Green-collar HR: It ain’t easy being green

This spring, chancellor of the exchequer Alistair Darling will outline measures required as part of a new rolling five-year cycle of carbon budgets alongside his overall Budget. The carbon budgets will manage long-term emissions performance through tax incentives and other policies, whose effectiveness will, for the first time, be monitored and published annually.

“Carbon budgets must instil discipline in decision making, ensure greater predictability for business, and must also become a platform to drive a green industrial strategy for the UK,” Ed Miliband, secretary of state for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, stated in December 2008. In wind power alone, the government hopes that 160,000 jobs will have been created by 2020 as a result of this strategy.

It’s an attractive vision, but one that may remain out of reach unless the problems typical of technical and engineering disciplines are overcome – especially the chronic skills shortages.

However, several companies are ahead of the game and have increased the number of employees working on low- or zero-carbon energy in recent years.

Ahead of the game

Siemens’ UK power generation division, for example, runs a major wind power business, employing 280 people, which it wants to increase to 400 by 2010. The company installs and maintains wind turbines imported from Denmark – a major manufacturing centre – and operates a highly specialised research and development division. Clipper Windpower, a US wind turbine producer, is looking to increase its UK investment. Major oil companies and utilities also have staff working on clean and efficient energy, while component suppliers such as Rolls-Royce are working on improved fuel efficiency and alternative technologies.

While the current credit crisis has delayed some projects, this industry is likely to be a source of many new jobs in the medium term. HR professionals have to deal with the most acute problems affecting manufacturing companies, in particular shortages of engineers, technical sales executives and project managers, and the retention of these personnel once recruited.

John Westwood, managing director of offshore engineering consultancy Douglas Westwood, says the greatest problem is the lack of experienced staff as baby boomers reach retirement. A second issue, he explains, is the poor image of engineering among UK students, while a third is the lack of skilled non-graduate technicians.

Helena Austin, UK HR director for French transport and power company Alstom, says short-term solutions, such as hiring workers recently made redundant elsewhere, will not resolve deeper issues.

“There is and continues to be a serious skills shortage in the [engineering] profession. We look at how we can support and foster development and change perceptions. It may be OK for today, but what about tomorrow and the future?”

Alstom, which employs 5,000 people in the UK, designs and develops nuclear power stations and technologies to capture carbon dioxide emissions and help cut energy waste through efficient steam turbine technology in fossil fuel installations.

Image problem

Austin’s experiences echo Westwood’s findings. Graduate applications, she says, are “not an issue”, and increased last year. However, the company has struggled to find people for its apprenticeship scheme due to “the image of industry and engineering in general”. One of the tasks is to show the attractive side of these new energies as they begin to challenge the conventional, well-established alternatives. “We try to show the changes that have come about through innovation,” she says.

Austin hopes potential candidates will be inspired by cutting-edge design and an understanding of the evolution of technology from, for instance, the steam engine to the company’s high-speed Pendolino tilting trains. With this in mind, it has funded a £2.5m steam turbine engineering training centre in Rugby – a hands-on facility where employees have access to the tools they need to improve their knowledge. It also runs a ‘Formula’ student event with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in which students work on prototype designs alongside working professionals.

There are problems finding people with the right experience, but Austin says the company adopts what she describes as a pragmatic approach to dealing with this by investing in skills and training. Graduates are offered a comprehensive life-long learning package in which they can train across the company and across sectors. To encourage undergraduates, Alstom operates an ‘Ambassador’ programme in which individuals with particular skillsets work alongside university teachers.

Rich seam of new talent

Siemens, which is building a training centre in Newcastle, also recruits people from other sectors, such as the Armed Forces, taking about half a year to retrain each employee. The richest potential source of relevant skills – especially for wind power – is the North Sea oil industry, which employs people with skillsets that are very adaptable to the renewable and clean energy sector. Mechanical, electrical and electronic engineers metallurgists maintenance and operational technicians and commercial analysts are the types of experienced staff companies would need to recruit if the UK is to build a major wind power production centre.

To deal with the competition from oil and gas companies, which offer better remuneration, Siemens has developed a corporate schools visiting scheme known as Generation 21, which aims to ignite young people’s interest in renewable energy. Like Austin, Siemens Renewable’s HR manager Martin Hottass suggests that the futuristic image of these industries may be a draw. “Applications for apprenticeships have gone up, but the development of schemes specifically for wind power might also be needed,” he says.

Pro Enviro, a skills consultancy that has advised the government, wants more agreements between Sector Skills Councils, training providers and employers, and the creation of a skills academy for environmental business.

Implications for HR

While the skills problems in engineering are likely to intensify as clean energy technologies evolve, will these challenges, and the solutions developed by HR departments in these companies, provide extra job opportunities for HR professionals?

Siemen’s Hottass thinks not. The company’s current recruitment programme would need to run to thousands of extra staff for more HR personnel to be employed, he says. Nor is there any sign of new demand for green HR experts in the sector, despite the fact that some, such as Hottass and Austin, have a deep understanding of its problems.

“HR managers in our sector need to know what the policies are – the macro climate – but they should stick to what they are best at – the people side,” asserts Hottass, describing HR skills as a “toolkit” that can be applied in different work environments.

Ruston Wheb, a search and selection company that specialises in environmental and corporate responsibility issues, also says there is no perceptible demand for HR experts in this area.

Nevertheless, the green energy sector remains a relatively attractive one for HR professionals. For while it has not been able to escape the effects of the recession, and business is slower than it would otherwise be, the long-term policy drivers already in place suggest that it may provide more opportunities than some other fields over the next couple of years.

“In my view, the recession will probably have a very limited effect on employment,” says Sylvain Dhenin, an expert at executive search company CT Partners.

“The demand for energy is high, and we could see the government putting additional incentives on [green] investments going forward,” he adds.

In the present economic climate, that has to be good news.

Greening the wider workforce

It’s not just in the clean energy sector where eco-savvy HR professionals can make a difference. Making the workplace greener is now a fundamental part of every company’s remit. Because of its continuous contact with the workforce, the HR department plays a major role in developing stakeholder, and employee, engagement – one of the fundamentals underpinning corporate social responsibility (CSR) – and garnering employee support for and involvement in the company’s CSR policy.

Good environmental performance, a key element of CSR, can be delivered through both voluntary initiatives and compliance. HR practitioners can help implement a range of initiatives, including car sharing, energy saving, transport policies, codes of ethics, and recycling and volunteering, using skills from across their whole repertoire.

For instance, environmental criteria can be included in individual or departmental bonus systems. HR can work with the company’s communications function to help put in place a car-sharing or recycling scheme. Training skills may be required to help develop and integrate a corporate code of ethics.

“It’s all about professional standards,” says Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which is considering increasing the environmental and CSR content in its HR qualifications. “HR managers are expected to see the point of the new policy and understand why it matters. They need to embed and reinforce the policy.”

There are, as yet, no training courses focusing exclusively on this issue. It is through their own research and interaction with line and operational managers that HR professionals can stay in touch with new environmental laws that affect their job. In 2009, this includes a new UK-based emissions trading scheme called the Carbon Reduction Commitment, which will affect both the public and private sector.

Emmott emphasises that HR’s role is to support rather than lead on environmental matters, and the extent of responsibility given to HR managers will vary according to the company. Green-collar HR managers expert in environmental issues and technologies have not developed as a breed, and there is no specific demand for them yet. However, if this industry grows as predicted, the requirement for more specialised understanding may well increase.

Comments are closed.