Glass globe on green grass

Greening training, and training greening

If the world appears, belatedly, to have woken up to the urgent need for a green transition, there’s still a wilful ignorance about one of the most vital ingredients for how to get there: the actual skill set. A green deal without green training, know-how and expertise will remain forever a fantasy, which is why the ETF has pioneered a programme to incubate, nurture and share green skills for the green transition.

GRETA – the acronym is a tribute to the Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg – stands for ‘Greening Responses To Excellence through Thematic Actions’. Some 18 Centres of Vocational Excellence, from eight different countries, are involved in the project and the fact that eight of the participants are from Ukraine makes the project not only about ecological, but also, in some ways, about existential resilience.

The lead on the GRETA project is Susanne Nielsen, an ETF green skills expert, and Country Liaison Officer for Ukraine.

'The green transition is a structural change moving from a carbon-based economy to a more sustainable economy ,' says Nielsen. 'It involves how our food is produced, the buildings we live in, how we commute, what we produce and the materials used, the jobs we perform. The aim of this change is the reduction of CO2 emissions.'

Digitalisation can play a key role in the green transition. According to the World Economic Forum, digital technologies could reduce emissions by 20% by 2025 in the high emission sectors of energy, materials and mobility and is important to ensure the skills required for transforming the business processes in these sectors as well as in other industries. But the trouble, according to Nielsen, is that:

'Technological change is running so fast that institutional frameworks and skills development can’t match it. Furthermore, we often see ambitious sustainable growth plans and energy transition strategies, with limited consideration on where the skills are going to come from.'

Vocational education and training partnerships implemented in the frame of the ETF's global Network for Excellence project support the greening of vocational education and training through a whole-institution approach. The partnership allows centres of vocational excellence to learn from each other about greening practices, sustainable solutions and the technological knowledge necessary for future training programmes. Tamar Zakarashvili, Director of Construct 2 college in Georgia, talks about their new training project for the installation of plastic and aluminium windows and doors for better insulation. There are new generation building materials too:

'We’re learning about energy effective materials like Ytong blocks. We started using this material because it is energy effective and very light. It makes labour easier than it used to be before when bricks were very heavy…'

But whilst technical skills are important,  GRETA is also a forum for transversal skills. According to Nielsen, the former are more mechanistic, about the adaptation or implementation of 'standards, processes, services, products and technologies to protect ecosystems and biodiversity, and to reduce energy, materials and water consumption'. But there’s a more holistic aspect to the sustainable transition that is about 'the mindset, the attitudes and the values'.

That, perhaps, is why the top-down educational model is sometimes inverted in sustainable learning: digital natives who have never known anything other than the climate emergency can be more in-tune with the necessary mindset than some of their teachers.

'They’re the engines of the future,' says Nielsen. 'But we're extremely privileged to be working with schools and to see so many examples of greening initiatives led by engaging teachers and students.'

The flip-side of that is one of the fundamental issues of the green transition in an educational context: given the unknown terrain – with constant innovation, invention and trial-by-error solutions, 'international surveys show that a large portion of teachers lack the new green knowledge,' says Nielsen, 'so it’s imperative that we have continuing, green, professional development for teachers.'

Hence GRETA’s emphasis on peer learning and the humble acceptance of counsel from all quarters. There have been, so far, five thematic sessions of the GRETA pioneers, with a sixth and final gathering planned for April. In the most recent meeting, Karolina Sikala, from Denmark’s Green Academy, spoke eloquently of the need 'to listen to each other, to know what our needs are and not only hear one side. We are different, with different needs, but it’s about collaborating to make the change.' It is often assumed that the climate crisis will increase conflict but it can also, as GRETA demonstrates, accelerate collaboration and what Sikala calls 'the common foundation'.

But as well as bottom-up peer-learning, many involved in the greening of vocational training emphasise the importance of top-down directives. As Stefan Thomas, ETF Senior Human Capital Development Expert and part of the ETF team working on human capital developments in Africa, says:

'We definitely see that there needs to be a strong will from the training centre itself or from central government. We’ve seen that countries like Morocco or Singapore have enacted effective strategies to transform their countries.'

Morocco, for example, has initiated an ambitious National Energy Strategy which aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 42% by 2030. It intends to meet this target by reducing energy consumption by 15% and by generating 52% of the remaining energy needs from renewables (20% wind, 20% solar, and 12% hydro). Other countries, like Denmark, have signed off on similarly daring plans, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions within the farming industry by 65% by 2030. Countries with such explicit destinations are obviously creating new training road-maps, with national energy policies driving education in new directions.

Many vocational education and training providers involved in GRETA talk about 'alignment', about the need for regional development authorities, business associations, vocational colleges and various stakeholders to work together, to align skills needs in a region with skills training and offerings.

But the key alignment, according to Thomas, is having 'well-trained teachers who are close to industry. One conclusion that we can draw is that ecological learning requires highly motivated teachers with hands-on experience who are well-connected to industry.'

It’s especially important in poorer countries where colleges can’t afford the sophisticated equipment and materials that are available in business settings. In Singapore’s three-year diploma training programmes there are internships 'with approximately 20% of learning in the workplace'.

'But they are able to arrange this thanks to all the latest technologies available also allowing for simulation of warehouse or workshop settings within their colleges. For other schools, however, with less advanced conditions, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, the best pathway to enhance learning is through the training centres working closely with businesses from that same sector. Like this students are exposed to real world working environments,' says Thomas.

Although the green transition is clearly challenging, many see it as an opportunity to counter job polarisation and 'level up' the workplace. In Nielsen’s words, it’s a chance to 'upskill and reskill across the labour market'. Waste management protocols demand data analysis, energy expertise, waste-sorting optimisation, technical engineers and repair specialists. One of the earliest lessons of the green transition is that resourcefulness requires far more skill than wastefulness.

For more information visit ETF Network for Excellence - GRETA on Open Space.

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