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9th June 2014

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Mary O'Connor

IEMA's chief executive talks to Paul Suff about skills and the future of the profession

Q: You spent your first months as chief executive talking to members and business leaders about the role of environment and sustainability professionals. What did you learn from that fact-finding mission?

A: Several clear messages emerged. The first is that the profession is changing and practitioners want the same professional recognition that is afforded to engineers or financial controllers, for example.

Members also stressed the importance of skills, so they need a good programme of continuing professional development (CPD) and a clear career pathway – this is probably their number one priority.

Underpinning both these messages is the desire to influence. I heard this again and again. Some members are frustrated that they are unable to get their organisations to respond in a positive way to the needs of the environment or to pursue best practice sustainability.

Q: How does IEMA plan to help members to exert more authority?

A: IEMA is responding radically to requests from members to help them be more influential. We are planning a number of things. The first is to offer a wider programme of skills than environment or audit management. Now that the Global Association of Corporate Sustainability Officers (GACSO) is part of the IEMA family there will be greater focus on sustainability, for example. GACSO members typically work at a senior level and have influence, and these practitioners will be able to assist both the Institute and IEMA members to develop the broader range of skills required in such positions.

Members also want IEMA to adopt more of a global focus. The general feeling among members is that, if they are going to successfully play a more transformative role, particularly in multinational organisations, IEMA needs to provide qualifications and a membership structure that reflects that international profile. In terms of skills, IEMA is now providing members with a bigger engine to drive their CPD. We have established IEMA Sustainability Training Solutions (STS), which brings together all our training providers so the Institute can provide a more comprehensive learning proposition.

Q: So, are we talking about some specific skills that practitioners are currently lacking?

A: I think many now need a different set of skills from those when they started in the profession. These are the skills that will help them respond to new challenges and to equip them to work at a higher level. They need skills that can bring the environment into their organisations in a way that can help drive business activity.

There’s also a new cohort of people coming into the profession. They could be an engineer, a finance director or an HR practitioner who is working in an organisation that has embedded sustainability and who needs to understand what that means. They don’t necessarily want to be environment practitioners, but they need to know what skills an environment manager has to understand and the contribution that environment and sustainability professionals can make. If you look at the training package that IEMA has put in place, it now covers the complete range of training requirements.

Q: Are organisations looking to environment practitioners to deliver sustainability solutions?

A: Some are, but they are a minority. Our recent skills survey found that 65% of organisations that employ environment practitioners do not have an environment skills strategy, so there is still a lot of work to be done even in businesses that understand they have to address the sustainability agenda.

Q: What is “an environment skills strategy”?

A: If an organisation professes to understand that good environment management provides opportunities for the business, it needs people with the skills to realise that potential. It will not happen if you rely on existing skills sets. You need the knowledge and skills to deal properly with your waste, to reduce energy consumption, and to manage scarce resources effectively – something that will become increasingly critical. It’s about having a suite of skills in the business: from those doing the job daily to people at a senior level who need to understand what governance looks like in terms of good environment and sustainability practice.

Q: We often hear business leaders comment that people entering the environment profession aren’t equipped with broader skills. Is that something that IEMA or universities needs to address?

A: I don’t think the lack of business acumen is unique to the environment profession – it’s the case for many professions. Students come out of university with excellent technical knowledge, but then they need to learn how to do the job on the ground. For IEMA, we need to understand what CPD looks like in that context and how we can structure our learning programmes so members get the necessary skills to succeed.

You raise a good point about the role of universities. I think they are critical to progressing the environment and sustainability agenda. That means they have to get their curriculums right and ensure their courses are relevant to the needs of business.

Q: Should it be environment and sustainability practitioners that drive this agenda or should IEMA also push business leaders, middle managers and shopfloor staff to develop their knowledge?

A: Let me give you the business case as to why spreading sustainability knowledge throughout an organisation is important. One-third of UK economic growth in 2011 was delivered by the so-called green industries, with these businesses contributing £5 billion to GDP. So, in terms of economic growth it is fairly obvious what the focus should be. Also, the government estimates that, across the economy, organisations responding positively to the sustainability agenda can save £23 billion.

