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Two Steps Forward

Hire education: Reactions to the ‘war for ESG talent’

When you write about people’s livelihoods and careers, nearly everyone has an opinion. Or two.

Talent tug-o-war


My piece last month about the fierce competition to attract and retain professionals working in the field of ESG — environmental, social and governance metrics and strategy — elicited a rousing response, more so than most other pieces we’ve published on GreenBiz.

The responses came in the form of direct emails, Twitter comments and a dozen or so LinkedIn posts referencing the article. Together, they yielded more than 1,000 reactions and comments — many complimentary, some decidedly not, most of them quite passionate.

Clearly, when you write about people’s livelihoods and careers, nearly everyone has an opinion. Or two.

One particular set of comments was spurred by a LinkedIn post about my article by Mike Barry. Barry spent more than 14 years leading sustainability at Marks & Spencer, the U.K.-based multinational retailer, where he is credited with creating the company’s Plan A ("because there is no Plan B") initiative back in 2007. He is a strategic adviser to companies and nonprofits — and, from what I’ve seen, a social media maven. The bulk of his commenters were from across the pond, bringing a non-U.S. perspective to the conversation.

Clearly, when you write about people’s livelihoods and careers, nearly everyone has an opinion. Or 2.

Here are three themes from the emailers and commenters. (I’ll name some LinkedIn commenters, as that’s a public forum, but not the emailers, because those were private communications.)

1. The whole story is overblown

"I treated your editorial on the shortage of qualified ESG talent with an eye roll," began one reader’s email.

She continued: "How is it that long-established companies now struggle to find talent, in a space like sustainability no less? How do they expect passion to come across in interviews when candidates walk in viewing an org's sudden ESG interest with skepticism? These institutions all might be into it for the long haul, but their gestation period for empathy and understanding to contribute meaningfully in this world that literally surrounds them runs short on credible time."

Some suggested that companies’ land-grab for ESG professionals won’t necessarily change much. "Like CSR, ESG is a tick-box exercise that ultimately will not satisfy investors (or the planet) because compliance with it does not pivot the business toward sustainable outcomes nor require or guide the day-to-day organization or running of it," wrote Neil Gaught, a London-based adviser and writer on these topics. "It simply doesn’t answer the urgent requirement for businesses to accelerate their progress so they can help take on the unique challenges we are facing environmentally, societally, humanly and economically today."

And, of course, there were those whose job-seeking experience in the real world didn’t quite jibe with my journalistic conclusion.

"Glad to know you believe there are actual jobs available in the sustainability world," observed one reader. "Suffice to say, my experience as an older person with a LOT of relevant experience in the ‘production’ and finance side in both the private and public sectors, is that many of these so-called jobs are fake. If organizations were really in hiring mode, they would talk to strong candidates instead of ignoring them. I’d be curious to know if others have arrived at similar conclusions."

Another reader, a self-described "20yr+ experienced ESG professional," similarly expressed being "completely locked out of the ESG labor market." Her assessment: The jobs out there are "either ’green’ jobs for young enthusiastic grads with marketing/digital skillsets looking to ‘make the world a better place’; or investment-related jobs for [certified financial advisers] who know very little about actual ESG issues and management."

She continued: "My network is full of experienced professionals like myself who are NOT being engaged by industry ... the momentum you speak of seems to be mostly just hype."

Or, as one writer put it, glibly — and rather plaintively: "So, how come I’m still unemployed?"

2. The process is the problem

One common theme, related to the above sentiments, is that the ways companies seek out all this talent is flawed.

"Even just five years ago or so, most people that worked in sustainability did not necessarily go to school for this field specifically or did not have job titles that reflected this type of work as is more common now," one emailer wrote. "Therefore, there was a lot more room for people with different but still applicable backgrounds to enter the sustainability field and even learn more about the roles and responsibilities during those initial years of working in that new role."

She continued: "The downside of this increased interest in sustainability is that now companies are looking for candidates that already have sustainability experience or a degree in the field. This is great for young folks coming out of college where they got a sustainability degree or minor and is also really good for those folks that were already working in sustainability. This has not been so good for those folks that have a slightly different background that in the past would have been viewed as very applicable, but now amid hundreds of applicants, is just viewed as not quite aligned as well as the others."

Some job postings require far more experience than most candidates have. "I've looked at dozens of ESG- and sustainability-related open requisition postings in the past month or so and a large number of them are written with unrealistic expectations," wrote Kathleen Voigt, who writes proposals for an engineering firm in Maryland. "Many require advanced degrees and professional certifications, which in addition to being a privilege that impacts applicant diversity, are often not actually necessary for the position — especially if potential applicants have real-world, firsthand experience doing the work. Operational experience is far more valuable than an advanced degree or certification."

And Jeremy Money, a U.K.-based recruiter specializing in environmental, energy and sustainability fields, observed: "With demand far outstripping supply, companies are going to need to be brave and think laterally. We need to consider the people with transferable skills but with little or no direct experience. These people are often hugely motivated and passionate, and once given the opportunity will make a huge contribution to the industry."

3. ESG can’t be standalone

As the above comments make implicit, ESG is too important to be left to ESG departments. And while there is a high demand for professionals with ESG knowledge and experience, unless they are fully integrated and represent a diverse range of interests, their impact will be limited.

"An ESG specialist and team needs to develop, implement and manage procedures and changes to help address and solve these issues across divisions," wrote Kieren Mayers, an ESG professional at Sony Interactive Entertainment. "ESG can be integrated into each function, inasmuch as HR, logistics, marketing and procurement can be integrated into each other. Without ESG specialists, companies will not be able to integrate the necessary actions across their different divisions. I believe that the whole discussion around integration of ESG vs. separate ESG specialist teams misses the point entirely."

Achieving that integration is no small matter, as Emily Hamilton, head of ESG at Savills Investment Management in London, wrote: "If a company is serious about making it everyone’s day job, working out how to make that time to build the skills and practice in an ever-complex and ambiguous world is key. … A big ESG team is not the answer but seems to be the default."

Here, Barry himself weighed in: "[There’s] too much 20th-century vertical silo thinking in business and government. The challenges and opportunities of today happen at the interfaces between these silos (think about the fusing of food, well-being and tech sectors to personalize healthcare and diet) or across multiple silos. Companies and leaders who can spot this, respond to it and lead people through it will prosper."

Thanks to all for your comments, compliments and critiques. Clearly, this is a discussion that will be ongoing and about which we’ll endeavor to chronicle over time. The supply-demand imbalance of ESG talent may be but a blip to be remedied over time by market forces. But for now, it remains a challenge for both employers and job seekers.

In the end, amid all of these challenges, several readers celebrated the moment. "Finally!" wrote Allison Quaid, a veteran in the field. "We sustainability professionals have been patiently waiting for this." Another, Jennifer Warfield, a Texas-based environmental engineer, was more emphatic: "I’ve trained for this challenge since becoming passionate about recycling in 5th grade!"

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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