Environmental careers market bounces back

Optimism has returned to the environmental careers market. Traditional and emerging areas have both seen growth, finds Isabella Kaminski

Recruiters have seen an upsurge in contaminated land jobs, such as site investigation and remediation, in the past six months (picture: Photofusion Picture Library/Alamy)Whether already actively hunting for a new environmental job or just considering a leap into the unknown, the message from specialist recruitment firms is overwhelmingly positive: the careers market is picking up again.

ENDS spoke to a number of environmental recruitment firms, which still have an important role in the green careers market. All said the market had improved noticeably over the past year.

The figures back this up. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skill’s latest report on the UK’s low-carbon goods and environmental services sector shows it has risen continually over the past five years to reach £128.1bn in 2011/12 (ENDS Report 464, p17). And this shift is finally starting to be felt more widely.

The latest labour market report by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) shows the number of permanent placements rising at the strongest rate since March 2010. Tom Hadley, the REC’s director of policy and professional services, says demand has definitely returned. “Before this was true of engineering and technology but now demand is spread across the whole market.”

The Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment’s (IEMA) latest survey of 2,120 practitioners shows unemployment among its own members is down by one percentage point to 1.4% in 2014 and suggests individuals are becoming more mobile.

Traditional roles

Recruitment firms have seen a particular increase in traditional environmental roles, such as brownfield land regeneration and environmental impact assessment (EIA), in the year. Adam Whitney, director of Evergreen, says: “A lot of it has to do with energy activity, for example wind farms and energy-from-waste plants. That’s been fairly steady throughout the recession. It’s now moving into oil and gas and infrastructure, where there’s a demand for senior positions.”

Whitney has also seen a surge in contaminated land jobs, such as remediation and site investigation, in the past six months. He says these had more or less disappeared during the financial crisis and links their return to the resurrection of the construction industry. Indeed, contaminated land overtook water and waste management as the principal service area for the leading 22 consultancies worldwide (ENDS Report 469, p17).

But water and waste remain significant areas. The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) has noticed a significant increase in water and environment vacancies from large consultancies, water and wastewater companies and local councils. It attributes this to a combination of recent flooding, the implementation of lead local flood authorities under the Flood and Water Management Act and the upcoming water asset management plan spending cycle.

Paul Gosling, UK and Europe managing director for Allen & York, notes that drought management and flood risk are particularly buoyant areas at present. “They always have been to an extent, but the recent situation has brought wider management issues to the fore. The jobs tend to be around flood risk management, modelling and risk assessment for development projects. Sustainable drainage systems, for example, are being incorporated into new plans and developments” (see p6).

CK Science, which specialises in scientific careers such as renewables and chemicals, has seen a similar pattern. Operations director Liam O’Connell says: “For a long time we haven’t had vacancies coming through for more senior roles but we are starting to now, which is good. People are becoming a bit more mobile in the market.”

But the upturn does not necessarily mean all these jobs are easy to fill, with the continuing gap in appropriate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills and qualifications (ENDS Report 451, p26). Research commissioned by Scottish Renewables suggests half of Scottish renewable energy companies are looking to hire staff this year, but it is unclear whether there will be enough people to fulfil demand.

Hadley says: “For many of these roles it’s very hard to find the right candidates with the right skills, particularly in construction and engineering where there’s a specific skillset needed. Projects such as HS2, nuclear new build and fracking will be supplying jobs. The demand is starting to be created now but the short-term fix isn’t there.”

Gosling notes a particular problem with the engineering elements of land management. “There has been a skills shortage in this area for a while, but it has been papered over because companies were not recruiting. Now that they are looking to build and grow again, the skills shortage is coming to the fore. All roles relating to house-building skills are in short supply, particularly geotechnical engineering.”

It is also a big issue in newer technologies such as biogas and energy from waste (see p7).

Recruitment firm Acre has noted an increasing demand for supply chain and procurement specialists with knowledge of environment and ethical issues (ENDS Report 462, p39). Andrew Tew, senior consultant at Acre, says this is for “reasons of competitiveness as well as compliance. But there is a dearth of suitably qualified individuals: recruiting at a senior consultant level is difficult.”

Energy auditors

It is also a problem in energy. Cartland believes there will be increasing demand for energy auditors, which are already in demand. “Many companies are unprepared for the upcoming Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ENDS Report 463, p34) which will prompt mandatory audits for larger companies.”

Gosling notes that companies start focusing on energy management when they grow. “The best prospects are for energy managers with a specific area of expertise, business information knowledge or a building services background.”

Figure 1: Change in roles over past yearExperienced senior energy managers may be like gold dust, but finding people at a mid-stage in their careers is a problem across the board. Part of the problem is attributable to the recession, when many consultancies cut back on their environmental graduate programmes and some people left the industry altogether.

Gosling says: “Some of the most difficult people to find are those with two to five years’ experience. There is a demand for people at this level, who have some project management skills but haven’t developed their career to the level where they can justify a much higher salary. But there haven’t been opportunities for people to start their career in the past five years, or they have moved away from it out of necessity, so there is a gap.”

Whitney agrees: “It’s not so easy to find people, especially with at least five years of experience. It’s a very niche market and they want someone with a consultancy background.” He says EIA skills, for example, are fairly generic and transferable, but companies often want someone with experience working on a particular kind of project. “People tend to sectorise. They’re looking for someone with industry contacts as well as technical skills, and who has a name in the sector.”

