In a world where the supply of sustainability talent is struggling to meet the demand, it's time to re-think how we enable more people to use their career for good.
Back in 2014, Dorceta Taylor, Professor of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability conducted a study into diversity in the environmental movement. The findings were troubling. She found out that just 12% of paid staff members in 191 environmental organisations identified as people of colour. Fast forward to 2017 and hop across the pond to the UK, the think tank Policy Exchange found out that just 3.1% (yes, you read that right) of environmental professionals identified as black or people of colour, making the environmental sector the second least diverse profession in the UK.
In corporate sustainability, the picture looks better, but not by much. In the latest Diversity in Sustainability report published in 2021, white men make up a larger demographic percentage than other groups in senior leadership roles. Just 35% percent of survey respondents identify as people of colour, more than half of the respondents (55%) do not have caregiving responsibilities and 75% of respondents report having had a middle-class upbringing.
So, why is this?
One reason Professor Taylor offers is access. She says: “Environmental jobs are advertised and accepted through established networks. If you are not connected, you won’t hear about or get those jobs.”
In a world where the supply of sustainability talent can’t meet the demand, we urgently need to re-think how we open up access to sustainability work. Because, as the old adage goes, talent is everywhere, opportunity is not.
Here are three ways to increase access to that opportunity:
1. OPEN UP CLOSED NETWORKS
Sustainability is a relatively nascent field and the routes into it remain hazy at best. In our own research with people looking to break into the industry, we heard the following: “I don’t know where to look for sustainability jobs even though I’m studying it. I’m learning about it but don’t know how to connect to the world that is actively working on it.”
There is no straightforward pathway into sustainability, and that’s okay. But it does mean that those in hiring positions must make every effort to open up opportunities beyond the usual suspects. Relying on personal and existing professional networks to fill roles, which is a common practice across many industries, keeps a wider group of people locked out. Resources that connect prospective talent to opportunities are largely underdeveloped, but exciting platforms like Terra.do, which aims to get 100 million people into climate jobs this decade, could help plug the talent/opportunity gap.
“Environmental jobs are advertised and accepted through established networks. If you are not connected, you won’t hear about or get those jobs.”Professor Dorcetta Taylor
2. EMBRACE FLEXIBILITY
Caring for an elderly parent, school schedules, family obligations. These challenges aren’t unique, they are part and parcel of life. Yet we’ve all heard the statistics about mothers leaving the labour force en masse or the sandwich generation walking out of the door - all because of the rigid structures of how work happens.
The desire for greater control and freedom that enables work to actually work with life rather than against it, is fundamentally changing the labour pool. Nearly half of millennials are opting for freelance work over permanent employment and, in the US, freelancing is set to become the dominant workforce category by 2027.
But flexible talent isn’t just those who identify as traditional ‘career freelancers’. Ever heard of the portfolio career? An increasing number of people are now choosing a working style that enables them to indulge in multiple interests and passions. Think of a startup founder building a business sustainably while supplementing their income with other paid work. This is a non-traditional, but growing, working style that encompasses a mix of employment, freelancing, or consultancy.
All of this points to the fact that awesome talent is out there, if you’re willing to look for it in the right places and if you’re willing to break out of the rigid structures and a rather outdated conception of how work should happen.
3. RADICAL RE-SKILLING
And what about the talent closer to home? Survey after survey tells us that employees no longer see sustainability as another department’s job. They want in. One survey revealed that 83% of people want to take action on climate in their jobs. Building sustainability education into organisations is an important intervention in enabling more people - including from non-traditional career paths - to work on the most pressing issues of our time. In fact, Drawdown Labs from Project Drawdown have recently produced their Job Function Action Guides which set out how everyone and every department - finance, procurement, marketing, legal, sales or procurement - can scale climate solutions in the workplace.