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Can your company leap the great sustainability skills gap?

The demand for knowledge about sustainability subjects is intensifying in corporate roles such as procurement, product design and accounting. Here’s how tech giants Microsoft and Salesforce are addressing the gap.

Person leaping over gap

Businesses aren’t doing enough to invest in training on sustainability skills. Image via Shutterstock/Khakimullin Aleksandr

"Getting to scale" is a challenge mentioned often by those in the climate movement, usually in reference to money backing some breakthrough technology or infrastructure project. But another resource also requires far more investment if we’re going to pull this off: People.

That’s the headline of a report published Wednesday by Microsoft and the Boston Consulting Group, "Closing the Sustainability Gap," based on interviews with more than 250 employees at 15 companies, whose roles are suffused with some sort of sustainability commitments. Those interviewed over the past year included finance team members, supply chain specialists, engineers, materials scientists — as well as individuals in new roles that have emerged as a result of net zero pledges and other climate-related commitments, such as renewable energy procurement managers, carbon accountants and carbon removal procurers. Among the large corporations participating in the research were AT&T, BCG, HSBC, John Deere, JSW Steel, Microsoft, Owens Corning, Sysco and Unilever, all of which have been recruiting for these sorts of positions. 

"Ultimately, it’s important to realize that the sustainability transformation will need people who can combine specialized knowledge and skills with varying degrees of other multidisciplinary skill sets," wrote Microsoft Vice Chair and President Brad Smith in the foreword to the report. "These will need to span across business, the use of data and digital technology. This combination currently is hard to find and often doesn’t exist naturally."

According to data from the International Labour Organization, up to 18 million net new jobs could be created by the transition to a net-zero economy by 2030. Analytics from LinkedIn, a Microsoft company, suggest that "green jobs" grew 8 percent between 2015 and 2022, but the pool of people with the skills to fill them expanded by just 6 percent.

"Employees mostly have tapped talented insiders with the core transformational and functional skill sets needed to create change in a company, even though they lacked formal training in sustainability," Smith wrote. "They then upskilled those individuals to accomplish critical sustainability work. The biggest problem with this approach is that it will not scale to meet either the business community’s or the planet’s needs. As we look at the roughly 3,900 companies that have made climate pledges, it’s readily apparent that the work to turn these pledges into progress will require far more talent with sustainability skills and fluency than currently is being trained within these companies’ businesses."

Eager to learn

More on how Microsoft, LinkedIn and Smith intend to address that need in a moment, but first, separate research released in September by another big software company, Salesforce, that corroborates Microsoft’s new report — and showcases a workforce eager to learn.

According to the Salesforce data, which covers about 1,300 knowledge workers in 11 countries, 82 percent of those surveyed believe that a lack of skilled talent is keeping companies from progressing toward climate goals. Close to 90 percent of the respondents said businesses aren’t doing enough to invest in training on sustainability skills, while about two-thirds of them were eager to learn more, so that they could incorporate these priorities into their current role.

The call to action here is for companies to start paying attention. Sustainability is something that your workforce is incredibly hungry to participate in.

"We have always believed sustainability had a key role to play in employee engagement. This really emphasizes that," Sunya Norman, vice president of ESG strategy and engagement at Salesforce, told me. "The call to action here is for companies to start paying attention. Sustainability is something that your workforce is incredibly hungry to participate in. It’s a great way to keep them engaged, and accelerate progress faster."

Salesforce is using its training and upskilling platform, Salesforce Trailhead, to disseminate education to both employees and an external audience about topics such as setting science-based targets, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and understanding the role corporations can play in reducing their environmental impact. During the first half of 2022, the number of employees engaging with those modules grew by almost 60 percent, according to Salesforce.

Meeting the moment, at least for knowledge workers

It’s important to acknowledge the data being talked up by both Microsoft and Salesforce centers primarily on knowledge workers — which isn’t surprising, given that both companies have developed software platforms and believe digital skills in these roles, such as knowledge of how to apply automation, analytics and artificial intelligence to solve climate-related challenges, will be crucial during the transition to a just, clean economy.

When I spoke with Smith earlier this week, he acknowledged that distinction. "We are really focused on knowledge workers and what they will need because as we did this work, we realized that had not been addressed as a distinct topic," he said. "And when we looked at the companies that have made climate pledges, we realized that it was the lack of skills in that space that risks holding people and companies back."

Smith told me that the company’s decision to adopt an internal carbon tax — which the company uses to support sustainability-related investments — triggered the creation of new roles within the company as well as the need to embed related wisdom and skills into existing functions. "Once we put that in place, it actually created a financial incentive for every part of the business to create jobs to help them manage this," he said. 

