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From Green to gHReen: Putting a Human Face on Sustainability

Undeniably, there is an urgent need to unleash a new generation of reskilling and upskilling initiatives to enable as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, to prepare for the jobs of the future.

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Posted On Apr 22, 2021 

Everyone is looking for the fastest and most effective way to green our economies. Companies, governments and public institutions are all devoting increasing amounts of financial and human resources to meeting the climate targets set both by the Paris Agreement, and by individual nations.


And as is almost always the case, the smaller players in this global race are watching the bigger players to help mark the best route.


At the end of 2019, the European Commission unveiled its Green Deal—an ambitious plan to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 through innovation, incentives and mitigation of its social impact.


Great expectations are also building around United States President Joe Biden’s $2-trillion plan to transform the economy by creating millions of new jobs connected to clean energy, energy efficiency and, in particular, the growing electric vehicle (EV) industry.


However, not everyone sees the logic or the potential in these initiatives.


All over the world, we’re seeing skepticism, alarm and even hostility about the whole idea of taking people from traditional industries into new jobs with new skills and a lower carbon footprint.


A recent story in The New York Times graphically demonstrates the magnitude of the skepticism.


The New York Times interviewed Shawn Steffee, one of the leaders of the Boilermakers Local 154 in Pittsburgh, PA, who quite passionately argues it is not possible to reskill and redeploy well-paid union workers who have been involved in traditional manufacturing and resource industries into greener, cleaner industries like solar or wind power generation.


“They keep saying, ‘We’re going to transition you into solar jobs,’” Steffee said. “That’s not how it works. We build power plants, petrochemical plants and maintain steel mills.”


Steffee’s comments speak volumes about the poor job that employers and governments have done in explaining the pressing global need to transition workers into more sustainable jobs.


The UK government recently caused an uproar with an advertisement for a jobs reskilling campaign that featured a ballet dancer and suggested her next job could be in cyber security. Not surprisingly, many people in the cultural industries cried foul over the ad and the suggestion that theirs was not sustainable work.


The human face of the transition


These examples highlight the deep need for all green transitions to treat human beings as people and not commodities that can be moved arbitrarily from one job to another. The only thing that everyone should agree upon is that many of today’s jobs will soon be obsolete, either because of climate concerns or their incompatibility with the leading edge of technology.


According to McKinsey, the United States oil industry alone lost more than 100,000 jobs in 2020 due to the OPEC price war and the COVID-19 pandemic. The automotive industry’s aggressive move to electrify its fleets will no doubt continue to force the oil and gas industry to shed even more jobs.


The Adecco Group, in their recent “Skills for the Green Economy” publication, further points out that “without skills development, it is estimated that the global economy could shed as many as 71 million jobs in its move towards becoming circular. On the other hand, smart policies and investment in reskilling could reverse this prospect, so much so that the energy sector alone could produce a net growth of 18 million jobs.”


Undeniably, there is an urgent need to unleash a new generation of re-/upskilling initiatives to enable as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, to prepare for the jobs of the future.


Towards a people-centered transition


To ensure that the green transition can be a success, we need to pay more attention to the role human capital and skills play in delivering a sustainable change.


Notwithstanding the big-ticket initiatives in Europe and the United States, most of the world’s leading green technology initiatives don’t do a good job connecting environmental targets with human capital targets.


The Just Transition Fund, a major component of the European Union’s Green Deal, will provide up to €150 billion over the next 10 years in funds for reskilling and loans or loan guarantees for employers that want to shift to green technology.


China has also made progress in this area, retraining workers to take on new jobs in the clean energy sector. Continuing efforts to ween the country off coal-fired electricity generation, China already accounts for nearly 40 percent of all the jobs worldwide devoted to renewable energy.


However, even with all this attention, there is still an enormous amount of disconnect between climate goals and the needs of workers.


Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” proposes US $100 billion for workforce training programs and to double the number of registered apprenticeships. However, the details of exactly what kind of training and support programs have not been made public. And although it does often reference things like “skills development opportunities for workers of all kinds,” a White House fact sheet on the jobs plan does not include a single reference to reskilling or upskilling.


Biden’s plan is not alone when it comes to this disconnect. The International Labour Organization noted that among the 183 countries that have committed to the Paris Agreement’s targets, less than 40 percent include “any plans for skills training (or retraining to support their implementation) and (…) more than one in five have no plans for any training or capacity development measures at all.”


Opportunities for businesses


This lack of connection between climate policies and workforce goals represents an opportunity for employers to be proactive for their own competitive brand advantage. From our work supporting organizations and their workers globally as they transition, there are two clear strategies that can help us bring environmental and workforce goals into alignment. 


1/ Facilitate work transitions in small increments


Even though the issues are global, the solutions need to be local and individual. While there is no silver bullet, the solutions can be found when all parties involved sit down and find the most logical path from unsustainable industries to fit-for-future industries and jobs.


That is essentially what happened with Spanish energy company Enel-Endesa when it closed the Litoral thermal electricity generating plant. To mitigate the social impact on the region, it collaborated with LHH, public authorities and other partners to look for new opportunities for the infrastructure and the workers. Ultimately, the company launched 20 new renewable energy projects throughout the province to replace the electricity being generated by the decommissioned thermal plant, which in turn created more than 300 jobs for former plant workers.


2/ Put a “people” spin on your Environmental, Social and Corporate Goals strategy


Environmental sustainability goals are no longer in conflict with job creation goals. Look for partners who enable you to elevate the dialogue around environmental, social and corporate goals to your workforce strategy and consider your workforce as renewable power and not as a replaceable asset.


This is what the German automotive supplier ZF Friedrichshafen has recognized. Instead of proceeding with their original plan to lay off several thousands of employees, they have implemented a transformation plan to reskill and redeploy the affected people into entirely new jobs. In recognizing the potential in their own employees to transition, this company was able to offer sustainable employment while speeding up the transformation towards e-mobility.


The green transition will never accomplish its climate goals unless it can fully align with the human needs of workers. While this is no easy challenge, smart green policies can and will lead to a faster and more inclusive transition.


Together, we can make the green transition into a gHReen transition.