Sustainability Hiring

Hiring for corporate sustainability: what skills are in demand?

SL Staff

As corporate sustainability strategies become more pressing in the face of incoming climate risks, companies face new challenges in their hiring practices to adjust to this reality

Whether it is designing green products, adopting sustainable procurement practices, or complying with emissions regulations, ESG considerations are leading to a spike in hiring for sustainability-related jobs. Businesses plan to double their sustainability team sizes over the next two years, according to Sustainability Leaders’ research.

Given the transformative impacts of climate change on business operations, how should companies approach hiring for sustainability roles? Here, we look at how the responsibilities of sustainability teams are changing, and what skills are in demand for professionals working in sustainability.

The rise of sustainability executives

The job responsibilities of corporate sustainability staff have changed considerably since these roles were popularised in the 2000s. In the past, most sustainability staff were part of small corporate social responsibility teams who often worked on projects such as decreasing the company’s energy use, instituting recycling schemes, and other tasks to make operations more environmentally conscious.

Now, as sustainability concerns become more central to core business practices, many companies are responding by creating senior sustainability positions, sometimes at the board level in the form of a chief sustainability officer (CSO). However, the CSO position is still new within businesses, with most organisations having only created it in the past four years, according to Sustainability Leaders’ research. The expectations and responsibilities of the role are therefore still developing and largely inconsistent across different companies.

Compared to previous generations of sustainability managers, companies generally task CSOs with larger responsibilities relating to core business operations. Most CSOs consider reconfiguring the company’s business model as their number one priority, followed by ensuring compliance and embedding sustainability KPIs across different functions, respectively.

Senior sustainability managers may also hold other responsibilities as varied as setting up ESG measurement and reporting standards, integrating sustainability with product development, setting environmentally-conscious procurement policies, and forecasting the impacts of potential climate risks on the business.

The skills in demand from sustainability professionals

CSOs and other sustainability professionals come from diverse educational and professional backgrounds compared to traditional executive positions. This is in large part because companies face different sustainability mandates depending on factors like industry, business model, and operational model.

Still, while there is no single set of skills and experiences that hiring managers demand from sustainability professionals, there is strong demand for soft skills. A recent Sustainability Leaders’ survey found that influencing skills play a critical role in sustainability professionals’ success, with 93% of companies highlighting this as “essential”. This is chiefly due to how important different functions and stakeholders around a business are for the execution of a sustainability strategy.

That is not to say that technical knowledge is unimportant – especially for companies directly involved in developing green products and technology. A survey by Pew Research found that in ‘new green economy jobs’, such as climate change analysts and biofuel production managers, skills relating to programming, science, mathematics, systems analysis, and systems evaluation are in high demand.

For ‘old green economy jobs’, like industrial engineers and hydrologists, employers seek proficiency in repairs, equipment maintenance, operation and control, troubleshooting, and equipment selection.

Clearly, many sustainability jobs demand advanced technical training, particularly in industries working with emerging green technologies.

Because of the range of responsibilities and skills demanded of sustainability professionals, outstanding candidates and senior executives often have dual backgrounds, gaining technical skills through education in environmental science and business knowledge through an MBA or industry experience.

Spreading sustainability skills throughout the organisation

While corporate sustainability roles are becoming more sophisticated, existing staff in other departments also need to be hired and trained with sustainability principles in mind.

A CSO, for example, might create structures for ESG reporting and secure investments for environmentally conscious R&D. But, it is still up to accountants to report on ESG metrics alongside traditional financial ones, and for engineers with strong technical skills to incorporate sustainability into their product design. Mid-career professionals in roles such as these may require professional development and training opportunities to upgrade their skills to the demands of the green economy.

Besides training, companies can promote sustainability principles across their organizations to engage employees on the importance of centering sustainability in day-to-day work. This includes by adding sustainability to the company’s mission statement and long-term purpose, incorporating sustainability metrics in employee evaluations, and adding a sustainability component to business case proposals.

Strategies such as these embed sustainability into daily business processes. Whereas one-off training workshops risk ineffectiveness as employees gradually revert to “business as usual”, building objective operational processes encourages employees from across the organisation to be mindful of sustainability on a regular basis.

As businesses confront the challenges of climate change, companies must adapt their hiring processes to recruit for new job profiles in sustainability. Beyond these new hires, however, companies can foster environmentally conscious workforces by embedding sustainability throughout their organisations.

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