Smith added: "One, we have brought knowledge into the company through people we have hired from the outside, who have this expertise. No. 2, we’ve leaned heavily on our centralized team to go help train people and create this community to really share learning and move best practices around faster. No. 3, we’ve leaned a lot on our centralized procurement team to figure out how to work with our suppliers, and they’ve been able to share that knowledge broadly. But it’s been a lot of innovation born of experimentation, spreading knowledge and information and skills quickly. It’s a classic first-mover phenomenon."

It’s been a lot of innovation born of experimentation, spreading knowledge and information and skills quickly. It’s a classic first-mover phenomenon.

According to the report, Microsoft supports more than 250 sustainability roles across its various business groups — about 70 percent of them promoted from within — but it is striving to integrate "broader sustainability fluency" across all roles. Here’s where these skills will really matter:

  • Strategy — including being able to assess materiality and exposure, and drive policy
  • Implementation — such as product innovation, operational efficiency, procurement, engaging with suppliers and customers on their own sustainability journeys and investing in carbon removal
  • Enablement — including data measurement and disclosure, change management and the creation of new partnerships 

"We have the opportunity to apply everything we’ve learned from the spread of computer science and apply it to the spread of sustainability science," said Smith, in response to my question about how to ensure that upskilling focused on these specialities is inclusive, across gender and race. "What we learned from computer science is that we need to focus, first and foremost. We need to break it down into pieces. We need to look at the pipeline. We need to make a special effort to ensure that we have learning materials that appeal to people from different backgrounds. We need to think about girls and young women and not just boys and young men. We need to work with different nonprofits over time that will take this on. ….

"I think there is a second dimension here that is critical," he added, "and that is a focus on the Global South because what we are finding is that access to data and access to skills is not at the same level in the Global North."

So how does Microsoft plan to act on these revelations? You can expect to see both Microsoft and LinkedIn to get involved in industry-level efforts to define the sorts of skills instrumental for pulling off climate pledges — alongside organizations including the International Labour Organization and the Development Data Partnership, which includes the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, World Bank, Inter-American Development, United Nations Development Programme and International Monetary Fund. Among the things Microsoft is focused on: driving more clarity around which certifications or credentials are central to this journey.

The company has also committed to developing and disseminating curriculum related to how to use digital tools to record, report and manage carbon, water, waste and energy. (Translation: You can expect to see these sorts of materials prominently featured on LinkedIn Learning and the Microsoft Sustainability Learning Center.) It will also partner with online learning company INCO Academy to support a Green Digital Skills course for up to 10,000 learners.

Some of those resources will also go toward supporting the "sustainability talent pipeline of the future," through Microsoft’s support of the Monitoring and Evaluating Climate Communication and Education Project, which is building a library of digital resources, and the new Greening Education Partnership, formed by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 

You can also expect to see the tech company step up behind post-secondary programs such as:

When I asked Smith to put a price tag on all the sorts of investments mentioned in its report, he described them as "huge across the board" — but said Microsoft has yet to quantify the amount it will spend on both its internal efforts as well as providing resources for others.

It’s not just a crisis for business, it’s a crisis for society.

"The skilling of people is the foundation of every aspect of all the progress we need to make," said Smith at the end of our conversation. "If we don’t skill the workforce — both today and tomorrow — we’re not going to succeed."

Education as an ESG imperative

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Microsoft is part of the Global Business Coalition for Education, which recently published its own report about the strong link between environmental, social and governance strategy and education. The analysis argues that prioritizing support for education — both upskilling of their own workforces, alongside support of primary and secondary schools and programs — should be a central part of the "S" in corporate ESG strategies.

Less than half of all young people are on track to have the skills needed for employment in the 2030 timeframe, noted Justin van Fleet, president of the children’s charity Theirworld and executive director of the Coalition. Echoing Microsoft’s report from this week: The private sector might not be capable of meeting the moment if it doesn’t start upskilling the existing workforce and preparing the next generation for what’s ahead. "It’s not just a crisis for business, it’s a crisis for society," he told me.

Madge Thomas, president of the American Express Foundation and head of corporate social responsibility for American Express, underscored that sentiment. "As part of the ‘S’, we see education as a crosscutting theme that shows up in a different way, depending on the stakeholder group: Colleagues, customers and communities." 

As an example, Amex recently announced a Climate Change Master Class, led by scientists, that will be available virtually to all of its 70,000 employees. The goal, Thomas said, is to help the company’s workforce better understand the various corporate initiatives it supports to help colleagues, particularly Gen Z recruits, understand the actions they can take personally and within their own communities. 

Thomas suggested that more climate-forward companies should work together to support educational initiatives such as these. "We probably need more collaboration across companies and the industry around prioritizing these issues," Thomas said. "We can use our collective values and voice."

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