Green skills are critical if we want our apprentices to #buildthefuture
11th February 2022
Plenty of attention
During National Apprentice Week it’s been fantastic to see all the media attention surrounding the current crop of apprentices across all walks of life, and I have taken a keen interest in the work of apprentices from across the resources and waste as we celebrate and showcase the important role apprenticeships play in delivering the workforce of today and just as importantly tomorrow as we transition to new services, technologies and offerings.
Apprenticeships in our sector today not only enable us attract and develop new talent, but they also support our colleagues who’ve already got a taste for waste & resource management and who want to develop their careers, from deepening their technical capability to management qualifications and beyond.
I’ve spoken (and written) many times before about why our sector must actively support the next generation of waste and resource management professionals, technicians and operatives – this is a topic close to my heart and of course is the theme of my Presidential year with the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM). From early on in my career I have benefitted from the guidance of mentors, coaches, line managers and peers alongside my professional qualifications and academic study, and together they have enabled me to develop a fulfilling career (one that isn’t over just yet I hasten to add) in a sector that I love and continue to enjoy exploring.
Having had this privilege, I am passionate about creating opportunities for those starting out in their careers, from mentoring through CIWM and SUEZ to my school engagement role through STEM and my continuing university lecturing and project supervision. But to do them justice we must fully understand the skills that our sector will need to continue to flourish, 5 years or 10 years from now, as we transition to a more circular and resource efficient economy. This is a big part of my role through the CIWM as we look to partner with other professional and trade organisations looking to understand the skills needs and gaps that we must address, but it also a key part of my role at SUEZ as we look to make the business both attractive to new talent and robust for the changing environment in which we will have to operate.
Supporting our staff
At SUEZ our award-winning apprenticeship programme goes beyond on the job training, as we offer our apprentices the opportunity to gain a holistic understanding of our business and the breadth of career opportunities within it by involving them in business projects, giving them the chance to shadow senior leaders, facilitating peer support, and encouraging them to network within and outside the organisation. I have enjoyed helping to facilitate some of these activities over the last 2 or 3 years, as I get to interface with people beyond my business unit, learn about their role, teams, career interests etc., and help them ‘join the dots’ when it comes to opportunities in other parts of our business etc.
This broader perspective that encourages our people to look beyond the organisation and even beyond the sector to our partners (customers, peers, suppliers et al) in the value chain, is something I highlighted in my CIWM Presidential report published last summer as being ‘essential’ if we are to develop a workforce with future ready and proofed green skills. It’s a win-win opportunity.
At SUEZ we’re long-time advocates of value chain collaboration, our popular webinar programme brings together representatives from local authorities, producers and manufacturers, third sector organisations and reprocessors to give a true insight to the hot topics of the day. Together we debate the issues society faces and seek consensus, asking difficult questions and looking to move the debate on wherever possible, as we transition from a linear economy to a more circular model that conserves resources and drives down carbon emissions whilst looking for opportunities to enhance local communities and our natural environment.
Partnering with Unilever
Working with one of our value chain partners, Unilever, we took this collaboration a step further last summer and trialled an innovative apprentice exchange programme designed to embed the principles of the circular economy in our emerging talent. The programme was the ‘outcome’ of a longer term collaboration between our businesses as we looked to help Unilever understand the portfolio of policy reforms that would impact on their packaging and its future recyclability, and was spawned after some of their senior teams met our senior management at their manufacturing site and had a tour of one of our MRFs – it was evident very quickly that developing a more holistic appreciation of the lifecycle of packaging would help us all out and help inform the ongoing Government policy reforms.
