Going green forcing shifts in workforce

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The Montreal Gazette highlights the impact that changing consumer attitudes about the environment, and the need to raise environmental awareness have impacted the Canadian workforce.  According to one organization, jobs in the environment are growing 23% faster than the national average.

Posted Sept. 26, 2009

By Donna Nebenzahl, The Gazette

All the while he was studying mechanical engineering, Montrealer
Faisal Shennib was thinking about how he could find work that would
have a lasting impact on society. At Carnegie Mellon University, where
he got his undergraduate degree, Shennib was exposed to environmental
issues in the design process, and learned that good design should have
no negative impact on the environment.

Coming back to Montreal,
Faisal, 26, began graduate work in environmental engineering at
Concordia University so, he said, he "could be guaranteed a career and
could make a positive contribution." He learned about the university's
Sustainable Concordia R4 program – Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle –
which supported his interest in material waste management, or
composting.

"Through student activism, I found a practical application I could start on right away," he said.

He began as a part-timer on the composting project and this year is acting co-ordinator of the program.

And
not only is the university at the forefront of this award-winning
environmental initiative, with plans to produce 40 tonnes of compost by
the end of next year and 100 tonnes by 2012, it has become a job
provider.

"We created three part-time positions around composing," Shennib said.

R4
is just one example of the impact of changing concerns about the
environment on the Canadian workforce. Jobs in the environmental sector
are growing 23-per-cent faster than the national average, according to
research done for ECO Canada. The Calgary-based organization focuses on
providing services to and research about the environmental sector.

"Most
of our programs deal with a professional audience, those looking for
careers and employers seeking staff," said ECO Canada vice-president
Michael Kerford.

The non-profit group has recently created an
environmental careers transition pilot project, pairing people at
mid-level in their careers, the unemployed or underemployed with
organizations looking for environmental positions, offering up to
$12,000 in training and workshops.

The focus of environmental
work now has changed over the years, Kerford says, as has the focus of
ECO Canada, which was founded in 1992.

"Early on, links between
the environment and human health became apparent, so most of the work
was remediation, cleanup-type work, linked to land, air and water
quality," he said. "This evolved to more prevention, then moved into
the realm of sustainable development." The last four or five years, he
says, the primary driver has been the link between human consumption
and the environment.

"Public awareness of environmental issues
has never been better understood. The new jobs we're seeing emerge are
related to consumer and public awareness: what products you're buying,
how you're consuming energy." For Karel Mayrand, who heads the David
Suzuki Foundation in Montreal, the environment is increasingly built
into jobs, from office work stations to the factory floor.

"It's
becoming part of your job description," he said. "Corporations need to
include environmental consciousness in the way they do business."
Kerford believes that all the existing business models are considering
the environmental impact of the work they're doing. Not only that,
consumers are making more informed choices, "so companies need to think
about how their work is impacting the environment." The types of work
most talked about these days are related to rethinking energy – solar,
wind – all sorts of jobs from technology development to installation,
he says. Existing skill sets must now be modified to meet existing
demand.

"An electrician must now understand how to install solar panels in
residential buildings," he said. "General contractors are learning how
to do energy efficiency audits." Those are the obvious jobs, but the
transition has just started, he believes. From the employment
perspective, it's key to realize that environmental careers are not
going to be based on linear paths.

"While the core of your skill
set is from education, throughout your life you'll be adding different
modules to it, like adding different tools to your tool kit." Things
have changed rapidly over the last two years, Kerford says, and despite
the downturn in the economy there are new skills emerging linked to
climate change. And while this kind of shift happens organically all
the time, if we look at all the sectors of the economy, anything to do
with the environment is at the top of the list.

We're probably
now at the all-time peak of how aware individuals are of the impact of
the environment on their day-to-day life, he says, and energy and
climate change have been the reason.

"Companies are more conscious how environmental considerations are primary among their client groups," he said.

So
environmental employment is being created in existing sectors because
companies want to invest in that knowledge. The root of these
occupations are the primary ones, like engineers, scientists and
technicians, Kerford says.

"But what you're seeing now is at the
operator and trades level and also at the managerial level, where
environmental knowledge and awareness is influencing the strategic
direction of companies, product development and policy development."
People with backgrounds in environmental science and environmental
studies are giving boardrooms and corporate executives insight into
environmental behaviour, Kerford said.

"We talk about it as a
thread in the fabric of the economy at large." The incentive is there
inside the workplace as well, Mayrand believes.

"The same
individual who cares about the environment at home, cares about it in
the workplace," he said. "People don't abandon their values when they
go to work."

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