May 7, 2021

Closing the skills gap: Trends that are changing the world of work

And the role of vocational education and training in providing the skills workers need
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Lead of Editorial
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Esther Goodwin Brown
Circular Jobs Initiative Lead

Three major trends—greening economies, digitalisation and longer working lives—have been moulding the shape of our labour markets for years already, and now, compounded by the pandemic, their impacts are accelerating. As governments and businesses race to green their economies and put in place green recovery plans, circular economy strategies and policies are being brought into play, leading to new ways of working and the need for new combinations of skills. 

Skills development is now recognised as essential for achieving the employment and innovation potential of the circular economy. The risk of not investing in skills development is too great: without it, investment in circular strategies and green recovery plans will fail to translate into employment opportunities and will see us fall short of our national and international environmental targets. Without investing in education and training we also risk not supporting labour market mobility and resilience. It can also lead to a mismatch between the skills workers have now and the skills they will need to thrive in an economy fit for the future. This is the skills gap—and we need to close it. 

Skills development to support a just and resilient recovery and to deliver on the ambitions of green and digital transitions is precisely the focus of the 2020-launched European Commission Pact for Skills. Circle Economy has signed the Pact to show its commitment to action on upskilling both our own people and through our work raising awareness of the skills people working in the circular economy need in Europe and beyond.

This article considers these trends, which increase the demand for vocational skills, and explores the role vocational education and training (VET)  offers for closing the skills gap. As posited in our latest publication, Closing the skills gap: vocational education and training for the circular economy, VET can help to drive skills development for the circular economy when underpinned by effective policies, funding, leadership and the participation of a range of stakeholders from industry, government, research and education, and civil society. 

What is VET? Source: Closing the skills gap: vocational education and training for the circular economy. 

Trend one: Greening economies

In greening their economies, countries around the world are trying to reduce resource scarcity, protect livelihoods and tackle climate change. As new policies, programmes and strategies are rolled out to realise these ambitions new green occupations emerge—with some even estimating that greener economies could deliver 24 million new jobs by 2030.  

In the US, Biden’s green infrastructure plan, for example, is projected to cost around 130,000 jobs in the oil, coal and gas industries. The plan, however, accounts for ensuring a just transition for the workers who’ve lost out by devoting US$16 billion to helping retrain and employ these fossil fuel workers in  activities needed to plug orphan oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned coal mines. Meanwhile, the pandemic has encouraged Pakistan to speed up its five-year plan campaign to plant 10 billion trees. This has doubled the available work opportunities for locals in 2020; providing a life-line to those who were hard-hit by the health crisis.

As governments and businesses embark on greening their economies, utilising circular strategies will be paramount. The Circularity Gap Report 2021 highlights how a focus on clean energy alone is not sufficient to mitigate climate breakdown. Circular economy strategies that go beyond a narrow focus on energy use, and that promote efficient resource use, can cut 39% of global emissions and keep us on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The movement towards greener, more circular and equitable economies comes hand in hand with a decline in capital-intensive and extractive industries and an increase in labour-intensive circular processes such as reuse, refurbishment and repair, as well as automatisation of other parts of the labour market.

VET developing skills for a green transition

Maximising the useful lifetime of a resource is central to a circular economy. One way to do this is through smart waste and resource management. A key way to encourage workers to develop a career in resource management can be through apprenticeships and making training on the necessary technical skills available. 

The Scottish Waste Industry Training, Competency, Health & Safety (SWITCH) forum, developed a Competence Framework Tool (2017) for managers, supervisors and team leaders within the resource management sector. It can be used to assess staff against a range of specific competences and skills applicable to their roles and build career pathways. With a clear map of the skills needed to drive the resource management sector, VET providers in Scotland have been able to tailor their offers. For example, the Sustainable Resource Management modern apprenticeship (MA) offered by Albion Environmental trains frontline services operatives, collection operatives, site operatives, weighbridge operatives, collection drivers and team leaders. Read more on this case study in Closing the skills gap: vocational education and training for the circular economy. 

Caption: Photo by Alfonso Navarro on Unsplash

Trend two: Rapid digitalisation of industries 

The world has been rapidly digitalising for some time, but covid-19 has seen digital shifts that would normally take years occur in a matter of months. We’ve been pushed over the ‘technology tipping point’, with companies especially responding to digital demands (such as a drastic move from the office to working from home) 20 to 25 times faster than expected, according to recent estimates.

Aside from our daily experiences of zoom calls with colleagues and family, digitalisation comes with increasing advances in technology to enhance resource- and energy-efficient practices that can support the circular economy transition. The rapid adoption of these technologies by industries is making basic digital skills, lifelong learning and access to continuous training more important than ever.

A key sector with an increasing number of digital tools informing its practices is construction. Current traditional construction jobs are expected to transform to accommodate the use of secondary materials and the digitalisation that comes with the territory. Building Information Management (BIM) systems, 3D printing, blockchain, robotics, machine learning, drones, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) are all increasingly being applied. Many of the drivers for the uptake of digital here are also sustainable: globally, the construction sector accounts for 28% of global emissions.