Over the spring we put together a 12 week programme that spanned the waste hierarchy and different sorting and treatment technologies on the one hand, and the process of designing, testing and evaluating packaging on the other, supported by an overview of the changing policy landscape. Apprentices were recruited from each organisation and together they embarked on the 12 week series of half day interactive workshops led by technical experts and senior leaders. The programme was adapted to be delivered virtually, including on-line site visits and aerial footage of our facilities, given the COVID situation, and this limited some of the learning experience in hindsight, because the original plan was to do each session ‘on-site’ where the theory and practice would be discussed hand in hand. However, the programme was still a success, and I am really glad that I was involved in helping design the sessions and deliver some of the workshops, I also learned a thing or two from the obvious expertise that was in each virtual session.
With an insight into the role of today’s packaging design engineers and resource management professionals, the cohort were invited to explore what these roles would look like in the future and challenged to work together on a final team output – to design a new product packaging line that would give consumers the best product experience whilst minimising its impact on the environment. Some of the final presentations were first class, and I believe that one or two of the ideas are now going into testing.
The feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive:
‘The programme allowed me to learn about other industries and build relationships with people that are valuable to the future of our two organisations.’
‘The exchange programme has shown the potential of team collaboration to design a robust project that is more likely to succeed than if we had worked on it individually.’
‘Change is coming that will impact the whole value chain.’
Looking ahead – can we deliver?
The experience of the apprentice exchange showcases the benefits that can be realised in a short space of time through greater collaboration, but we need to up our game for if we’re to see green skills truly embedded in the apprenticeships of tomorrow and the wider learning and development agenda. This is why the CIWM have set up a new Skills for the Future Working Group, to help set out the needs of the sector in the next decade or two in more granularity to help influence future courses (academic and vocational) and to help business plan their transition, investment and training activities.
I was invited to give evidence on green jobs and green skills to the Environmental Audit Committee last year and have been continuing my engagement with government on the skills agenda. Through these discussions I’ve been heartened to learn that there is a lot of thinking happening about how to identify and plan for the skills that green industries like ours will need over the next 5, 10 and even 20 years. There is also clearly a desire to see green skills eventually incorporated across all education and training platforms. But we need Government to help co-ordinate the work across a number of greens sectors (power, transport, manufacturing, resources etc.) to ensure we can map out what new skills are needed and by when, so we can then proactively influence the schools, colleges and universities in terms of new courses and career path advice. On a recent call with a Minister in the Department for Education, this co-operation was a primary issue, and one that Government is stepping up to address, with much closer working with DEFRA and BEIS now evident and progressing.
However, some sectors are more advanced than others, with the work of the automotive industry around apprenticeships to support the development and manufacture of electric vehicles (and associated products and services) showing what can be achieved with a clear business case and collaboration between Government and the private sector.
Closer to home?
For the resources sector, a big hurdle has already been overcome with the circular economy now clearly on the radar in the green skills policy area, but there is currently a lack of detailed research to underpin projections for the jobs that will be created as the circular economy evolves. Such projections are vital if we are to accurately map the skills and qualifications that will be needed to access these green jobs of the future. This is something that SUEZ is now actively working on with the CIWM and other sector partners, so watch this space.
I can see an opportunity for the sector and the wider value chain(s) to close this knowledge gap. With interest in green skills higher than ever on the political agenda, from levelling up to decarbonisation, we need to come together to gather the data and analyse our future needs, to develop a robust evidence base that will support policy makers who need to act soon to set the agenda and secure the funding to make new courses and competences a priority. By doing this, the private sector will invest in retraining its own staff and in recruiting and supporting the development of new staff as we transition to a low carbon, high recycling, resource-value led sector, with greater circularity and more resource efficiency, leasing and new business models coming to the fore.
I remain passionate about the skills and competences of tomorrow’s workforce, and I am more optimistic than ever before that the work of our sector is a key component of the UK’s decarbonisation plan. We must continue to influence the green skills debate to ensure we stay part of the thought process in DfE and BEIS in particular, and to ensure we become increasingly more interesting as a career path for today’s students. If we get this right, we will not only continue to offer varied, dynamic career paths for the apprentices of tomorrow, but we will be the champions of decarbonisation and possibly home to perhaps half a million new resource specialists in the next decade – now that sounds exciting!