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The green recovery needs new green skills – are you ready?

25th January 2021 Posted by

Blog by Dr Adam Read (External Affairs Director, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK)

Its been a busy few weeks since the Christmas holidays ended, and quite a bit of my focus has been on the government’s plans for a post COVID green recovery, in particular the government’s Environment Audit Committee’s call for evidence on green skills which I submitted last week on behalf of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

Interest in green skills is beginning to boil!

This issue isn’t a one-off interest, it is one of the primary concerns of the UK Resources Council as they look to identify what end markets will need resources from 2030 onwards, so that the waste and resources sector can realign its collection, handling and treatment systems to make these secondary resources readily available. It is also the theme of my CIWM Presidential Report which will be launched in June 2021, as we look to determine the skills needed by our sector’s professionals from 2025 onwards. This is so that the sector’s professional body can ensure the right training, mentoring and support programmes are in place to assist current and future members alike.

It has also been a recurring theme, not only in our sector, but in many other industrial sectors, and more widely across government for the last two or three years. This is because the challenges of decarbonisation and more sustainable living are going to present us all with some difficult decisions at work, at home, and at play. To make the necessary changes to meet our commitments to net zero carbon will require a new workforce with new skills, experiences and interests. People will still be very much at the heart of the UK’s success (or failure) and we must plan appropriately now to ensure they are available when needed.

The waste sector will be at the core of decarbonising the UK, if we have the right skills

Our sector will play a key role in combating the climate crisis and protecting valuable resources, but we need to ensure that we have the right skills to do this. A recent study by Zero Waste Scotland noted that one in ten jobs in Scotland are already related to the circular economy including repairing and recycling goods, product design and new technology. These roles and others are expected to grow in the near future as efforts to tackle decarbonisation really ramp up.

The future of our sector will be in the effective management of quality resources, and the expected transition from waste to resource is already underway. This will in the near future provide significant opportunities to collaborate with other sectors by influencing their design, harvesting their materials, or feeding their supply chains with secondary resources. Our skills will be in great demand, but we will have to adapt to work more effectively with designers, technologists, data scientists, chemists and behavioural specialists, among others, to support society and industry as we move to more sustainable systems.

Delivering the right skills?

We (the resources sector) can’t achieve this transition on our own, and this is becoming more widely acknowledged and discussed. One key report in the recent past that I helped inform, was the Aldersgate Group report ‘Upskilling the UK workforce for the 21st Century’, which highlights what is needed. The report clearly shows that the private sector, however willing they are, the local government, with reducing budgets and increasing pressures, DEFRA or BEIS with their clear policy agendas and targets cannot deliver this transformation without the core competences and key issues being on the curricula for schools (of all ages), embedded into university courses, and apprenticeship programmes. We need to draw people into our sector, showcasing the great career opportunities and the criticality of this work in delivering a sustainable future for all sectors, driving forwards a decarbonised economy and celebrating its green growth potential. We need to start that now, or as soon we come out of the COVID pandemic later this year.

What government must do is map out how decarbonisation will happen in all of the target sectors (energy and power, transportation, agriculture, waste, manufacturing etc.) and when new policies will happen, or where new infrastructure and services will be required. From there, we can map the skills and competences needed, and work out a roadmap for how they might be delivered. This will reflect the level of skills, the qualifications needed, the number of people needing those skills and so on. So government, we ask for clarity on the decarbonisation journey across target sectors, so we can work ‘together’ on this roadmap. Afterall, there is no point in growing new chemical engineers to work in waste management, and doing it in parallel for those chemical engineers needed in transportation or manufacturing. Let’s build these essential skills and competences collaboratively and with multiple end markets and careers in mind.

What the pandemic has highlighted is the need for both change and crisis management, entrepreneurial thinking and effective leadership but also good project management skills, whilst working from home has challenged us all with our IT capabilities and relationship skills. From a technical perspective, climate and digital literacy will be increasingly important, coupled with the need to think in systems and not in silos. This will ensure that policies and interventions in one part of the system does not have unintended consequences elsewhere.

Does that sound like your workforce? If not, I hope you have plans in place for your staff’s development, training and support? The next 5 years will be busy as our transition activities start to take hold. Thankfully, working with SUEZ on our internal training programme, and more widely with the CIWM, I am confident that the skills needed tomorrow are being mapped and the online courses, real-life mentoring, and on the job learning activities are being developed as we speak.

Waste (resource) collection evolution?

If we look at just one facet of our sector, say waste collection, you can see the scale of the challenge. Here is a service that has evolved over hundreds of years, but the scale and scope of change likely in the next five years is bigger than anything experienced before.

The future opportunities will come from increasing materials being targeted from households and business, with flexible plastics and food wastes becoming core materials in the near future. But the skills needed will also change as we use more kerbside sort collection systems, with greater client engagement and direct feedback. Plus, we are expecting more electric vehicles to be in use, with their maintenance ad battery recycling to be managed, whilst more materials will be reprocessed here in the UK.

In our evidence submission to the Environment Audit Committee we suggested that there could be an additional 10,000-15,000 jobs in materials capture, handling and reprocessing in the UK by 2030. Are you ready for this level of demand and the associated shift in skills provision?

Looking forward

There are significant opportunities and threats facing our sector as we face head on the challenges of decarbonisation, the circular economy and post COVID green recovery. Do we have the right skills, are we developing the right competences, will they be ready in time, and are they being mapped across all sectors? These are just some of the questions I am looking at right now, and I suggest you should be doing similar soon.

If you would like to discuss any of this further then please drop me an email, and in future blogs I will consider the skills agenda in some of the other sectors where we operate, and consider what the critical priorities and opportunities might be.

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