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Expanding your skills in the environment and sustainability profession

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By Sarah Mukherjee

I’m not the usual environment or sustainability professional, or indeed, not the usual CEO. I was brought up for a lot of my young life on a white working class council estate in Essex. I’m mixed race, identify as a woman and I’ve been a single parent. I think a lot of people who are completely capable of working in sustainability, but come from marginalised backgrounds, feel like these spaces such as the countryside aren’t for them.

(Unsplash)
(Unsplash)

I discovered the countryside by hiking when I was with posh friends at university. Everyone else would be marching straight out down country paths but I was thinking ‘how do they know they aren’t going to get shot by an annoyed landowner?’. I wasn’t familiar with rights of access, but once we got out more and I became more confident, it was amazing to see these changing landscapes. It was a total revelation to me.

We should all have the chance to enjoy our island environment. One of the really important ways for me to ensure that these precious landscapes continue to exist is to improve the diversity of the people working in our sector. The same types of people making the same types of decisions leads to catastrophe. We need to make sure that the people in the countryside are diverse enough to represent modern UK society and make it relevant to the whole country.

I was the BBC’s environment correspondent for 10 of the 20 years that I was at the BBC. I was a presenter on Countryfile and on Farming Today, and that gave me a really good understanding of how the challenges we face in urban and rural areas can be similar – around housing, transport and good sustainable jobs. The difference is that people in urban areas may not understand the range of jobs that are in rural areas. And we do desperately need highly-skilled, management level professionals to move to jobs which are in the countryside.

At IEMA (the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment) where I’m the CEO, we like to feel like we’re a family. We do have a supportive and friendly membership community. I think this is partly because we’re a fairly new sector and the people in it want to make a difference and a change to their communities and the wider world. In the past, there haven’t been that many opportunities to connect, often sitting on your own as a sustainability professional inside an organisation. So people really value being able to connect with each other.

(Unsplash)
(Unsplash)

When people think of countryside jobs, they often think of farming or tourism. But the skills we need for a robust rural economy are the same as the ones we need in urban areas. For example, there’s a model of farming that can be very data-led, requiring data analytics support for farmers, agronomy expertise, soil science – all of which will be expanding over the coming years.

Working from home is here to stay for many jobs and so there will be a need for more IT support for dispersed workforces in rural communities. Another example of a type of skills required in rural economies are engineers. Engineers are in high demand at the Environment Agency, along with lawyers and academics.

I work from home in a market town in Hertfordshire, which is where I spend about 80 per cent of my working time. I wonder if this great exodus from cities will mean people who used to live in Fulham who have moved to rural Yorkshire will now demand services they are used to like faster public transport links and easy access to modern conveniences.

In terms of why I think people should work in the countryside – if you have a look at IEMA’s Build Back Better document, there’s a really good section on more regional communities. It’s quite obvious that when you’re talking about sustainability, it’s generally focused on towns and cities, both in terms of the location of workers and the work being done. This sucks resources towards urban areas and not to the countryside, which creates a massive issue in terms of investment. Being able to live and work closer to your home community will make for a much more sustainable economy

Sarah Mukherjee (IEMA)
Sarah Mukherjee (IEMA)

When I worked at the BBC, this question about rural housing came up all the time. I spent so much time with rural councillors and they would point out hundreds of second homes in their local areas. Which is not sustainable for local communities. Choosing to live in the countryside and becoming part of those communities can help reduce pressure on more densely housed urban communities and can reduce the environmental impact of your own life. It will be really interesting to see how IEMA HQ’s carbon footprint changes following our own shift to working remotely.

If you’re interested in sustainability, whether it’s not a core part of your job or if you want to shift your whole career towards sustainability, then IEMA can offer you training opportunities to have light touch skills or deep dives into niche topics which cover your interests. Some people also appreciate being able to put letters after their name showing that they have achieved an IEMA member certification. It means becoming part of a supportive membership community and it gives you access to the latest policy guidance and access to decision makers.

I’d say we’re the best organisation for people looking to expand their skills and career prospects within the environment and sustainability sector. We’re almost on a daily basis being contacted by major organisations which are looking for people with environment and sustainability skills. There are even now some jobs which require you to be IEMA qualified. And all of these resources and opportunities from IEMA can open up jobs for you in the countryside.

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