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How universities can help fill the climate jobs gap

Universities can be on the forefront of upskilling the next generation workforce on sustainability, if they move quickly.

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Image by Sophia Davirro/GreenBiz.

The global economy is undergoing a massive transformation as the world adjusts to and seeks to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. Across many industries, this transition is already well underway. A recent study showed that renewable energy farms are much more efficient and lower cost than coal plants, GM recently committed to selling only zero emissions vehicles by 2035 and California has mandated that half of all heavy truck sales be electric by 2035.

And it's not just the auto industry. These seismic shifts will only accelerate in coming years, forcing equally large changes in the workforce and skills development. Among other shifts, the U.S. economy will create millions of new green jobs while also making the existing jobs (and the workers in them) greener. Universities, often the slowest institutions to adapt, will need to pivot quickly in order to effectively prepare and train the labor force of the future.

The current landscape 

Today, the fastest growing segment of the economy is directly linked to combating the climate crisis. According to LinkedIn’s Global Green Skills Report 2022, green jobs grew by more than a third from 2015 to 2021, from 9.6 percent to 13.3 percent, and renewable and environmental jobs grew by a staggering 237 percent over the last five years. The Financial Times reported that CEOs are finding it challenging to find talent that understand how businesses affect the climate and how the climate affects business. This skills gap only looks to widen in the near future.

At its current pace, LinkedIn estimates that the demand for workers with green skills will surpass the supply by 2026. If we don’t proactively address that problem now, it will continue to widen, with severe consequences for our economy and our planet.

But, the thinking around green jobs needs to extend much further beyond our idea of traditional green fields, such as climate, sustainable design, renewable energy, energy efficiency, agronomy and environmental awareness.

More and more, green skills will be required by every position in a business. Often, we think of green jobs as those in solar or green energy. But most green jobs of the future will result from the greening of traditional jobs.

CFOs and accountants will need to learn how to measure and report on sustainable outcomes and ESG initiatives at companies. Investors will need to incorporate climate risk into their analysis. Marketing teams will need to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. Operations teams will need to adjust entire supply chains. Consider this: In the last three years, the state of Georgia has attracted 35 EV-related projects and more than 27,000 related jobs. Georgia finds itself at the center of America’s EV battery revolution

And internally, CEOs and HR managers will need to appeal to Gen Z, which currently represents a third of the world’s population, and a generation where more than 50 percent seek to work for companies they see as environmentally friendly.

LinkedIn has seen 8 percent year-over-year growth in job posts with at least one green skill, but only 6 percent year-over-year growth in members with green skills. This is evidence of a strong demand for workers but a shortage of candidates who are qualified to address the climate crisis. 

How do higher learning institutions solve this mismatch?

Colleges and universities are traditionally slow to adjust given long lead times for faculty research and an intentionally thoughtful and contemplative approach to change. And, there is no shortage of criticism about academia’s careful pacing. However, given the scale of the challenge and the largely unprecedented transition of our economy, higher education must advance with the seriousness and urgency that this crisis demands.

There are a number of ways in which colleges and universities can take action and lead on this critical issue.

Professors should look to integrate sustainability into business school's curriculum, research and teaching across all academic departments to ensure that every faculty member and student has a strong foundation in sustainability principles and practices.

Administrators should be working on developing specialized degree programs to cater to the growing demand for professionals with expertise in sustainable business practices. And courses should be updating and adapting the offerings regularly to reflect the latest developments in sustainability and ensure that faculty are well-equipped to teach these subjects.

Always be fostering a sustainability-first culture within the institution by promoting sustainable practices both in and outside the classroom.

Outside of lecture halls, business school should be encouraging hands-on learning experiences by involving students in real-world sustainability projects, such as managing investments in ESG funds or participating in campus sustainability initiatives. One great example is American University’s board of directors that authorized business school students to recommend $10 million in sustainable investments in the university’s endowment.

Colleges could also establish sustainability advisory councils comprised of a diverse group of leaders to provide guidance on the future direction of the school's sustainability programming and ensure that it remains relevant and impactful.

And schools should organize speaker series and events that bring together industry leaders and experts to discuss and share insights on sustainable business practices and their transformative potential.

Finally, leaders should foster a sustainability-first culture within the institution by promoting sustainable practices both in and outside the classroom and engaging the entire campus community in these initiatives.

The universities leading the way

Over the past 10 years, American University’s Kogod School of Business has been focused on this type of tangible action. Sustainability management is our fastest-growing program, with applications up 100 percent year over year. While we’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, we also believe that there is still much work and learning to do. And by collaborating in pursuit of these changes, we can ensure that higher education institutions serve in the vanguard of the fight to transform our economy and our workforce.

Thankfully, Kogod isn’t the only university stepping up to meet this challenge. Columbia Business School is making major investments in climate finance in collaboration with its new climate school. The dean told us that Columbia’s climate finance classes are among the most popular courses in the entire business school. Ann Harrison, dean of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, recently appointed to a second five-year term, said that sustainability is one of her top priorities. Haas has also established a sustainable investment fund for students to get real world investment experience.

While these activations are powerful, universities can’t do it alone. More upskilling initiatives from governments, companies and other training providers is needed to combat the climate crisis. The fastest-growing segment for jobs in the future will help transform the economy for a livable planet, and colleges and universities need to adjust and adapt in order to adequately prepare for the future economy.

The Hire Learning column highlights knowledge from those inside the sustainability office to make sense of the career in this decisive decade. Have an idea you want to write? Email jesse@greenbiz.com. ]

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