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Bank Holiday Reading: Higher Education and the green workforce transformation

  • 27 May 2024
  • By Claire Hughes, Lynda Dunlop, Hannah Smith and Louise Thurston
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by a team of authors at the University of York:
  • Professor Claire Hughes, Associate Dean for Teaching, Learning and Students in the Faculty of Sciences & Deputy Head in the Department of Environment and Geography;
  • Dr Lynda Dunlop, Director of Education for the Environmental Sustainability Academy at York & Senior Lecturer in Climate Education;
  • Hannah Smith, Director of Careers and Student Systems; and
  • Louise Thurston, Associate Director of Careers and Employability.

In a recent global report on green skills by LinkedIn, it was revealed that possessing one or more ‘green skills’ can increase the chance of getting hired by 29%.  The number of jobs requiring at least one green skill has grown, but this demand is fundamentally outpacing the increase in supply.

Central to this is the development of a diverse range of green skills and capabilities.  Whilst there are different ideas about what green skills are, they are broadly defined by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation as the attitudes and values, knowledge and abilities, which are needed to live and work in, develop and support a more sustainable society.  

Green skills are needed to achieve net zero decarbonisation and to tackle other pressing challenges, such as nature and biodiversity protection, climate risk mitigation, waste and pollution reduction and support the societal shifts needed to live within planetary boundaries. They are important for graduates as employees, but also as active members of a society that must undergo a transformation to reduce consumption and live better together.  

The UK Government’s Green Jobs Taskforce highlights that it is essential for more young people to leave the education system with green skills in order to deliver on a green workforce transformation. A Deloitte blueprint for green workforce transformation includes the expansion of sustainability specialist roles into executive positions, embedding green skills across all roles, upskilling in existing roles and establishing new green structures, organisations and sectors.

The role that Higher Education institutions play in delivering the green skills needed to support the green workforce often not given much coverage. However, Universities and our graduates have a crucial role to play and it is vital that we get this across.

Many Higher Education institutions are already going beyond traditional programmes to plug key gaps in the green workforce. More interdisciplinary programmes are emerging which aim to develop sustainability leaders of the future, through combining study of sustainability-linked disciplines with training in leadership, management and systems thinking.  Similarly, interdisciplinary modules such as those offered by the University of Leeds on the theme of Creating Sustainable Futures enable students to work together to explore the human costs of high consumption societies and manage change to more desirable ways of living and being. 

Furthermore, a wide range of emerging higher education programmes focus on areas directly relevant to the green workforce transformation. For example, Universities are introducing programmes in net zero engineering, carbon management and renewable energy technologies.

Going beyond this, Universities are well-positioned to ensure that graduates from all disciplines are taking green values and skills into the workplace through embedding sustainability education across all areas of their portfolios. This includes low carbon computing, sustainable healthcare and architecture and climate-conscious school teachers, and responds to an international survey which found that 8 in 10 people want to take action on climate change through their jobs.

Whilst embedding sustainability education is still a work in progress for most higher education institutions, it is hoped that this transformation will rapidly gather pace due to the increasing urgency of action, improved guidance (e.g. from QAA) and demand from students.  We are also seeing increased accountability through, for example, league tables which will encourage universities to demonstrate their commitment towards equipping all graduates with green skills and knowledge.

Universities are also well-placed to deliver green skills courses to meet the upskilling needs of those already in the workplace. The involvement of Higher Education institutions in green upskilling would strengthen the link between academia and industry, facilitating a more rapid translation of sustainability research into practice. 

The contribution that Higher Education institutions make towards upskilling will be facilitated by the ongoing diversification of pathways through programmes of study, especially the move towards shorter courses, such as microcredentials which can provide flexible, ‘just in time’ education in service of sustainable aims.  For example, the Open University offers ‘Climate change: transforming your organisation for sustainability’ which aims to enable participants to – relatively quickly – develop key skills to drive organisational change.

Entrepreneurship is also key to the green workforce transformation and Universities are fundamental in developing green innovators. Introducing entrepreneurship into courses such as green chemistry and agriculture will equip graduates with the knowledge, skills and motivation to set up businesses which deliver innovative solutions to sustainability challenges. The University of York ‘Year in Enterprise‘ is a good example of how one Higher Education institution is supporting students to develop skills in entrepreneurship.

University Careers Services have a crucial role to play too. Beyond providing placement and internship opportunities and employment advice relevant to green industries, they can also help students to recognise that green skills and competencies that preserve, restore or enhance environmental quality are relevant to all jobs. Careers Services can also work with local and national employers to identify specific green skills demands and host events which help students to learn more about the field and connect with sustainability professionals.

Cross-institutional collaboration is also key. At the University of York, academics and the Careers Service have worked together to develop a Sustainability Clinic through which students interact with potential employers on sustainability issues. Such initiatives help to prepare graduates to contribute to the green workforce transformation whilst also supporting the development of meaningful partnerships between the institution and local external organisations.

The latest evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all, and that the current pace of change is too slow. Universities should be included, alongside schools and further education colleges, in discussions about tackling issues with the supply of green skills into the workforce. Additionally, all levels of education need to work together to address the lack of awareness and misconceptions about green jobs. 

A focus on inspiring and shaping the next generation and equipping a workforce with green values and skills is surely the catapult that is needed. The resounding view is that delivering the green workforce transformation will require collaboration across all levels of government, industry and the education sector. Universities should – and must – have a seat at that table.

Going forward, it will be vital that:

  • policy-makers explicitly define in future publications the crucial role that higher education can play in delivering the green workforce transformation
  • Universities understand the crucial role they can play in delivering the green workforce transformation and use this to guide decisions on portfolio developments and curriculum design in key relevant areas of their provision

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1 comment

  1. Ros Lucas says:

    But little about the need for wealth sharing, closing global tax loopholes, reimagining business set ups and rethinking economic, capitalist, political strategies and PR for real democracy that will be needed to start such new ideas…

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