To meet today’s global sustainability challenges, the corporate world needs more than just a few sustainability executives – it needs an army of employees in all areas of business who think about sustainability in their decisions every day. This means product designers, supply managers, economists, scientists, architects and many others with the knowledge to recognize unsustainable practices and find ways to improve sustainability for the overall health of their companies and the planet. Employers are increasingly looking for these skills. We analyzed job listings from a global database and found a tenfold increase in the number of jobs with “sustainability” in the title over the past decade, reaching 177,000 in 2021.
Worryingly, there are not enough skilled workers to handle the rapid growth in available green and sustainable jobs. For example, while the number of “green jobs” – broadly defined as jobs that help improve the environment – has grown globally at an annual rate of 8 percent over the past five years, the number of people listing green skills in their profiles has grown by only 6 percent annually, according to an analysis by LinkedIn, with nearly 800 million users.
Fastest growing green jobs
In the US, jobs in the renewable energy and environmental sectors have grown by 237 percent over the past five years. Globally, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is projected to lead to a net increase in jobs in the energy sector. But green jobs go far beyond installing solar panels and maintaining wind turbines.
For example, sustainable fashion is one of the fastest-growing green jobs sectors, with an average annual growth rate of 90% between 2016 and 2020. At the same time, ESG investments – environment, social and governance – are expanding rapidly, and portfolio management is opening up new jobs in areas of sustainable finance. In 2021, accounting firm PwC announced it would invest $12 billion and create 100,000 new jobs in ESG investing by 2026.
There is also a growing demand for urban sustainability officers who can help transition cities become carbon neutral and more resilient. After all, the world adds 1 million people to its cities every five days, building 20,000 football fields worth of urban areas somewhere on the planet every day. In 2013, when the Rockefeller Foundation launched 100 Resilient Cities, a network to help cities become more sustainable, few cities had a resilience or sustainability officer. Today, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network includes more than 250 communities and 1,000 local government professionals.
The number of companies with sustainability executives in executive positions also tripled from 9 percent to 28 percent between 2016 and 2021. But given the scale and business opportunities of sustainability, these skills are much more needed in organizations.
Where can you find the training?
Most sustainability and green jobs require creative problem solving, synthesis and technical skills. Some of these skills can be learned on the job, but increasing the number of qualified job seekers will require more effective and affordable training options that target the needs of employers. Here are some training resources to consider…
University programs: Sustainability is increasingly integrated into a wide range of university programs. 15 years ago, sustainability training was mostly ad hoc – a product designer or an economist might take a course in sustainability approaches from an environmental science department. Today, U.S. universities have about 3,000 programs labeled “sustainability,” an increase from 13 in 2008. The National Academies report recommends seeking a competency-based approach to sustainability education that links content with skills and links knowledge with action to solve problems and develop solutions.
Microcredentials: For mid-career employees who don’t have the time to reinvest in full degrees, short courses and micro-credentials offered by universities, colleges or professional groups offer one way to develop sustainability skills. Micro-credentialing can involve taking a series of courses or workshops focusing on specific skills, such as wind energy technologies or how to incorporate ESG criteria into business operations. Short courses and micro-credentials take less time and are much cheaper than university degree programs. This can also help lower income individuals train for sustainable jobs and diversify the field.
Specialization: A similar option is online certificate programs focused on jobs specializing in sustainability. For example, Google has partnered with universities to provide online courses for project managers, and Arizona State University offers an accompanying sustainability major. Project management is a field where the US Department of Labor expects rapid job growth, with 100,000 vacancies over the next decade.
Corporate training: Some companies have developed their own in-house sustainability training in climate science, sustainable finance, sustainability reporting and other skills. Integrating sustainability across all company functions will require some level of training and understanding of sustainability for most, if not all, employees. Companies such as Starbucks, HSBC, Salesforce and Microsoft have created internal training programs to expand sustainability knowledge and practice within their companies, not just for employees who have sustainability in their titles.
Closing the gap
A recent Microsoft and BCG survey of large companies found that only 43 percent of corporate sustainability professionals hold sustainability-related degrees, and 68 percent of sustainability leaders were hired internally. It is clear that workplace sustainability training and upskilling will be necessary to fill the growing number of roles within companies. We believe that more training – in colleges and universities, professional organizations and from employers – will be needed to overcome the skills shortage in sustainability. Achieving global sustainability and addressing climate change issues will be more likely as multitudes of people dedicate their working hours to sustainability solutions.
Christopher Boone is a professor of sustainability at Arizona State University.
Karen C. Seto is Professor of Geography and Urbanization at Yale University. (This article was originally published by The Conversation.)