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The 3 essential elements for the circular jobs of the future

Here's what real benefits for workers and communities can look like, as laid out by Circle Economy.

If the fossil fuel-centered, "take, make, waste" economies of the last century are truly becoming passé, what shape should a circular workforce take? Natural capital has been front and center in much of the early evangelism around the circular economy, but a focus on human capital is beginning to emerge.

One of the leaders in these discussions is the think tank Circle Economy, which recently issued a vision for what the circular economy can mean in a best-case scenario for people’s labor and livelihoods. The Amsterdam-based social enterprise began several years ago to explore more of the social angle of circularity, knowing that two magic words, "job creation," tend to turn heads.

Its latest report, "Jobs & Skills in the Circular Economy," came out in March just as the coronavirus was making its stamp on the western hemisphere. The report originally was planned to kick off a Circular Jobs Initiative with events in Amsterdam, New York City and Brussels. It turns out that this progressive vision for creating circular-economy jobs looks even more urgent and relevant in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic whiplash.

"Human labor — work — is different from the other renewable resources: creative, versatile and adaptable and able to be educated, but perishable if unused," said the report, which was produced following conversations with 60 public and private organizations in Europe, North America and Africa.

How big is the opportunity for circular jobs? Some wildly ambitious, multi-trillion-dollar projections that made headlines several years ago have been picked apart for failing to take into account the increasing automation of labor as well as import and export flows. The European Commission has projected a somewhat modest .5 percent rise in circular jobs by 2030, which Circle Economy tends to side with.

"We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot, saying the circular economy will create jobs, and that’s the end of it," said Joke Dufourmont, lead of the circular jobs Initiative at Circle Economy and co-author of the report. "There’s tremendous potential in the labor market but we have to steer toward it."

Developing that ecosystem is a huge talent management exercise.
And if a circular boom with a global net gain in jobs isn't quite realistic, then high-quality work conditions and prospects are crucial. As Circle Economy fine-tunes what it looks like to design for the future, eliminate waste and rethink old business models, it maintains that business needs to view human labor as a resource rather than a cost, no longer excluding marginalized and at-risk workers.

Circle Economy breaks down circular jobs into three categories: "core" circular jobs include work in renewable energy; waste and repair; and managing resources. These include repair technicians, agronomic advisors and materials process operators. The "enabling" jobs provide a supportive layer that helps to accelerate the core jobs, such as equipment engineers, building information managers and procurement professionals. Finally, "indirect" roles include work in education, logistics and the public sector, including teaching and delivery services.

Circle Economy calls for an emerging circular labor market to drive growth in these three areas, with help from policy, trade unions and business. Here's what it's advocating for:

1. Keep building skills

Circular job training and education is needed to "skill and reskill" the workforce, with access for all.  A mindset shift must reward the fields and occupations that help to preserve natural resources, upending conventions and blurring the lines between so-called skilled and unskilled labor. "Soft skills for collaborating across sectors and service-related skills will be just as important as hard skills for programming, operating and repairing equipment," the report said.

Dufourmont added that crises related to sweeping forces such as climate change, including the COVID-19 pandemic, make it especially necessary for companies to ensure adaptability and resilience.

"When facing a crisis you need to be able in an agile way to reorient your workforce," she said. "If that workforce has been trained to build one type of linear career path that’s going to cause a lot of difficulty. Developing that ecosystem is a huge talent management exercise."

Just because work is circular doesn't mean it's better.
All of that means that learning has to become more of a circular than linear process. Education needs to be seen as a lifelong pursuit that enables an individual to evolve over time instead of preparing for one narrow career track. Companies need to invest in education for workers, assisting with ongoing trainings that keep skills fresh. Skill gaps need to be identified in fast-changing fields. Circular knowledge needs to be shared more widely beyond forward-thinking research groups, companies and cities.

2. Ensure quality work

Circular jobs must be of high quality and safe, with fair pay and employment security. People must think beyond the muscular "dirty" work that's often stigmatized, such as sorting recyclables by hand. 

