To meet today’s global sustainability challenges, the corporate world needs more than a few chief sustainability officers – it needs an army of employees, across 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 identify 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 postings 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.
What is worrying is that there are not enough skilled workers to respond to the rapid growth in available green and sustainable jobs. For example, while the number of “green jobs”—those generally considered jobs that help improve the environment—has grown globally at a rate of 8 percent annually over the past five years, the number of people listing green skills in their profiles has grown by just 6 percent per year, according to LinkedIn’s analysis of its 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 shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is predicted to result in a net increase in jobs in the energy sector. But green jobs go far beyond installing solar panels and maintaining wind turbines.
Sustainable fashion, for example, is one of the fastest-growing green business sectors, with an average annual growth rate of 90 percent between 2016 and 2020. At the same time, the rapid expansion of ESG investing—environmental, social and governance—and portfolio management is opening up new jobs. places in sustainable finance. In 2021, the accounting firm PwC announced that it would invest 12 billion dollars in ESG investing by 2026 and create 100,000 new jobs.
There is also a growing demand for urban sustainability officers who can help cities in transition become more resilient and net carbon neutral. After all, the world adds 1 million people to cities every five days and builds 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 resilience or sustainability officers. Today, more than 250 communities and 1,000 local government professionals are part of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.
The number of companies with chief sustainability officers in executive positions also tripled from 9 percent to 28 percent between 2016 and 2021. But given the scope and business opportunities of sustainability, these skills are needed much more broadly within organizations.
Where can you find training?
Most sustainable and green jobs require creative problem solving, synthesizing and technical skills. Some of these skills can be learned on the job, but increasing the number of qualified job applicants 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 being incorporated into a wide range of university programs. Fifteen years ago, sustainability training was mostly ad hoc – a product designer or an economist might attend lectures on sustainability approaches in an environmental science department. Today, US universities have about 3,000 sustainability-labeled programs, up from 13 in 2008. The National Academies report recommends seeking a competency-based approach to sustainability learning that combines content with skills and links knowledge with action to solve problems and develop solutions.
Micro Credentials: For mid-career employees who don’t have the time to reinvest in full-fledged degrees, short courses and micro-credentials offered by universities, colleges or professional groups offer one way to develop sustainability skills. A micro credential may involve attending a series of courses or workshops focused on a specific skill, such as wind energy technology or how to incorporate ESG criteria into business operations. Short courses and micro-credentials take less time and are much less expensive than college degree programs. It can also help lower-income individuals train for sustainability jobs and diversify the field.
Specializations: A similar option is online business-focused certificate programs with a specialization in sustainability. For example, Google has partnered with universities to provide online courses for project managers, and Arizona State University offers an accompanying sustainability specialization. Project management is a field in which the US Department of Labor expects rapid job growth, with 100,000 job openings 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 into all business functions will require some level of sustainability training and understanding for most, if not all, employees. Companies like Starbucks, HSBC, Salesforce, and Microsoft have created internal training programs to spread sustainability knowledge and practices within their companies, not just for employees who have sustainability in their titles.
Closing the gap
A recent survey conducted by Microsoft and BCG among large companies found that only 43 percent of corporate sustainability professionals had degrees related to sustainability, and 68 percent of sustainability managers were hired internally. It is clear that workplace sustainability training and upskilling will be needed to fill an increasing number of roles within companies. To meet the sustainability skills gap, we believe more training will be needed – at colleges and universities, by professional organizations and employers. Achieving global sustainability and meeting the challenges of climate change will become more likely as legions of people dedicate their working hours to sustainability solutions.
Christopher Boone is a professor of sustainability at Arizona State University.
Karen C. Seto is a professor of geography and urbanization at Yale University. (This article was originally published by The Conversation.)