VET developing skills for a digitaland circularconstruction sector

The Netherlands has set the ambitious goal of full circularity by 2050. To bring this goal within reach, the transition agenda has noted how educational institutions will need to develop and share new knowledge and skills to deliver on targets set for the construction sector. The Circular Skills Programme, created by sustainable education cooperative Leren voor Morgen works to bridge the gap between vocational education and professional practice in the circular economy, such as in construction. 

Skills in digitalisation are key, highlights Leren voor Morgen, for the future construction workforce. Current skills gaps exist in relation to, for example: BIM, 3D printing components and the use of material passports to support the construction of adaptive, modular and remountable buildings; tracking and tracing technology such as Radio-Frequency Identification(RFID), to support reusing resources and products at the highest level. Skilling for these components can be delivered through vocational training programmes; an example of this in practice is TIP Circulair, run by Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. To support the retention of young people coming into the industry and maximise the potential for innovation through knowledge exchange, leading professionals and engineers from the TIP community are paired with young interns and apprentices working within construction and installation companies. Read more on this case study in Closing the skills gap: vocational education and training for the circular economy

New knowledge and skills need to be shared with workers to achieve the environmental targets set for the construction sector. Photo by Callum Hill on Unsplash

Trend three: Living and working for longer

People around the world are living and working longer. When embraced, longer working lives can encourage new models of education oriented towards lifelong learning that allow workers to re- and upskill throughout their working lives. Older workers can also offer a depth of knowledge to the economy and society, as well as be a vital resource as working-age populations decrease; we should make the most of this. 

Older worker’s skills are particularly relevant as industries shift and governments green their economies. Here, the deep expertise and legacy skills held by older workers should also be seen as a key asset. Workers with longstanding experience in industries will be well placed to explore new avenues for those industries to be more resource-efficient and resilient, as well as teach new entrants foundational skills that can be combined with new skills. A well-structured system for knowledge transfer as a human resources instrument is an important prerequisite for this. Managers are key for supporting knowledge exchange and the application of legacy skills. 

Transferring skills of older works through VET 

A handful of companies are encouraging this knowledge sharing. Boston Scientific, in Ireland, offers an Informal Mentoring Toolkit to all employees; they can access coaching courses around the world and during an annual event, young professionals can discuss their career pathway with  experienced colleagues. Workers’ approaching retirement are encouraged to proactively contribute to nurturing this network. 

EU policy has also been active in sharing good practice of VET for re- and upskilling and providing learning to workers later in life across the EU. Cedefop supports the development of VET policy and its implementation through the provision of research, analyses and information on VET systems, policies and practices, skill needs and demands in the EU. Meanwhile, the European Training Foundation supports countries around the EU to reform their education and training systems. Moreover, the EC and ILO (2011) discuss how the skills of workers displaced from the traditional construction sector may successfully be leveraged in ‘green building’, provided that appropriate retraining programmes are established.

Higher education institutions such as Universities are also exploring models of intergenerational learning. The European University’s Continuing Education Network (EUCEN) has launched ADD LIFE, a project that explores different models of collaborative learning between older and younger learners. The University of Graz, a participant in the project, launched workshops that dived into the topic of sustainable development for students and participants from the community (namely, experts and retired persons from the profession field). The University also launched a workshop dedicated to older managers or professionals (already retired or just about to retire) seeking future fields of activity such as mentoring.

Older workers can also offer a depth of knowledge to the economy and society, as well as be a vital resource as working-age populations decrease. Photo by BBH Singapore on Unsplash

To close the skills gap, lets update how we educate 

This article has demonstrated the changing landscape of the labour market and its impact on the already present skills gap. Education and training programmes must evolve rapidly to keep pace with these changes as the demand for different types of jobs and skills grow.

Currently, the skills needed for the circular economy are nested in courses across disciplines and curricula, from business administration, to logistics, agriculture and food sciences, as well as within informal learning. Some education providers, mostly within higher education, do provide learning offerings that explicitly reference circular strategies—yet most of these offerings occur in the context of sustainability studies, engineering and business.

However, teaching the skills and mindsets needed to reduce waste, close material cycles and address issues from climate change and biodiversity loss to social cohesion—whether they are badged as contributing to the circular economy or not—are not the norm. There also continues to be a stigma surrounding VET and vocational professions—as opposed to other routes such as higher academic education. 

As argued in our latest publication, with high quality teaching and learning at its core, VET can help to drive skills development for the circular economy when underpinned by effective policies, funding, leadership and the participation of a range of stakeholders from industry, government, research and education, and civil society. 

Circle Economy’s Circular Jobs Initiative

The Circular Jobs Initiative (CJI) defines and identifies circular jobs, analyses the environment needed to create them and maximise their societal benefits, and examines how best technology can play a positive part.

They work with employers, workers, governments, multilateral organisations, education institutions and research organisations.

Their latest report lays out why vocational and educational training (VET) is a key mechanism to secure a skilled workforce that can thrive in the circular economy. It provides recommendations for governments, educators, industry and civil society, illustrating how VET can help us build circular capacities, leverage existing skill sets and diversify.


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