Currently, protections for workers are inadequate — and not just within the high-hazard economies teeming in the trash heaps or construction sites of the developing world. It's also about the utter lack of consistent income and protections inherent in the gig economy. These "platform workers" may be enabled by high-gloss digital technology, but they barely benefit from it.

Ideally, any kind of work should pay well, be safe and offer ongoing development for the person doing it. Companies must better value human capital and ingenuity, and allow for collective bargaining. Understanding workers’ experiences is critical, looking first at both the less-regulated and the nascent sectors.

Finally, employers need to embrace circular, systems thinking, "from leadership to the workshop floor, so as to inspire workers with the role they play in the wider regenerative economy," the report said. "Together with fair pay and working conditions, this should help to increase job satisfaction of workers in the circular economy."

3. Foster inclusive opportunities

An "inclusive labor market" must offer opportunities for all regardless of levels of skill, including those whose specialties risk becoming obsolete. Gender, ethnicity, immigration status, ability level and location should not determine who enjoys rewarding work. Success for white-collar information workers won't trickle down to others without a concerted effort among businesses and policymakers.

And just because work is circular doesn't mean it's better. The many blind spots in globalized supply chains make it hard to understand how materials flows, including waste, affect people around the planet. In addition, leaving underserved communities out of the conversation also threatens to turn them off to the positive possibilities of a circular transition.

What's important is that there are more opportunities on the other side they can win from, but it’s about installing these just transitions.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a circular transformation for the workforce, which must be examined locally and with education and social protections in mind. Special attention must be paid to the impacts of technology so that it doesn’t worsen the gap between workers of different skill levels.

What does inclusion look like? Circle Economy has pointed to cities embracing circular employment (and it is working on a circular transition tool for cities). For example, a Waste-to-Wealth program in Baltimore is baking deconstruction into building demolition contracts, providing new job opportunities. The city works with the Urban Transitions Alliance to transition from its industrial legacy.

(This is an excerpt from a Circularity 19 panel discussion about power, privilege and bias in the circular economy. Watch the entire conversation here.)

As demand rises for labor in waste management and reverse logistics, repair and maintenance-related work also will grow, Dufourmont said. Yet it’s important to consider that when demand increases for repaired products instead of new ones, or for recycled feedstocks over virgin materials, former suppliers will lose out — just as coal workers are being left behind as renewable energy expands. 

"What’s important is that there are more opportunities on the other side they can win from, but it’s about installing these just transitions," she said.

To ensure more positive change, therefore, people need to better understand how circularity is emerging economically in different countries, helping to prevent unintended consequences. Those in charge also must look toward frameworks such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No. 8 around promoting "sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all."

Intelligent policy is key, as is building partnerships among stakeholders and providing incentives to companies "to design products for multiple lifecycles."

In this moment

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, now would appear to be the time to build up an adaptable, safe and motivated circular workforce that operates within more resilient systems, including supply chains.

For instance, the risks of the informal gig economy have become more obvious to hundreds of millions of housebound Americans. If grocery store clerks, farmworkers and delivery drivers are deemed essential workers, why do so few of them enjoy job security or health insurance?

The possibilities also appear for a throwaway culture to embrace creative ecosystems of repair and reuse. With ventilators in short supply, for instance, independent inventors have shared open source designs for ad hoc ones and have 3D printed some missing pieces.

The novel coronavirus crisis has laid bare some gaping holes in globalized supply chains, as hospitals lack personal protective equipment and grocery shelves are bereft of toilet paper and pasta. Looking to further future disruptions, Dufourmont believes that many circular jobs will be locally focused. If nurses and doctors in the United States can't obtain adequate masks or ventilators, partly because of distribution bottlenecks from overseas suppliers, why not reshore more factories closer to consumers?

"There is a potential for the circular economy to keep our society healthy in these types of crises," Dufourmont said.

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