Opinion: The sustainability skills gap

James Purcell is group head of sustainable investment at Quintet Private Bank Quintet Private Bank

James Purcell is group head of sustainable investment at Quintet Private Bank Quintet Private Bank

Businesses worldwide are embracing sustainability, but often struggle to find people with specialist skills. James Purcell of Quintet Private Bank puts forward a modest proposal to help bridge that gap.

A record €60bn flowed into sustainable investments in the second quarter of 2020, the European Union is now pushing to enshrine into law climate neutrality by 2050 for all member states, and US presidential candidate Joe Biden has unveiled an ambitious multi-trillion-dollar plan to combat climate change. And, speaking of fashion, the global ethical clothing market is expected to be valued at more than €8bn by 2023.

As someone who manages sustainable investments for a living, I’m very happy to observe such trends. But I have a counterpoint concern to the worldwide embrace of sustainability: Do we have the skills to bring 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.”

If sustainability were not so fashionable, you can bet that many of these jobs wouldn’t even exist. Consider that some 11m people worldwide now work in the renewable energy sector, while Tesla, the current Nasdaq darling, now 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 capitalisation. Given that top-tier universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard only established sustainability degree programs much more recently, 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 is group head of sustainable investment at Quintet Private Bank