The future of education is green

At the start of EU Green Week, the ETF takes a look at how the green transition is shaping the future of education and training.

Climate change, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity are amongst the major global challenges of the 21st century. Addressing these issues has become a worldwide policy priority, inspiring the EU’s Green Deal. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, the imperative to switch towards a more sustainable growth model is seen as an opportunity to build back better. The employment potential of the switch to green is immense. The ILO estimates that it could create around 25 million new jobs worldwide by 2030.

But what are these new jobs? What skills do they require? And what does this mean for the future of education? We ask experts from three organisations that are looking into these issues: Anastasia Fetsi, Lead Human Capital Development Expert at the European Training Foundation, coordinating work on skills for the green transition; Joanna Napierala, Expert at the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) and member of the skills trends and intelligence team; and Olga Strietska-Ilina, Senior Skills and Employability Specialist at the International Labour Organization (ILO), leading on skills strategies for future labour markets.

“Green skills can be a misleading concept” says Anastasia Fetsi. “At the end of the day, skills do not have a colour.” What the ETF’s work on changing skills demand shows is that the skill sets people need to apply new more sustainable eco-friendly technologies are very different from those needed in the past. This applies not only to technical skills, but also to non-technical skills: the soft skills people need to function in new workplaces. For example, modern high-tech processes typically deploy a range of specialist technologies – remote sensing, image processing, robotics, artificial intelligence, big data analysis – applied to real-world contexts. This requires a much more collaborative attitude, including systems thinking and the capacity to communicate and work together with specialists from different disciplines. These are the so-called T-shaped profiles: people who combine in-depth knowledge in one field with broad knowledge and ability to collaborate across multiple disciplines. “These are the things we found out from our studies of the agrifood sector in Morocco, of the agritech industry in Israel, and the automotive sector in Turkey” says Fetsi.

 In the ETF’s partner countries, response to these emerging skills needs is largely bottom-up. “At the moment, the bulk of the practice we see for skills development in these new areas is at the initiative of training providers who see new needs and opportunities, or of companies on their own or in cooperation with training providers” says Fetsi. Gradually, countries are modernising their qualifications, in particular in the sectors that are more exposed to change, but the process is slow.

Fetsi highlights the transversal nature of the skills needed for the green transition. “There is another area which is important in building the capacities of people to contribute and benefit from the green transition. It is about environmental awareness or environmental literacy” she says. In the ETF’s partner countries, there are many initiatives to inform and activate people through formal and non-formal education and training programmes. For example, one of the finalists for the ETF’s green skills award is a Turkish school where students are developing software to measure their own carbon footprint, learning vital digital skills and environmental awareness at the same time.

Research by the International Labour Organization in cooperation with Cedefop conducted initially in 2011 and updated in 2018/19 points to the net creation of around 25 million new jobs by 2030 linked to the transition to renewable energy and the circular economy. Behind these estimates lies a more complex picture of job creation and job destruction with a huge number of people requiring varying degrees of reskilling to adapt to the new economic reality. The report concludes that “the transition to environmentally sustainable and inclusive economies and societies cannot take place if the skills demanded by new jobs are not available in the labour market. The transition is therefore conditional on investment in training to develop skills to meet new requirements and avoid skills mismatches.”

“We were able to draw some conclusions in terms of the skills that would be needed, and the different types of skills.” says Olga Strietska-Ilina, who led the research at the ILO. “In order to be successful in this just transition, people need a combination of foundation or basic skills, soft or core skills and technical skills. Of course, nowadays, basic skills go beyond numeracy and literacy. They include digital literacy and environmental literacy as well.”

In Strietska-Ilina’s view, foundation skills are vital for lifelong learning. “If people don’t have them, it is very difficult to retrain them” she says. Another important element are core skills or soft skills such as innovation, communication, consumer advice and system thinking. At the same time the Covid-19 crisis is placing increasing demand on people’s adaptability and resilience. “Skills now becoming even more important are strategic and leadership skills” says Strietska-Ilina. “Because we are really dependent on the leaders. This is what we saw so clearly from the report, the whole policy can be dismantled if you don't have leaders that are sensitive to climate change issues.”

“What we are seeing in our previous research” says Joanna Napierala of Cedefop “is that the green transition does not really require that much in the way of new skills. It's more about new ways of thinking, about people’s attitudes and motivation. People use the same types of skills but are applying them to different solutions.”

Research conducted by Cedefop in cooperation with the ILO shows that so-called green skills comprise very specific knowledge within each sector, plus transversal skills. “We are creative, we are innovative, we have problem solving skills” says Napierala. “It's about thinking in a more sustainable way and incorporating the knowledge we have into designing solutions to the problems of the green transition.”

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centres (JRC) are working on a sustainability competence framework. “I think what JRC wants to achieve” says Napierala “is to reach out to the secondary level or even primary level education, so that sustainability competences are taught to everyone from the very, very beginning through lifelong learning.”

“Of course, this green transition is not happening in a vacuum. It's happening together with other megatrends shaping the labour market, such as automation, robotisation and the use of artificial intelligence” she says. This implies a need for upskilling and reskilling across the board, especially in the area of digital skills. “All the occupations that will be created in the future will require advanced digital skills no matter if they are green or not” says Napierala. “But the green transition means as well that we will use more and more technology because that’s what helps us to find solutions to problems.”

If we're looking at the bigger picture” says Anastasia Fetsi of the ETF “the impact is going to affect different sectors and different industries differently.” She points out that the automotive sector will still be there and still producing cars, but using very different technologies. This will have an impact on the whole lifecycle of vehicles, including repair and disposal. Other industries, such as coal mining, hydrocarbon extraction and processing are likely to disappear completely.

“The question is how to to address this situation” say Fetsi. “And this is not only about people as individuals, but whole communities, cities, that really depend on carbon intensive industries.” She stresses the importance of regional development and enterprise promotion actions combined with reskilling and upskilling to help people develop their skills and innovation capacities, especially young people.

 “I think the way to go is really to create incentives to make people interested interested in getting retrained and remaining active In the labour market” says Olga Strietska-Ilina. “But there is a hole in the financing side of the story.” She advocates a combination of funding from governments, employers and individuals, and finding more innovative ways to provide access, not linked to employment status.

Our three experts had three different messages for the countries of the EU neighbourhood where the ETF is actively supporting the reform of education and training systems.

“I would recommend to invest in good skills intelligence systems” says Joanna Napierala. “If you know what are the skills needed in the region, you can design the upskilling or reskilling pathways to bring people into new occupations.”

“One piece of advice would be really to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve” says Olga Strietska-Ilina.  “And then you can discuss with all the stakeholders involved, including the private sector, workers, education and training providers on how to achieve it.”

 Anastasia Fetsi does not hesitate. “Building lifelong learning systems” she says. “We should see this transition in its time perspective. It is not just once that people have to be retrained, they have to permanently develop their skills and potential for the foreseeable future.”

Fetsi is optimistic about the potential of the green transition to usher in more inclusive models of development. “I'm talking about new systems, new ways of thinking about how we grow as societies” she says. “If it is a model that is based more on consultation and collaboration and inclusiveness, and less inequalities, is that utopic? Maybe, but if we take it as such, we will never reach it."

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