The nature skills gap

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As the Countryside Jobs Service approaches its 30th anniversary, a looming skills gap threatens to hinder conservation efforts over the next 30 years. Chris Seekings reports.

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(Illia Vjestica/Unsplash)

In December 2022, the UK formally made a commitment to protect and conserve a minimum of 30% of land and sea for biodiversity by 2030, aligning with the 30x30 worldwide initiative.

This is going to be a herculean task, with last year’s State of Nature report revealing that one in six species are threatened with extinction in the UK and that the country’s wildlife is continuing to decline.

Agricultural intensification, plastic pollution, climate change, river damage and pesticides are among the five biggest culprits.

While each of these threats are being tackled by sustainability professionals to prevent further damage, responsibility for nature recovery will largely fall on National Parks, countryside sites, local authorities and conservation charities.

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(Shane Rounce/Unsplash)

“We simply cannot be complacent with words such as extinctions, ecological tipping points, and nature and climate emergencies,” said Michael Copleston, RSPB’s England director.

Michael continues “The difference we can make to help reverse the fortune of special wildlife or precious habitats is now urgently a matter of scale. Scale of effort. Scale of investment. Scale of action.”

A severe shortage

However, the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) bloom or bust? report has identified a “severe skills shortage in ecologists” as a barrier to achieving government targets for nature, specifically within local authorities.

Sustainability body IEMA also told the committee that it had “received reports from a major infrastructure organisation of a lack of capability and capacity to meet ecology and biodiversity requirements, especially in the context of biodiversity net gain”.

It added: “There is a risk that without investment in skills training now, there will be a nature skills – ecology, land management, species conservation – gap for new nature jobs that the economy needs for schemes such as Environmental Land Management, net gain, and the Nature Recovery Network.”

The UK’s Green Jobs Taskforce has since said that restoration of habitats will require significant expansion across conservation professionals, such as countryside rangers, forestry workers and horticultural tradespeople, but warned of a shortage in training opportunities.

Capacity is another major issue for the nature sector due to its reliance on charitable sources of income, with environmental organisation Groundwork telling the EAC that the need and appetite for new jobs outstrip the funding available.

“The Green Recovery Challenge Fund, for example, was oversubscribed with applications to create nature-based jobs,” it said. “Even after the available funding was doubled to £80m, it was not sufficient to meet the demand for entry level job creation in the sector. A strategic intervention is needed to meet the scale of the challenge.”

A wider issue

The biodiversity and climate change crises are inextricably linked, with nature able to absorb carbon, but also able to leak carbon from soils if habitats are degraded.

looking up at the sky through large conifer trees
(Casey Horner/Unsplash)

Indeed, as part of the UK’s legal requirement to deliver net-zero emissions, targets have been set to increase tree and woodland cover to 16.5% of total land area by 2050, and to halt the decline in species populations by 2030.

Unfortunately, the UK’s skills gap is being felt right across the net-zero economy, with around four million workers needing to be retrained by 2030 to support the transition, according to a report from consultancy Bain & Company published in January.

It warns that the country is not prepared to handle this "once-in-a-generation green reskilling gap", while professional services firm PwC has identified a green skills gap of 200,000 workers in the energy sector alone.

The net-zero economy is also missing out on an untapped pool of talent, with research by SOS-UK and IEMA finding that just 4.8% of environment professionals in the UK identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic, compared with a 12.6% average across all professions.

Furthermore, the Green Jobs Taskforce has found that students from ethnic minority groups make up fewer than 10% of enrolments in green courses such as geography, environmental conservation and environmental sciences, even though they represent 22% of higher education student bodies, and are more likely to desire a job that helps the environment.

The road ahead

The government had intended to publish a new Green Jobs Plan this summer, but has put this on hold following the announcement of a general election.

If we are to ensure a sufficiently skilled pipeline of workers to tackle the nature and climate crises simultaneously, the government needs to be more clear on its long-term aims for the environment and explicitly link policy announcements with the skills that will be required.

Higher education, training providers, professional bodies and recruiters have an important role to play, too, and must do more to plug skills gaps that exist across conservation and the broader green economy.

As we head to the polls, IEMA has published a set of policy asks for the next government, including a recommitment to the Green Jobs Plan, and establishment of a permanent cross-government body that takes a strategic approach to delivering green skills and jobs tied to long-term climate and environmental goals.

The Institute has also asked for the next government to support the development and utilisation of its Green Careers Hub – of which the Countryside Jobs Service supports – to help workers understand where they fit into the green economy of the future.

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IEMA CEO, Sarah Mukherjee MBE, explains: “There is a green skills gap looming, with demand for green skills growing nearly twice as fast as the growth in green talent.

“A cross-government body like a ‘Green Jobs Council’ can take the lead with a strategic approach to delivering the Green Jobs Plan and driving growth in green skills across the economy that is tied to our long-term climate and environmental goals.”

Chris Seekings is deputy editor of IEMA’s Transform magazine

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Posted On: 14/06/2024

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