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Organizational Change
4 Strategies for Bridging the Sustainability Skills Gap

While it may be tempting to take a ‘wait and see’ approach, more and more companies are developing their own solutions to mitigate this gap internally. Here are four such strategies.

Businesses across industries are under mounting pressure to adopt sustainable practices, reduce their environmental impact, and provide ESG reporting and transparency in their efforts while staying accountable to their commitments. As demand for sustainability grows, so does the need for skilled professionals and workers who can drive and implement strategy and practices effectively across organizations and supply chains. However, most companies do not have the talent with the knowledge, experience and skills to achieve their sustainability goals.

Companies are recognizing that the demand for sustainability talent is outpacing the supply; and the gap is only growing — as sustainability roles expand and new ones get created, a Corporate Sustainability Officer is just not enough. The International Labour Organization suggests that 18 million net new jobs could be created worldwide by net-zero commitments by 2030. Recent research found that 82 percent of sustainability executives believed there were significant skills gaps within their own organization to tackle sustainability requirements. The World Economic Forum has directly linked the lack of qualified talent as being one of the significant barriers to implementing sustainability strategies; while the UN Global Compact has called for direct action to address this skills gap — prompting companies to prioritize and invest in skilling, upskilling and reskilling their teams.

While it may be tempting for companies to take a ‘wait and see’ approach, it won’t bridge this gap fast enough and will have negative effects. More and more companies — including Microsoft, Salesforce and Interface — are turning to mitigate this gap internally by developing and implementing their own solutions.

Bridging the sustainability skills gap internally will be fundamental for businesses in reaching their sustainability objectives. Here are four such strategies.

Make sustainability a strategic priority

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First and foremost, a strong sustainability strategy sends a clear signal to potential and current employees that a business is committed to sustainability. This can be a major selling point for job seekers who are looking to work for a company that shares their values. By publicly committing to sustainability and investing in the resources needed to achieve sustainability goals, businesses can attract top talent and build a workforce that is passionate about sustainability. But it's not just about attracting the right talent — a sustainability strategy can help to engage, motivate and develop the skills of existing employees.

Investing in a sustainability strategy can also help businesses to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to trends and regulations. As governments around the world enact more stringent sustainability regulations, businesses that are already taking a proactive approach to sustainability will be better positioned to adapt to these changes. By investing in a sustainability strategy now, businesses can ensure that they have the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to comply with future regulations and stay ahead of their competitors.

Provide training across your organization

They’re perhaps the most obvious on the list, but education and training programs are essential for building the skills and knowledge needed to implement sustainable practices effectively. These programs can take various forms — including workshops, online courses, mentoring programs, internships, etc — and can be customized to specific job functions and levels. They can be developed internally, sourced online or even co-developed with educational institutions.

The trick is ensuring that you are levelling up your current workforce while priming the incoming talent pipeline. That focus then has to consider both an internal and external training lens. Microsoft is an excellent example of how a company can tackle the sustainability skills gap on both sides — focusing on internal training for employees while also building out external learning opportunities through its Sustainability Learning Center.

Integrate sustainability into company culture

Planning and training are key tools in providing knowledge and setting the playing field but incorporating sustainability into corporate culture is what makes sustainability efforts meaningful. In 2021, the World Economic Forum released a study that found companies with a strong sustainability culture are more likely to attract and retain employees with the appropriate skills and knowledge — helping to mitigate brain drain.

Building a culture rooted in sustainability entails fostering a culture that prioritizes and values sustainability and encourages employees to develop their sustainability skills regardless of their job responsibilities. Companies can start by creating plans that set sustainability goals and targets, and ensuring those are communicated clearly and in a format that not only engages but enables every employee to feel that they have a role to play in the execution of the plan.

Providing channels where employees can execute sustainability goals while having the agency to develop and recommend new sustainability initiatives, rounded out by volunteering opportunities or employee resource groups, provides a rich internal ecosystem for sustainability to thrive. Acknowledging employees who exhibit leadership and innovation and celebrating teams that achieve sustainability goals is an added strategy to inspire and motivate employees to become champions of sustainability within the organization and sustain an engaged workforce.

Embed sustainability into the employee lifecycle

Companies must prioritize sustainability throughout the employee lifecycle, integrating it into major HR functions. A Harvard Business Review study found that embedding sustainability in the employee lifecycle by incorporating sustainability targets and social impact considerations into the attraction and recruitment processes can improve employee engagement and retention rates. For example, job descriptions, interview questions and selection criteria can emphasize the importance of sustainability skills and experience or even a desire to learn new sustainability skills.

Investing in sustainability initiatives can offer ample opportunities for employees to develop their skills and enhance their knowledge in this critical area. Ensuring that sustainability elements are baked into regular HR functions such as professional development, checks-ins and performance reviews will enable leaders to be aware of specialized skill development and matching employees with new opportunities within the company as they arise.

To remain competitive in the marketplace, companies must adopt proactive measures to address the sustainability skills gap — by investing in making sustainability a priority, training, and embedding it across culture and people functions. Being proactive in bridging this business challenge will only have a net-positive effect on performance across environmental and social factors; but without it, companies will be left behind.