Why trends in sustainability are good for business and education

Pick up any newspaper these days and it won’t be long before you find an article that calls out some aspect of our country’s education system in need of fixing. From the daunting numbers that are presented, this coverage, unfortunately, doesn’t seem overblown.

The U.S. Department of Education’s most recent national assessment of high school seniors determined that 74% lacked proficiency in math, 62% lacked proficiency in reading, and 79% lacked proficiency in science.

In the latest round of comparative international exams, American 15-year-olds ranked 25th in math, 17th in reading, and 22nd in science among participating countries. Chinese 15-year-olds ranked first in each subject.

News about higher education isn’t much different. In 1990, the U.S. boasted the highest percentage in the world of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees, but had fallen to 12th by 2010. Meanwhile, there’s never been a greater need for college graduates. By 2018, 63 percent of jobs are expected to require at least some college education.

Again, the numbers don’t tell a positive story; but there may be a silver lining.

When I was in school, specific education around the environment was an afterthought to traditional disciplines. Limited to conservation, education rarely integrated sustainability values with the realities of everyday living. From what I observe of candidates entering the workforce today, and in younger hires across the board, this is has changed.

Over the last decade, high school students enrolled in advanced placement environmental science courses has skyrocketed 426 percent nationally, more than four times the average increase of all advanced placement courses. The figures are similar in higher education. On average, the number of academic papers on sustainability has doubled every 8.3 years since 1974, according to a recent study from Indiana University.

It’s not by accident that we’re finding heightened environmental literacy among recent graduates. It’s been 22 years since the passage of The National Environmental Education Act, which empowered the EPA to build environmental education initiatives. The first waves of students who have experienced these programs throughout the entirety of their educational career are just now entering the workforce.

There’s also been a concerted push to further integrate sustainable development and environmental literacy in primary and higher education internationally. In the run up to the Rio+20 Summit, The UN is working with university leaders to establish a Declaration of Commitment to Sustainable Practices of Higher Education Institutions, which helps incorporate sustainable development concepts into core curriculums.

Such programs couldn’t come at a better time. While the economy is stronger than it’s been in the past few years, it’s still hard to come by jobs that are both fulfilling and pay the bills; but those with a background in environmental studies are well positioned to find one. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, environmental science jobs are expected to increase around 28 percent by 2018, and environmental engineering jobs are expected to grow 31 percent during the same period.

Again, I see these numbers reflected on factory and lab floors. While automotive engineers still focus on performance, capability and driving fun, an engine’s defining feature is now the distance it can go on a tank of gas rather than the power it can unleash on an open track. By 2020, Ford expects 10 to 25 percent of its global sales to be derived from electrified vehicles (hybrids, plug-in hybrids and full electric vehicles). Already, around one-third of Ford’s vehicle lines offer a model with 40 miles per gallon or better.

When businesses set goals around sustainability, the impacts extend beyond the environment: they change the contrast of the workforce and economy at large. At Ford, more than 1,000 engineers and PhDs are working on electrification, alternative fuels, sustainable materials, and other green facets of the industry – many of these jobs didn’t exist a decade ago.

Additionally, Ford continues to invest billions in research, both in university funding and in its own research, to develop new fuel-efficient products, engines, transmissions and electrified vehicles. As these investments mature, green employment opportunities will only continue to grow, both in the auto-sector and across the economy at large.

While a company’s green product offerings are usually what gain the most attention, they’re only made possible by culture shifts at the corporate level. This is why I’m pleased to meet, with increasing frequency, MBA students with a more holistic perspective of business. Net Impact, a leading association of sustainability professionals, released a report titled Business as Unusual, which serves as a guide to green MBAs across the country. The report noted that 83 percent of students who attended these programs felt prepared to pursue their interest in social/environmental issues and responsible leadership.

Certainly, our educational system requires serious work and additional support, but let’s gives credit where it’s due: Our schools and teachers have instilled in younger generations an unprecedented appreciation for the environment. This is good news for several reasons: companies working to green their business and capitalize on the opportunities afforded by the green economy have access to a growing pool of qualified candidates. But most importantly, a sustainable future will only be possible as new generations understand the complexities of sustainable business.

Photo of college students in class via Shutterstock.com