As a short-term fix, some companies are looking to bring people in from overseas. But this could become more difficult. CK Science’s O’Connell warns of an emerging scarcity at a lower level in scientific jobs. He puts this down to visa changes as there were a lot of overseas people in: “There aren’t enough UK graduates to fill those posts.”

At the same time, CK Science has seen a dramatic rise in UK consultancies working overseas. “There is work for people who are prepared to work in the developing market, such as China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, where they’re starting to tighten up environmental regulation but don’t have the skills for design and implementation of policies,” says O’Connell.

Hadley says there is a longer term need to promote certain careers in schools and make sure university qualifications are better adapted to the world of work. This is true of hard technical skills, but also softer skills.

“Young people need to know about the different ways of working they are likely to be exposed to; for example quite a lot may be project-based work. If you’re working in engineering, for example, there’s a good chance you’ll be working as a freelancer or in interim management.” This can be particularly beneficial for those looking to move from public to private” (see p6).

Flexible working

Indeed, there appears to be a shift towards companies using more ‘flexible’ staff. These are not just temps or agency hires; they are also using skilled staff as contractors and interim managers.

“We have seen a five-fold increase in our contract and interim business,” says Acre’s Cartland. “There are marketplaces where that’s normal – for example in finance or IT – but the environmental and sustainability marketplace has been slow on the uptake. There is more caution in relation to hiring permanent staff since the recession and contractors offer companies the ability to expand and contract their workforce more readily.”

Hadley says this is not a new phenomenon and is partly the result of the recession. But he says the contract market is continuing to grow despite the improvement in the market and believes it is a longer term trend. “If you do want to take on somebody permanently it’s not easy and it can take a long time to fill that post. That speed of recruitment is one of the plusses for employers.”

It can also fit project-based work better. Interim management, for example, is increasingly being brought in to managed a specific campaign or project. It is popular as an alternative to traditional consultancy because it is cheaper and can provide staff with ultra-niche skills.

“There’s always going to be a need for flexible staff because of the nature of some of the work,” says Hadley. “Employers are quite keen to take on a person as permanent but it’s difficult.”

Alongside this there is a trend toward self-employment. IEMA’s 2014 practitioner survey shows the proportion of self-employed members rose for the third consecutive year, up to 9.3% from a low of 5.6% in 2011. It is the highest level of self-employed members that IEMA has recorded since starting the survey in 2005. Hadley says a lot of people are self-employed out of genuine choice. “They get used to it and many enjoy the autonomy.”

Cartland agrees: “There’s a pattern of people moving out of companies and setting up their own business and working as interim professionals. This trend indicates an increased level of confidence in the market place, but being a successful interim is a challenge; you need to be able to both win and execute the business; it’s quite a difficult thing to do without an established network.”

Tew says contracting work is an “indication of the market maturing” and tends to be performed by people already established with existing networks to call on.


Figure 2: Median total earnings by IEMA sectorAs the job market picks up, salaries are starting to respond. But they are still considerably behind pre-crisis levels because many people took significant paycuts.

Gosling thinks this will start to change over the next year. “There’s a lag. But companies will start to look again at salaries or they’ll start to lose the people they’ve got and not be able to attract new ones. People will start to be more comfortable about the prospect of moving and start asking for higher salaries.”

O’Connell also expects salaries to continue rising over the next year. “We’re starting to see fewer candidates per job. There are more jobs and people’s expectations are higher. They’re increasingly prepared to go and ask for a higher salary.”

Hadley says overall starting pay has been rising since the beginning of the year. “It’s modest but we’re starting to see some good news. In areas where there’s a shortage those pay increases will be more pronounced. We are seeing quite a lot of counter-offers. Part of the increase in pay is driven by the fact that employers realise that bringing in the right talent is important.”

He adds it is important for individuals to take control of their own professional development which can lead to better bargaining for pay.

Cartland says salaries at a junior level are pretty static and at a mid-level are edging up. But at the top end there has been a large rise over the past year. “We have experienced packages in excess £250,000 in the past 12 months.”

But he points out that these positions are the exception rather than the rule, and call for particular skills. “These packages are typical of individuals who have a niche skillset combined with a strong commercial mindset, for example, finance, innovation or business start-up experience. They are valuable if they can affect the bottom line.

Cartland notes that people in senior corporate positions need a broad skillset. “Ten years ago the chief financial officer didn’t need to know much about environmental issues. But these days they’re likely to be well versed, particularly on issues such as water stress in the developing world or issues affecting the cost of energy in the UK (see p10).

“There has been an increase in people in those roles being recruited from non-sustainability backgrounds. Technical specialists tend to put themselves into too small a pigeonhole to be valuable to the business more widely. They need to look at it in a very holistic sense and show how sustainability can add value to the business. You don’t get that by simply focusing on environmental permitting.”

This trend is only likely to increase. The ongoing revision of the environmental management standard ISO 14001 is likely to put more emphasis on corporate supply chains and give senior management specific environmental responsibilities (endsreport.com/41414).

Indeed, IEMA’s practitioner survey shows that environmental management is now the most cited primary work area, overtaking health and safety management to capture 20.6% of members.

Overall, the picture is a positive one and should hearten jobseekers and those already advanced in their environmental careers. “A lot of consultancies had a good end to last year. There’s a general sense of optimism,” says Tew. 

Environmental Careers 2014

A special report, sponsored by RPS(energy and environmental consultants)