As they strive to deliver on climate goals, companies are confronting a lack of sustainability skills and education, even among sustainability leaders.

Boyden's perspectives on the news and trends that are transforming industries

Combatting climate change will require dramatic business change, impacting processes and operations, technology, supply chain and other areas. It will also require a range of new skills. Thousands of companies have pledged to cut C02 emissions, yet many lack the talent needed for transformation. A new report from Microsoft and Boston Consulting Group highlights the shortage, finding that 57% of sustainability professionals lack related degrees. Over 40% have no more than three years’ experience.

The need for leadership development and training at all organizational levels across industries is becoming increasingly urgent, well beyond the need for compliance with more stringent regulations. “We have to move very quickly to start to bring our emissions down, and the ultimate bottleneck is the supply of skilled people”, said Brad Smith, co-author and Microsoft’s Vice Chair and President.

Environmental software that tracks a company’s carbon footprint or automates environmental compliance and sustainability reporting has a role to play. But to address climate change, the need to better educate leadership and workforces is clear. The study found that 68% of environmental leaders were recruited from inside the company, and often team members lack formal training. “Employers really need to step back and take a broader look at their investment in employee learning and training”, said Smith, suggesting that companies bring in instructors and pay for continuing education.

For its part Microsoft plans to develop green education materials on LinkedIn and other platforms. The technology giant has grown its sustainability staff to about 250 employees from 30 mostly in the past three years, such as individuals who focus on the purchase of long-term carbon removal. Still, having the right talent to deliver on its carbon-reduction goals remains a challenge, Smith told Reuters.

To illustrate the scale of change needed, Smith points to the spread of physics education during the quest to reach the moon, and later, the rise of computer science as an academic and professional discipline as the digital age dawned. This time, companies and academia will need to bring sustainability science to the forefront as though the future depends on it. “In the history of civilization, few generations have needed to do as much in as little time as we must do now,” the report asserts.

In order to meet near-term requirements for compliance and make the longer-term move to a greener global economy, specialized sustainability positions will need to quickly emerge across industries. More broadly, existing jobs must expand to include matters of sustainability. For example, engineers and materials scientists who design devices must consider not only the capabilities of their materials, but also their sustainability.

Employees will need knowledge and skill in specialized areas such as carbon accounting, carbon removal and ecosystem services valuation, which will involve the use of climate-specific digital tools. On the interdisciplinary level, business teams need access to knowledge in sustainability as it relates to procurement and supply chain management, for example. Still more broadly, employees need to understand how sustainability issues factor into business operations and processes, and adjust their activities accordingly. The time to develop a sustainability talent pipeline has come.

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