So, yes, we need to ensure everyone understands the business case for sustainability.

Q: Those are massive numbers, so why is the sustainability message not really being heard in many businesses?

A: This is where IEMA can help. We need to provide individuals with the ammunition to be more influential, but we also need to ensure that chief executives are clear about future business drivers. We know the global population is going to grow by two billion by 2050, and that demand for food will rise by 50%, energy by 40% and water by 30%. What does that mean for business? It will undoubtedly disrupt existing supply chains. But, at the same time, it will bring immeasurable business opportunities.

Where will companies find the answers on how to transform their business to meet these challenges? IEMA is well placed to help. Its members have the sustainability, environment and auditing skills and knowledge that organisations making such a transformation will require.

Q: You talked earlier about the creation of STS. Can you explain a bit more about how you see it working for employers and IEMA members?

A: What we can now offer members is a much clearer and articulated career pathway, and STS will provide the different learning solutions for members to access as they progress their careers.

IEMA training providers already offer some fantastic learning opportunities but, as the profession changes and becomes more global, we need to provide a more comprehensive range of courses and have a bigger international reach. We want the courses we offer here in the UK to carry the same weight in Australia or Nigeria and vice-versa, for example.

STS will provide a one-stop shop for quality-assured training provision. It will bring the market for training much closer to the training providers, so there is a better and more effective dialogue between the two.

Q: IEMA recently surveyed its members on skills. What did you discover?

A: Around 1,000 members participated in the survey and 87% believe there is a skills gap that needs addressing. We also found that half of organisations have experienced difficulties in recruiting people with the environment skills they require. Indeed, 5% of those organisations claim to have given up. But, as I said earlier, 65% of organisations that employ an environment practitioner do not have an environmental skills strategy.

Part of the problem is the squeeze on training budgets. Training is always an easy area to cut when economic conditions are hard, but what our members told us is that they’re competing with other functions and professions for CPD funding. There is a feeling that budgets for environment- and sustainability-related training are being squeezed – 66% of respondents believe other functions are ahead of environment when it comes to receiving financial support for training.

So, is there a demand for training? Absolutely. Do environment practitioners need a broader range of skills? Yes, they do. Does IEMA need to influence organisations to understand what solutions are available? Yes, it does. And these are issues that IEMA can address through STS and its approved training providers.

Q: Who is responsible for bridging the skills gap identified by practitioners?

A: Individuals, organisations, IEMA and the government all have a role to play. I think the onus is on businesses to ensure they have the internal capabilities to deliver their corporate objectives. That means they need to consider whether they have the right people with the right skills in the right roles. The IEMA skills map can help with that and is increasingly used by organisations to assess whether they have the capabilities they need.

The map provides a framework for employers and individuals to assess whether they possess the skills to deliver their environmental objectives.

At a recent forum for IEMA training providers, we heard how Network Rail and Rolls-Royce are using the map to assess their current capabilities and identify any gaps.

Q: If we fast-forward a few years, have you got a vision for how IEMA will be supporting its members? And, how do you see the profession evolving?

A: IEMA is now set up to be flexible and responsive to how skills and the profession are changing. We have GACSO members and IEMA Fellows who are in the vanguard of sustainability and environment practice. Also, we have a governance structure that can take best practice and current thinking and translate it to develop our membership structures and qualifications. IEMA will be an institution that responds quickly and dynamically to where the environment and sustainability agenda is going.

I think the profession – and IEMA members have expressed this – will be broader and will continue to expand. I believe there will be an underpinning core of knowledge that members will need to have to operate effectively as environment or sustainability practitioners. I also think we’ll see more people coming into environment and sustainability from other professions. You see managers given a finance role, but they are not finance managers, and there will be managers given an environment role who aren’t environment managers. They will require a level of knowledge and IEMA will need to provide that.


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