Survey: Green skills gap threatens UK’s sustainability goals

Survey: Green skills gap threatens UK's sustainability goals
  • 58% of respondents feel there is or will be a green skills gap.
  • 99.7% of respondents believe technology has a role to play in accelerating the path to net zero emissions
  • One in four (25.69%) call for training in waste management and circular economy building
  • Over one in 10 (12.33%) report shortage of skills in climate change adaptation and resilience building

A new survey from the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), The Environmental Services Association (ESA), Groundwork, and ESS Expo (Environmental Services and Solutions Expo), has revealed a significant green skills gap, with 58% of respondents feeling UK businesses are unprepared for the transition to a sustainable future.

Findings from the National Environmental Services Survey,[1] highlight that 58% of respondents feel there is or will be a green skills gap in UK businesses. When asked about what challenges they foresee in measuring and achieving biodiversity net-gain, the most cited answer was the [lack of] knowledge and skills gap. Meanwhile, 99.7% of respondents believe technology has a role to play in accelerating the path to net zero emissions.

The latest findings show acute shortages underscoring the need for educational programmes to equip the workforce with the expertise needed. Leading the list, one in four (25.69%) respondents indicated a high demand for skills in waste management and the circular economy, followed by over one in 10 (12.33%) calling for expertise in resilience building and developing strategies to mitigate the impact of climate change. Other shortages revealed lie in sustainability and environmental management (11.41%), carbon management and offsetting (8.41%), and environmental law and policy (8.06%).

The rise of roles such as the Chief Sustainability Officer – which saw more individuals hired in 2021 alone[2], compared to the previous five years combined – highlights an important shift towards organisations prioritising sustainability. However, the report data from ESS Expo suggests that many businesses are still struggling to find qualified candidates to fill these newly emerging positions.

The research also touched on the path to net zero emissions, with a staggering 99.7% of respondents agreeing that technology has a role to play in accelerating the path towards carbon neutrality. Technology will likely offer numerous opportunities for bridging the green skills gap. For example, online learning platforms can deliver specialised green training skills to a wider audience, while virtual reality simulations can provide immersive training experiences for complex green technologies. Additionally, artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to personalise learning pathways and identify skill gaps within a workforce. By harnessing these technological advancements, organisations can equip the workforce with the necessary knowledge and expertise to effectively navigate the green transition.

Dr. Adam Read, Chief External Affairs and Sustainability Officer at SUEZ and member of the Government’s Green Skills Delivery Group, commented:

“These results, while not unexpected, are concerning given recent efforts by CIWM and others to highlight the need for future skills. The resources and waste management sector will expand from 150,000 to nearly 450,000 staff in just under a decade and in order to prepare for this, the sector must continue improving its attractiveness and upskilling the current workforce to ensure staff retention.

“There are immense opportunities to rethink engagement and form new partnerships with schools, colleges, universities, and professional bodies. Key skills in demand lie in technology, design, AI, communications, engineering, policy implementation, regulation, and data analysis, plus of course in recycling, reuse, repair, upcycling, and refurbishment.

“Although the sector is feeling both policy and skills demand uncertainty right now, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Together, if we work hard, we can make huge strides in our sector’s transformation and reinvention, delivering exciting new skilled jobs that underpin the fight against climate change.”

Rob Mowat, Managing Director of ESS Expo, said: “The results of the survey make it abundantly clear that there is a green skills gap across the UK workforce. As we move forward, we are going to see more organisations increasingly chasing sustainability-related goals, driven in part by a younger generation that is passionate about environmental issues. However, these objectives will only be met if businesses are able to acquire the necessary green skills. This lack of preparedness could potentially hinder the UK’s ability to achieve its ambitious environmental targets and capitalise on the economic opportunities presented by the transition to a net-zero economy.

“With this in mind, it’s crucial for businesses to invest in initiatives that bridge this gap, such as upskilling training programmes, nurturing apprenticeship schemes in green sectors, and fostering collaboration with educational institutions. By working together, we can ensure the UK workforce has the capabilities to deliver a sustainable future.

“At ESS Expo, we’re using our platform to raise awareness and equip businesses with everything they need to navigate this transition. As part of our new series of educational webinars, we recently held our first session on green skills. The webinar was hugely well-attended and featured presentations and discussions on government initiatives, apprenticeship schemes, regional differences, and collaborations between UK universities and the industry. We look forward to continuing this focus at the upcoming event in September.”

The survey gathered data from 1,498 professionals from across the environmental services industry from April-May 2024. Download the full report for free on the ESS Expo website here. To register to attend ESS Expo 2024 from 11-12 September at the NEC, Birmingham, visit the website here.

[1] The survey gathered data from over 1,498 professionals from across the environmental survey industry from April – May 2024.


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