking to recruit an environment manager, someone to manage their environmental legal compliance issues either at an operational or managerial level, or a strategic leader who can embed sustainable thinking across an organisation’s value chain.

Environmental roles in organisations are evolving, just as the way in which organisations are addressing issues around the environment and sustainability is changing – with an increasing recognition of the need for strategic sustainability skills.

People who have the skills and talent to embed sustainability into the fabric of an organisation to deliver value for the long term are the leaders of the future, and they are setting the pace and direction for the future sustainable economy.

Claire's articles is the second in her continuing series of blogs on the Guardian Sustainable Business website. IEMA members are invited to comment on the blog here

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