What skills does a sustainable Asia need?

As climate change and reducing emissions climb to the top of the policy agenda, what type of jobs and opportunities will this lead to, and how can Asia ensure it has the right skills?

As governments and private sector companies across the world increasingly seek to address the international challenge of climate change, this will have a big impact on the type of jobs available and skills that will be required of the global workforce, says the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

This global shift to a more sustainable economy is likely to give rise to a wave of ‘green jobs’, says the United Nations agency, which defines this as jobs which help protect ecosystems and biodiversity, reduce the use of energy, raw materials and water, and help reduce waste.

Work which focuses on these sustainable outcomes not only has the potential to help the world avoid dangerous climate change, but can also create enough jobs to provide decent work and dignity to people who may currently be excluded from economic and social development, according to a 2008 UNEP report on green jobs. 

For example, in 2008, the renewable energy sector provided 2.3 million jobs worlwide and this is set to increase to 20 million jobs by 2030.

Similarly, as the global building sector transitions to more energy efficient practices, it could create 10 million opportunities, and help 110 million current employees switch to green roles.

The creation of these jobs is likely to be driven by increasing investment in areas such as renewable power, energy efficiency, and sustainable infrastructure, among others. 

But the ILO notes that, alarmingly, the “lack of relevant skills may turn out to be a bottleneck in the greening of economies”.

Instances of this “skills gap” between the workforce and industry needs highlighted in UNEP’s report include the lack of qualified employees in Germany’s renewables sector, inadequate technical specialists, designers, engineers, and electricians in Britain, and a lack of highly skilled construction workers reported in Asia Pacific countries like Australia and China.  

The latter two countries, along with many others in the region, have already made voluntary commitments to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, a pledge which will require a transition to a low-carbon and sustainable economy to fulfill, says ILO.

To address the skills gap to meet sustainability challenges in the region, Ricoh Asia Pacific, IBM and World Environment Centre (WEC) will be holding a roundtable on June 5 which will convene 70 thought leaders from Singapore’s business, government, non-profit and academic sectors. 

These experts will share their expertise in technical areas such as data analytics, air quality and climate change, as well as views on management strategy and partnership development.

Titled ‘Critical skills for implementing sustainability grand challenges in the Asia/Pacific region‘, the session will  develop specific recommendations for cultivating these skills and shed light on new partnership opportunities that will help the region thrive in the future, said the organisers. 

Terry Yosie, president and chief executive of sustainability non-profit WEC, tells Eco-Business that the rise of a green economy brings about a change in the skill profile workers are expected to have, which in turn intensifies global competition for talent.

To come out tops in this rush for competent workers, “companies need to think more strategically about managing their talent pipeline and retaining existing core skills”, he says.

Headquartered in Washington DC, WEC works with corporate, government, academic, and non-profit sectors to create sustainable business solutions.

The type of skills that companies look for in employees is heavily influenced by the fact that trends such as climate change and resource scarcity increasingly pose very tangible risks to businesses, says Yosie. This is changing how companies evaluate risks and identify new opportunities through product and service innovations, he adds. 

Governments should continue to invest in pre-commercial research and development, investors should allocate capital to achieve market scale innovations and educators must integrate the latest thinking on sustainability business strategy into the curricula of business, engineering and other schools.

Terry Yosie, president and chief executive officer, World Environment Center

This will lead to demand for professional skills in areas such as systems thinking, resilience, partnership development, the development of new financial metrics, and sustainability-linked innovation models, he notes.

Ike Kakegawa, advisor of environmental sustainability, business solutions group at Japanese electronics multinational Ricoh, adds that in addition to building internal competencies, companies also need their employees to be able to communicate effectively with customers and the public about sustainability efforts and their value to society.

The company, which boasts a slew of corporate citizenship initiatives such as having their own biodiversity policy and environmental principles, recently unveiled a new slogan to reflect its commitment to responsible growth: “Driving sustainability for our future”.

“This reflects Ricoh’s commitment to helping create a sustainable society and providing new value through our business operations,” says Kakegawa.

Sustainability skills in the classroom

A key step to ensuring that businesses have access to employees with the right skills is to help nurture them in students, says Yosie.

“Businesses will need to engage students about sustainable business solutions while they are still in the classroom,” he notes. 

Educators agree. Ishtiaq Pasha Mahmood, associate professor of strategy and policy at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) business school and a moderator at the upcoming roundtable, says that the school “recognises the need to educate and groom future leaders who are aware and passionate about sustainability”.

This is done through a range of strategies that expose students to sustainability principles in academic and professional settings, he says.

On top of coursework, NUS encourages students to embark on internships and field service projects. A management communication camp for students also helps students learn important soft skills for a green economy, such as perception management.

Furthermore, the university works with companies such as financial giants Temasek and Goldman Sachs, and Carbon War Room - a sustainability advisory firm founded by British billionaire Richard Branson - to provide students with exposure to how sustainability works in a corporate setting.  

Such collaborations are essential to creating good jobs in a low carbon economy, says Yosie.

“Governments should continue to invest in pre-commercial research and development, investors should allocate capital to achieve market scale innovations and educators must integrate the latest thinking on sustainability business strategy into the curricula of business, engineering and other schools,” he says.

Even as companies, governments and educators all over the world prepare their industries and education systems for sustainable future, it is especially important that Asia Pacific countries do so, says Kakegawa.

“With its rapidly growing population, expanding cities, and booming economy, the region is at the heart of the global effort to transition to a green economy”, he explains.

“Not only does the region need to develop new skills and business models to balance its economic and population growth with environmental aims, doing so will also bring new opportunities for wealth creation and better livelihoods to the region,” he says.


The Critical Skills for Implementing Sustainability in the Asia/Pacific Region roundtable will be held on 5 June at Mapletree Business City, Singapore. Those interested to attend can RSVP to info@ecoaction.sg

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