Chris Bowden, MD, Squeaky
5 minute read
Do sustainability and energy professionals have the expertise to deliver on the net zero challenge?
The corporate commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050 has led to a surge in demand for a very specific set of skills.
It’s no secret that to create a sustainable business, you need the right people with the right expertise to get you there.
In other words, you need people who really understand what it takes to get to net zero, not just people who think it’s a nice thing to do.
However, recent findings show that the nation’s pool of sustainability professionals has failed to develop at the same pace as the climate agenda.
Which raises this important question:
Does corporate UK have the right people, with the right skills, to meet net zero goals?
To find out, we questioned 250 sustainability and energy managers from FTSE 250 companies.
Specifically, we asked about a number of different factors (including how long they’ve worked in their role, training, and the type of support they get from seniors) to understand more.
We learned a lot about who is leading the charge on climate change at Britain’s biggest businesses.
Let’s get into the data.
Here’s a quick summary of our key findings polling sustainability and energy managers:
- Few sustainability and energy managers have more than 10 years’ experience in their role
- 8% have less than two years’ industry experience
- The majority of professionals have undertaken some form of formal training
- A third feel they need more training in order to fulfil their role
- Expertise is lacking in core areas of the environmental agenda
- A third are required to learn their role on the job
- 27% feel out of depth in their role
- The role of sustainability or energy manager is not always taken seriously by senior management
- There is confusion over who has overall responsibility to deliver the environmental agenda
- 37% think they need to be given more responsibility
Few sustainability and energy managers have more than 10 years’ experience in their role
First, we wanted to gain an understanding of how long sustainability and energy managers have worked in their role.
Not just at the company they work at now, but how long they have been doing this type of work at other companies too.
Here’s what we found:
On average, sustainability and energy managers have practised their role for six years.
In fact, a quarter of respondents said they have practised their role for five-to-ten years, 30% have done the same for four-to-five years. And 21% said they have been in their role for two-to-three years.
Whilst only 16% of those we asked said they have been practising their craft in sustainability or energy management for more than 10 years.
The net zero agenda is in its infancy, so it may come as little surprise to you that very few have clocked-up more than a decade in their position.
8% have less than two years’ industry experience
We found that a number of sustainability and energy managers have worked for less than two years in their role.
In fact, 4% said they have practised their role for one to two years, 3% for six months to a year and 1% for less than six months.
Whilst no one can question the talent and enthusiasm of an individual, it could be argued that performance and knowledge is the product of years of deliberate practice and training.
Let’s not forget, these individuals are responsible for getting the UK’s biggest companies to net zero.
The majority of professionals have undertaken some form of formal training
Next, we wanted to understand the kind of training sustainability and energy managers have undertaken for their role.
Here are our findings:
First, 41% said they have studied a Bachelor’s degree at university in a subject related to sustainability.
And, over half (52%) said they have studied a Masters degree at university in a subject related to sustainability.
Second, 14% said they have studied a PhD in a subject related to sustainability.
Third, over a third (34%) said they have completed an online course from the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS).
And 24% said they have completed a course outside of the ICRS.
Finally, 9% have learnt about their role via informal training.
For example, they have done their own background reading in the subject.
A third feel they need more training in order to fulfil their role
Then, we wanted to find out what sustainability and energy managers would like to change about their role.
Specifically, we were keen to understand how employers might better support those who have been tasked with reaching net zero.
Interestingly, we discovered that many of the respondents feel they need, or would like, more training.
In fact, more than a third said they would like more formal sustainability training in order to fulfil their role.
Expertise is lacking in core areas of the environmental agenda
Interestingly, we found that many sustainability and energy managers are fully trained in one aspect of their role, but other parts were new to them.
For example, 29% of respondents said they are fully trained in sustainability but procuring electricity is new to them.
Whereas 22% said they are fully trained in the procurement of electricity, but the environmental aspects are new to them.
These findings could suggest that employers do not understand the skill set required to get to net zero carbon emissions.
Whilst this also shows a worrying skills gap in areas that are critical to the climate challenge.
For example, how to procure 100% clean energy.
Which brings us onto our next point…
A third of sustainability and energy managers are required to learn their role on the job
Next, we found that a number of sustainability and energy managers have been transferred from another department within the business, such as HR or finance.
As a result they are required to learn this business critical role on the job.
In fact, a third of respondents we questioned said they are in this position.
Undoubtedly, sustainability has become a key consideration for the HR and finance function.
For example, sustainability work requires alignment with HR and financial priorities such as ESG reporting, investor relations, capital management, recruitment and retention.
However, appointing a sustainability or energy manager without the expertise (or indeed the learning and development plan to equip them) could be catastrophic.
Indeed, viewing sustainability as a tick box exercise could be fatal for an organisation.
27% feel out of depth in the role
It is at this point we discovered that a number of sustainability and energy managers feel the role is beyond them.
In truth, 27% of those we questioned said they feel out of their depth in their role.
This is alarming given the importance of their position.
Role is not always taken seriously by senior management
When it comes to fulfilling their role, do sustainability and energy managers feel that the management team is behind them?
Interestingly, we found that a worrying amount of respondents do not feel senior management gives them support.
Here’s what we found:
26% of respondents said they don’t feel their role is taken seriously enough by senior management.
And, 25% of respondents said they don’t feel they get enough support from their superiors.
At first, this may come as a surprise.
Afterall, tackling climate change is one of the biggest and most important challenges of our time.
However, it is no secret that some leaders have long treated matters relating to climate as a secondary thought.
There is confusion over who has overall responsibility to deliver the environmental agenda
Our final step was to drill down into the ownership of the environmental agenda.
In other words, we wanted to understand who sustainability and energy managers believe has the overall responsibility to deliver the environmental agenda.
Here’s what we found:
Interestingly, we uncovered a varied understanding of whose responsibility it is to deliver the environmental agenda.
For example, 34% of respondents said the CEO is responsible. Whilst 33% said the Board has the responsibility.
Whereas a quarter believe the responsibility to deliver the environmental agenda sits with them and their team.
37% think they need to be given more responsibility
Next, we questioned sustainability and energy managers on whether they feel they are given the accountability to implement what’s needed to reach the company’s environmental goal.
First, 37% of respondents said they don’t think they have enough responsibility and their level of responsibility needs to increase.
Which could be cause for concern. It suggests that senior management may not be committed to reaching, or implementing what’s needed to reach, the organisation’s environmental goal.
Second, and on the contrary, 22% of respondents said they feel they have too much responsibility and their level of responsibility needs to decrease.
This is understandable when we consider our earlier finding that 27% of sustainability and energy managers at FTSE 250 companies feel out of their depth.
On the one hand it is encouraging to see corporations commit to cut emissions following COP26.
On the other hand, our findings have revealed that many may not have sustainability and energy professionals that are equipped with the skillset to deliver.
There’s no denying - net zero and emission reduction is a big beast to tackle.
Radical measures are needed and science-based targets must be set.
But, most importantly, companies need people with the intelligence and know-how to deliver. Without that, there is a very real risk to the business.
To read our full research findings, download the report: