Four priorities to tackle green industry’s diversity problem

The environmental sector has a diversity problem and further education has a central role in ensuring environmental justice is also social justice, writes Fay Holland

The environmental sector has a diversity problem and further education has a central role in ensuring environmental justice is also social justice, writes Fay Holland

29 Nov 2022, 5:00

With the COP27 climate summit finishing last Friday and the new Prime Minister’s first economic statement reaffirming the UK’s commitment to tackling climate change, this is the perfect time for us all to consider role in building a greener future. Unfortunately, the environmental sector’s diversity is currently one of the worst in the economy. If this doesn’t change, many of the young people who could play a leading role in tackling the climate crisis will be shut out of opportunities in the green sector.

Many parts of the nature sector have a rapidly ageing workforce, with almost half of parks staff aged over 50, so young people are desperately needed. And young people from ethnic minorities, those who are disabled and those from low-income backgrounds are all under-represented in these roles at the moment. Just 4.8 per cent of environment professionals identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic, compared with 12.6 per cent across all professions. Meanwhile, 57 per cent of disabled people feel excluded from being able to reduce their environmental impact and disabled people are less likely to be employed than non-disabled people.

And our own research shows that young people from low-income backgrounds sometimes feel that green jobs aren’t for them or don’t know where to find them. Requirements for higher education qualifications can put people without degrees off from pursuing careers in the nature sector.

Positively, green employers are increasingly recognising the problem and taking steps to tackle it. But this isn’t a problem industry can solve alone, and further education and skills settings can play a crucial role in helping the sector diversify its workforce. Doing so will benefit learners as well as the planet and deliver on the ambitions of the department for education’s sustainability and climate change strategy.

Groundwork’s Growing Green Careers report set out four priorities and the further education and skills sector can play its part in each of them:

Making every job green

Achieving net zero will require changes across every sector, so knowledge about environmental issues is relevant to every learner no matter what course they are enrolled on. The further education sector should think of sustainability as the fourth functional skill, as essential as literacy, numeracy and digital. Green skills and knowledge should be embedded in the curriculum, operations and through carbon literacy qualifications for staff and learners.

Accessible pathways into entry-level green roles

Through high-quality careers advice, further education settings can share opportunities like the New to Nature programme with their learners, through which young people aged 18 to 25 are given new, full-time, temporary work placements in nature and landscape organisations across the UK.

Organisations like Groundwork are working to expand opportunities like this through a Youth Environmental Service. On a local level, colleges can work with green employers to create green apprenticeships.  

Increasing diversity in green careers

The learners who engage in further education are often exactly those who are under-represented in the environmental sector. Through their curriculum and careers advice, colleges can break down stereotypes and help people to grow their careers in green jobs.

It’s vital that we inspire and show that jobs in the environmental sector are both worthwhile and achievable, ending the misconception that green jobs are only reserved for a particular demographic.

Helping places to thrive

Colleges and other further education settings can show local leadership when it comes to sustainable practices. Working with local green employers to grow the skills base in their area could have a huge impact on combatting the current skills shortages across the environmental sector and ‘levelling up’ local places.

If the further education and environmental sectors work together on each of these priorities, we will forge a greener and more prosperous future for individuals, communities, and the planet. Let’s not miss the opportunity.

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