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Lack of workforce skills puts sustainability strategies at risk

ESRI and Skillnet identify challenges in transitioning to low-carbon economy

New research carried out by Skillnet Ireland in collaboration with the ESRI has identified talent and skills gaps as key challenges in achieving Ireland’s climate goals. Corporate sustainability strategies, carbon management and waste management emerged as the top three skills development priorities to enable the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The findings are contained in the Talent for Ireland’s Green Economy written by Prof Iulia Siedschlag which has just been published by Skillnet Ireland and the ESRI.

“We wanted to find out what the current and emerging talent needs are for business to make the transition to a sustainable net zero economy,” explains Skillnet Ireland director of communication and policy Tracey Donnery. “That will help us to equip people with the skills required to adopt sustainable behaviours and make the changes that will add value to their businesses while also contributing to Ireland’s climate goals.”

One hundred companies selected to be broadly represented of business in Ireland took part in the research, she adds. The study found that skills gaps in the workforce and among leaders are holding back businesses when it comes to developing and implementing sustainability strategies.

Workforce skills

When asked to assess the challenges they anticipate their business would face in the medium term arising from the implementation of the government’s Climate Action Plan, developing new skills within the workforce emerged as the top challenge. The next most important challenges identified by respondents are improving the way in which resources are used in their supply chain to reduce emissions, and improving energy efficiency of processes, buildings and transport. Innovations in production, distribution and marketing was also mentioned as a challenge.

“Three out of four of the businesses surveyed anticipate that the impact of the transition to a low-carbon economy on skills needs will come through a shift of activities from less to more energy efficient and less polluting activities,” says Donnery. “The top skillsets needed in the medium term to support the transition to a low-carbon economy include waste management cited by 78 per cent of respondents, corporate sustainability strategy by 75 per cent, carbon management by 67 per cent, and sustainable finance skills by 67 per cent of respondents.

“Businesses want to find new ways of approaching waste and circularity,” she continues. “They also want to develop innovative carbon strategies and to develop the skills needed to access investment and sustainable finance. Marketing skills were also mentioned by a large number of respondents. They recognise the need to differentiate themselves by demonstrating their sustainability credentials to other businesses and consumers.”

These are all areas where Skillnet Ireland can make a difference, Donnery points out. And one of those relates to leadership.

“Business leaders and owners need the skills required to integrate sustainability into their overall business strategies,” she says. “The Skillnet Ireland Climate Ready Academy has recently launched a Sustainability Leaders Programme to support leaders in that area.

“Climate Ready already offers a wide range of talent development solutions in renewable energy and green technology, environmental, water and energy management, and sustainable strategy and sustainable finance. This new free programme for SME owners and leaders is geared towards helping them understand how to develop action plans and take concrete steps towards becoming sustainable businesses.”

Master classes

The Sustainability Leaders Programme features a series of online master classes on different aspects of sustainability strategy delivered by experts in the field. “The focus is on corporate sustainability strategy and carbon management and, in particular, how leaders can identify where they can build sustainability into their corporate strategy.”

This is just one of the sustainability programmes offered by Skillnet Ireland’s business networks. “Businesses want to be sustainable but don’t know how to go about it in many cases. Skillnet business networks are offering sustainability programmes to develop talent and skills in ways that make a significant difference. These include Skillnets in the food, medtech, design, and transport and supply chain sectors.”

There are also a number of dedicated Skillnets in the green energy and sustainability space, she adds. “The Green Tech Skillnet has done research into hydrogen and wind and the role of green hydrogen in the energy transition. The Construction Professionals Skillnet is doing work on modern methods of construction and helping businesses to adopt more sustainable methods and use more sustainable materials.”

She also points to the Sustainable Finance Roadmap developed by Sustainable Finance Ireland in collaboration with Skillnet Ireland and other bodies. “There are 18 key actions identified in the roadmap and developing sustainable finance talent is one of these key priorities. The Sustainable Finance Skillnet is developing new programmes to help Ireland take the lead in sustainable finance. It’s really very exciting.

“Every sector can adopt sustainable business practices which will contribute to the economy and wider society, and Skillnets around the country are playing their part in helping them do that.”