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HR should fill enviroment skills gap

There’s a worldwide skills gap emerging and if it isn’t quickly bridged by HR it will threaten the prosperity of business everywhere.

Recent research has found that there is an economy-wide shortfall in the supply of environment and sustainability skills, at a time when demand has never been higher.

Businesses everywhere are facing a perfect storm of soaring energy costs, volatility in the price and availability of materials, a dizzying list of environmental regulations and increased hits on business property caused by floods and other extreme weather events. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Environment and sustainability skills, embedded throughout an organisation, can help businesses predict and prepare for these threats as well as save money. Environment and sustainability specialists have the knowledge to implement safeguards and innovations and also save significant amounts of money.

Take Andrew Maguire, health, safety and environment manager of Kepak Foods. He managed to turn an £80,000 a year cost into a £250,000 annual revenue stream just by switching the way the organisation dealt with waste.

Sounds simple, but that took the right mix of in-depth understanding of the regulations around landfill, technical know-how of turning cooking fat into biodiesel, and the aptitude to make the project happen. 

So in theory, if every HR professional could recruit their own Andrew Maguire, businesses everywhere would be saving and making serious amounts of money. Unfortunately there is a huge shortfall in the supply of these skills compared to the demand.

In fact, from over 900 organisations surveyed this year about their ability to operate and compete in the new 'sustainable economy', only 13% said they were fully confident that they already have the skills they need to survive and thrive. 

So what’s driving this skills gap? Primarily there just aren’t enough people in the jobs market with the right environmental training, qualifications and experience. Fifty-two per cent of companies surveyed admitted that they struggle to recruit environment and sustainability professionals with the right skills. This leads to missed business opportunities and leaves organisations open to climate change risks. 

HR managers have a massive opportunity to play a leading role. They can work with their organisation’s Board to ensure environment and sustainability skills become part of a company's core provision; not just at specialist level but by ensuring all staff have environment and sustainability awareness training. These skills can be found by attracting talent and through relevant, high-quality education and training initiatives. 

So what should HR be looking for when recruiting for these skills? Technical knowledge of natural systems is a must, as is strategic understanding of sustainability issues and up-to-date awareness of rapidly-changing laws and regulations. The ability to lead projects, interpret data, implement change programmes and make a business case are all essential too.

This sounds like a diverse and strange skills set, which is what makes environment and sustainability professionals currently rare and so valuable. There are specialist places you can find people with these skills, such as recruitment sites like jobs.environmentalistonline.com and acre.com. 

Filling the skills gap is about making good recruitment decisions and implementing the right training and development programmes now before it is too late. That perfect storm of pressure is building all the time and action needs to be taken now to bridge that skills gap. 

Martin Baxter is executive director of policy at the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA)