The Ecologist guide to skills and courses 2012
1st February, 2012
What does it take to make it in the low-carbon economy? The Ecologist takes a look at the skills and courses that will set you up for success
There’s reason to be optimistic about the jobs market in 2012. This June will see Brazil hosting the Rio+20 Earth summit, the UN conference on sustainable development. The summit has jobs - specifically those, in their words, ‘geared to the needs of the natural environment’ – included as one of its seven critical issues for debate. Any decisions made there could, and should, see greener ways of working being put into practice through domestic policy. What’s more, despite the Government’s solar feed-in tariffs debacle, two initiatives due this year could help them make good on their promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’. With phase one of the Green Investment Bank and finalisation of Green Deal legislation about to reach fruition, there's the potential to generate a significant number of jobs in the UK economy.
What is clear, however, is that a truly green economy can only come about via greening of all sectors, and not simply by boosting the construction of a renewable energy infrastructure. The Rio summit is even aiming to ‘un-environmentalise’ the idea of sustainability to underline the fact that action must come from all corners. Andrew Raingold, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, an environmental business alliance, says that green skills need to extend beyond the traditional STEM [science, technology, mathematics and engineering] disciplines. ‘It’s much broader than just specialist technological engineers,’ he says. ‘It really is looking at areas such as design, the services industry, particularly consultancy, the legal profession and many other areas.’ One of the Aldersgate Group’s recent reports highlighted the UK’s automotive, aerospace and construction sectors as potentially dynamic green growth areas. Clearly the idea of ‘green’ jobs has a broad remit but what do these jobs actually entail and what skills do they require?
As the Aldersgate Group’s research suggests, consultancy is a key area for sustainable development industry. Paul Kirby is the associate director of rural development at the consultancy group WYG, which works extensively with EU candidate countries to make sure their agricultural policy is environmentally sound. Food security, explains Paul, is one of the key issues at the moment. ‘There’s an economic driver for people to be self-sufficient but within that, producing food has got to be done on a sustainable basis and that’s where the environmental aspects [of our work] come in: trying to make sure that you’re producing sensibly, keeping the soil in decent condition and using sensible irrigation practices.’ They look for candidates with strong theoretical and technical knowledge, preferably with some practical experience. ‘I’d be wanting somebody who knows about agricultural production and what the drivers are there,’ explains Kirby. ‘Ideally somebody who’s not just got a technical background in crop production and livestock production, but with a business management background as well.’
Closer to home, the sustainability of domestic construction projects is regulated by local government. As well as drawing up planning policy and taking responsibility for designating local nature reserves, Joanna Bagnall, Senior Officer in Environmental Planning at High Peak Borough Council, works on her authority’s sustainable development strategies. She explains: ‘We aim to ensure that the scale and distribution of new development does not have an adverse impact on sites with a special importance for biodiversity, that we take account of the potential impacts of the location of new development on climate change and strategic flood risk, as well as the health and well-being of our current and future residents.’ Bagnall recommends further education as a route into careers in sustainability, adding that her Masters in Environmental Management from the University of Surrey was a useful preparation for her job, giving her expertise in areas from parks and open spaces to energy management.
While the capability to construct offshore wind farms still lies primarily with overseas firms, a number of homegrown companies are working to make the UK’s energy production better for the planet. Green energy company Ecotricity’s first windmill went operational at the end of 1996 and it now has over 58,000 customers. Their planning manager Andrew Muir is in charge of the team of developers who assess sites for wind turbine construction, and explains that understanding and communicating clearly the need for renewable energy is key. ‘We need to be able to discuss our proposals with people who have a technical background and others who are encountering renewable energy for the first time,’ he explains. ‘We also need to understand policy at all levels: how it is evolving and how developing policy may impact on our business and the industry in general, as well as understanding how practice and technology is evolving in areas such as ecological monitoring, radar mitigation and landscape assessment.’ As well as knowledge of planning and environmental law, good technical skills and a real interest in renewable energy, Muir explains that a bit of tenacity is a pre-requisite for jobs such as his. ‘We also need to be quite patient as the gestation period for projects can be very long.’
Green higher education
One route for people aiming to pursue a career in the environment is to take an educational course in an area such as environmental sciences or sustainability. There are a vast number available, ranging from short courses, like the Sustainability Centre’s week-long OCN Sustainable Woodland Management course, to part-time and full-time programmes, such as a two year part-time Master's in Sustainability and Responsibility at Ashridge Business School or a one year full-time MSc in Sustainable Energy Systems from the University of Edinburgh. And according to Raingold, Master’s courses in environmental subjects can be a good investment for students attempting to compete in an over-saturated job market. ‘Companies increasingly look at the big challenge; global mega-trends of climate change, resource depletion and population growth; and they will need solutions in terms of how that relates to their specific business,’ he says. ‘They will need people with the knowledge and expertise to help them understand the big issues.’
Paul Kirby adds that choosing degrees with a career in mind will benefit people by setting them apart in the job market. ‘If they have done a Master’s degree specialising in sustainability topics, that would certainly strengthen them, and from a sort of hands-on practical experience point, I’d like to see somebody who’d done a dissertation that had a practical focus - that would be a strong sales point.’
Equally, green start-ups and social enterprises are the kind of grassroots action that could make the transition to a green economy more feasible. Andy Coleman, who runs the Stop Dodo environmental jobsite, explains that starting your own company is another excellent route to working in the environmental sector. ‘I was unable to find a “green job” so essentially I made my own,’ he says. ‘To do this, find a niche area or an existing one and do it better. You need to learn quickly and be prepared to gain new skills. My degree was in Wildlife Conservation but in my 18 years of business I have taught myself how to become a salesman, create a magazine, publish a book, create a range of organic cosmetics and compete on the internet.’
Learning a green skill such as wall insulation or solar panel installation is another useful route to employment for people struggling to break into the jobs market. The East London Green Jobs Alliance, a coalition of trade unions, NGOs and green businesses based in the capital, is piloting a scheme with employers and local colleges to provide young people in the area with apprenticeships in these trades. For Hanna Thomas, the Alliance’s lead organiser, projects like this are what makes the green economy a catalyst for change: ‘It’s more about how can we use the opportunities that are going to arise out of this massive monumental shift to really include those people who’ve been marginalised from our current economy - how can we rebuild from our current economy people’s opportunity to be leaders and have a healthy and satisfying job.’ Whether you begin your own green company, volunteer with a local project or take an environmental postgraduate course, the skills learned will be invaluable. It can’t be overstated how far-reaching the shift to a low-carbon economy will be: all sectors will need to be greener, meaning the uptake and development of these skills sooner will be an investment for both your own employability and for the prosperity of a healthier planet.
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