The sustainability skills gap

The sustainability skills gap

Businesses worldwide – and especially here in Switzerland – are embracing sustainability but often struggle to find people with specialist skills. A modest proposal to help bridge that gap

By James Purcell

Sustainability is unquestionably in fashion, especially here in Switzerland. 

A driving force behind the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals, Switzerland is a widely seen as a model nation when it comes to urban sustainability, waste management, water-quality preservation, carbon capture and the protection of so-called “climate refugees.”

As someone based in Switzerland who manages sustainable investments for a living, I’m very happy to observe such trends. But I have a counterpoint concern to the embrace of sustainability worldwide and here at home: Do we have the skills to bring all these big ideas to life?

There’s certainly no shortage of companies seeking to upgrade their sustainability credentials. A cursory LinkedIn search shows 68,000 job openings under “sustainability.” While there are three times more openings listed under “banking,” that’s still 7,000 more than posted under “oil.” 

In Switzerland – where unemployment remains low and the job market tight – LinkedIn shows over 600 current sustainable job openings, while Glassdoor lists some 250 openings. According to PayScale, which provides salary benchmarks, a sustainability manager in Switzerland can expect to receive an average annual salary of about CHF 120,000.  

If sustainability were not so fashionable, you can bet that many of these jobs wouldn’t even exist. Consider that some 11 million people worldwide now work in the renewable energy sector, while Tesla, the current Nasdaq darling, today employs over 50,000 staff.

There is a boom in “socially conscious” jobs too, including roles like workplace counsellor, head of happiness and even Hollywood intimacy expert. #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are not just hugely important movements that seek to raise consciousness and create meaningful change; they are also generating increasingly viable career paths.

But where are the necessary skills to assume all these new roles? 

Most of today’s business leaders graduated 20-30 years ago, at a time when ExxonMobil was the world’s largest company by market capitalization. Given that top-tier universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard only established sustainability degree programs much more recently – and that institutions like sustainability-focused SUMAS here in Switzerland was born less than a decade ago – there is a significant skills gap, particularly at senior levels. 

The generation now beginning their freshman year at university (studying via Zoom or behind a mask) will pursue sustainability studies in greater numbers than at any time in the past. To bridge the current gap, however, more “conventional” employees must transition to roles focused on sustainability. 

That’s an area where I have some experience: I left behind a career running research on hedge funds, private equity and derivatives – often seen as the antithesis of sustainability – to focus on sustainable investing. I did that because I wanted to find greater meaning in my work, because the risk of changing paths would likely be rewarded down the line and, very importantly, because my managers supported me. 

Today, I receive a large number of CVs from interesting people with lots of financial services experience – but typically little direct exposure to sustainability. Those who stand out from the crowd tend to have taken a personal leap of faith by pursuing executive education courses on sustainability topics. 

Their example is admirable. We need to help others without specialist education or experience by making relevant training courses much more widely available. Such courses should be relatively short and include substantial practitioner-led content.

With sustainability very much in vogue and with a significant skills gap, business leaders and job candidates can add significant value by combining their unique industry experience with relevant training courses. As fashion legend Coco Chanel once said: “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.”

James Purcell, Group Head ESG, Quintet Private Bank
About the author
James Purcell serves as Group Head of Sustainable Investment at Quintet Private Bank, which is a signatory to the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment and a member of Climate Action 100+.
For marketing and information purposes by Quintet Private Bank (Switzerland) Ltd. The statements and views expressed in this document are those of the author as of the date of this article and are subject to change. This article is also of a general nature and does not constitute legal, accounting, tax or investment advice. All investors should keep in mind that past performance is no indication of future performance, and that the value of investments may go up or down. Changes in exchange rates may also cause the value of underlying investments to go up or down.