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Opinion Piece by Sarah Mukherjee, CEO, IMEA

Sustainable building

05 March 2021

I have been involved in and reporting on environmental policy for more than 20 years now, and perhaps rather depressingly, the main ask, be it carbon credits, green infrastructure or green skills, has stayed the same throughout this time, which is to enable joined up thinking. It’s a simple ask and a simple phrase, but the execution of joining everything together is what we need to do to address climate change.

I’m the CEO for IEMA, the professional network for individuals and organisations, looking to make a difference by implementing our training and professional qualifications for sustainability and environmental best practice. We have over 16,000 members in 115 countries and we also develop policy at Whitehall, EU and UN levels.

Recently, our Director of Policy at IEMA, Martin Baxter, gave evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, which you can watch again here. Although we are making progress, in some ways little has changed since he last gave evidence more than a decade ago. The key I believe, is a consistent and joined up approach from kindergarten to post-doctoral and beyond. I realise how difficult this is with five year political terms, but if this is one of the greatest threats facing mankind, we do need to act accordingly and fast.

We need a national “Green Jobs and Skills Strategy” to really embed the journey to zero carbon, environmental protection & improvement across the whole education, training, and life-long learning system. Not something you think about just as you are graduating; it should be woven into the National Curriculum from an early age. Children, as I have seen from visiting many amazing education programmes, love living things and learning about the environment, and carbon reduction could have a place in most lessons at school. Children’s education provision almost needs to go both ways – if we are going to genuinely increase access to green jobs then children need to be inspired into these jobs. Youngsters are often influenced by parental perceptions; there is also little point in inspiring a generation of people into certain careers if their GCSE/BTech/A-level choices preclude them from certain job roles.

According to the Industrial Strategy Council, 80% of the 2030 workforce are already in the workforce today, so life-long learning is a key component of a national skills base, fit for the future.

Many environment and sustainability jobs require higher education and this is reflected in IEMA’s membership where more than 85% of members are graduates and more than 50% post-graduates, with Masters or PhD qualifications. Given that social and cultural heritage backgrounds are often determinants in people entering higher education, this can perpetuate a non-representative segment within the “Green Jobs” workforce, something that we at IEMA are pledging to address later this month.

The recently approved Environmental Practitioner Degree Apprenticeship (level 6) and the Sustainability Business Specialist, an integrated Masters degree apprenticeship (level 7) both offer opportunities to open up “Green Jobs” to a more diverse group of people, given the significant Apprenticeship Levy funding that can be used to cover education costs. However, there is a lack of coordination and promotion to ensure the supply of relevant university programmes and apprentices being taken on, beyond the initial trailblazer groups. Whilst I welcome the Chancellor’s commitment to incentives for apprenticeships and the investment stimulus to provide an opportunity to embed green jobs throughout the economy, we need to act in a much more co-ordinated, joined up way.

By ‘joined up thinking’, I mean we need to:

Improve the green jobs and skills strategy: through embedding environmental protection and climate change across the whole educational section, from school to university, or school to vocational education and beyond. We need to work together to make work worthwhile, especially in the areas where we really need the skills – in the green economy.

Address the lack of diversity within the environment sector: as a British Asian, I’m frankly shocked by the lack of diversity within the environmental workforce. We must do this better and IEMA will be launching an initiative later this month to encourage and support far more diversity in the environment and sustainability landscape, including networking for people of colour. This has to become an industry where diversity is welcomed and encouraged and be a factor on an organisation’s risk register.  

Listen to the experts: we are the experts working within the industry. We need a Green Jobs and Skills Commission, not just about jobs to come, but the jobs already there and we need to support the mainstream economy as well as new infrastructure and “just transition”.

We have a chance, possibly ‘the best last chance’ to quote John Kerry, to try and tackle climate change. Joining up thinking, business, workforce, education, training and professionals like us at the heart of environment and sustainability, might just give us a fighting chance.

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