Meanwhile, employers have signalled their desire to build their own capacity. The Institute for Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) Skills for a Sustainable Economy Campaign has shone a stark light on the UK sustainability skills deficit and called for collaborative action to address it. Only 13% of firms surveyed are fully confident they have the skills to compete in an increasingly complex world. Over half have difficulty recruiting professionals with the right skills to build organisational resilience and take advantage of opportunities in a sustainable economy.
Yet despite this apparent recruitment match made in heaven, competition for entry-level sustainability roles remains fierce. My experience has been that many talented young people with relevant qualifications can find it hard to get a foothold in their chosen career.
This is a dangerous paradox. If we lose talented young graduates from our profession, they may not return. IEMA’s research has shown we have a yawning skills gap- it would be lunacy to lose those very individuals who do have the right qualities, qualifications and potential to work effectively in an increasingly complex world. If we don’t bring young people into the profession, we forfeit access to new ideas, new knowledge and minds unencumbered with institutional baggage.
So what is the missing link? Why do some talented young people find it hard to secure an entry-level sustainability role?
A combination of factors is at play here. For starters, there is a relatively small number of vacancies arising each year in organisational sustainability teams- and many are never advertised on the open market. The field of sustainability is so broad that students consistently fear their degree is too general or too specialist for any given role, and popular job sites such as environmentjob and the Guardian can attract 200 applications per vacancy. These odds can be disheartening at best and soul-destroying at worst when you’ve just been rejected for the 20th time. Whilst excellent graduate schemes focussed on sustainability and social impact careers do exist (Corporate Citizenship, Green Alliance, Worthwhile, EDF) such opportunities are harder to find.
Set against these challenges, traditional graduate schemes offering full training packages and attractive salaries can convince some students to apply for roles outside their preferred field to gain security, experience and pay off debts. The harder it is to find a job in sustainability, the more likely students are to look elsewhere.
Can we identify the root of the paradox? There does seem to be a perceived gap between the level of experience ideally required by employers and that which new graduates are able to offer. This is not unique to our sector- it is the familiar post-Uni catch 22 of no experience=no job, but no job=no experience. However, I believe it is particularly pertinent here because commercial understanding and organisational context is so important to a sustainability professional seeking to effect change. It is not uncommon, therefore, for firms to fill sustainability vacancies internally, drawing on experienced staff members from other departments. Furthermore, the infrastructure is less well developed in sustainability, as a relatively new, hugely broad and constantly evolving field, to support new graduates in making this leap. One careers advisor suggested to me that students saddled with debts are less able to stump up cash for further qualifications or to subsidise volunteering to gain experience. There is a pressing need for more access routes and support.
This is, without doubt a systemic issue- requiring close partnership working between businesses, NGOs, education providers and government- something recommended in IEMA’s Skills for a Sustainable Economy campaign. However, there are definite steps employers and individuals can take to reach, attract and support talented young people seeking work in sustainability:
- Volunteer as a guest speaker on relevant courses, student conferences and societies such as Engineers Without Borders, allowing you to speak directly to engaged and proactive students. Make the point that many roles have a sustainability element- graduates need not restrict their search to the sustainability team.
- Offer one of your own organisational sustainability challenges as a research project and learning opportunity for students- online, as an open innovation challenge, or as part of an established programme such as Forum for the Future’s Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development.
- Start at secondary school level- book a stand at Your Green Future, an interactive green careers event which brings together schools and businesses in order to explore the growing job opportunities in a low carbon, resilient economy and champion STEM careers. Take the opportunity to convey what qualifications and experience you look for before students make crucial decisions.
- Offer high quality, paid sustainability Internships. Change Agents UK has a large network of aspiring sustainability professionals and Student Hubs, for whom I am a trustee, runs a popular scheme for students keen to work in not-for-profits or social enterprise. Both organisations carry out recruitment, training and matching for you- and Student Hubs has recently published guidance on creating meaningful internships in the social impact sector.
- Share the Wealth! Consider which departments your team works closely with. How are strategy, quality, communications and finance roles advertised, for example? Does it mention working with the sustainability team? Talk to your colleagues and see if it could be added to the job description. This may help attract high-quality candidates looking for roles with purpose, and having sustainability literate professionals in key roles across departments can only be a good thing!
- If you work for a large organisation, offer to give a talk or run a sustainability module as part of the graduate scheme. It is very likely that there are young people on the programme with an interest in sustainable development- and you may gain new champions for your cause.
- Become a mentor for an aspiring young sustainability professional with an organisation like Change Agents (Sustainability Careers) or On Purpose (Social Enterprise Leadership)- potentially hugely rewarding for both mentor and mentee.
- Prioritise on the job training and development. Recruit a graduate with potential and give every possible opportunity to shadow you and colleagues, attend conferences, developing commercial and technical knowledge. A solution for the paradox we identified earlier might be a targeted ‘on the job training’ scheme for sustainability- one University careers advisor pointed to the Heritage Lottery Fund Skills for the Future scheme, which was hugely successful in bridging a similar gap in the arts.
This is by no means a bleak picture. We know that young people want to work in our field. In the last decade I have recruited, worked alongside and advised graduates from very diverse courses offering an excellent range of skills, combined with astonishing energy and creativity. We have an opportunity to beef up access routes, particularly in terms of paid, high-quality sustainability internships offered- ensuring that every young person keen to play a role in a more sustainable future is able to do so.
This is a summary of the webinar given by Jenny Ekelund as part of IEMA’s Skills for a Sustainable Economy series. It’s a subject close to the author's heart. If you have ideas to add, fancy discussing or would like to see a copy of the original slides, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're a student thinking about applying for a sustainability role or a career changer about to take the plunge, Shannon Houde from Walk of Life Consulting gives some excellent insight on her blog and in this interview with M&S's Mike Barry on the qualities he looks for in a future sustainability leader.