How can we build the skills and knowledge that are vital to achieving sustainable development?

By David Norman, Challenge Director, Business Fights Poverty and Jason Franz, Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, Arizona State University

Education is at the heart of human progress and central to the Sustainable Development Goals. In our latest report, we explore how business can contribute more to education and training for sustainable development. Ultimately, the skills of the future are skills for sustainable development.

Education is at the heart of human progress and central to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It enables people to build better lives for themselves and their families. It is also fundamental in equipping businesses and society to tackle social and environmental challenges. If sustainable development is important, so are the skills and knowledge needed to achieve it.

How can business contribute more to education and training for sustainable development? How can companies play a fuller part, through education, in helping people navigate the changing world of work? How can they do so in a way that helps to create more prosperous societies, while protecting the natural systems on which our future depends? These questions are closely connected. Many of the rapid changes across industries are responses to social and environmental pressures, from new patterns of growth and demographics, to carbon, water and other resource constraints. The skills of the future are skills for sustainable development.

An opportunity for businesses

The skills and knowledge required for sustainable development provide wide benefits for business. They include skills that may not be overtly linked with sustainability or social impact. For example, business leaders need a global mindset, a systems approach, critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration skills. These skills are as fundamental to business growth as they are to the delivery of the SDGs. Companies and higher education institutions should embed sustainable development skills and knowledge within leadership development and other programs, rather than seeing sustainable development as a separate, specialized subject area.

Skills for sustainable development are also central to innovation and vital for a productive, adaptable workforce. Companies need employees at all levels, across functions and markets, who understand how social and environmental issues affect organizational and individual goals, and who are prepared to take action to address them. Businesses can gain a competitive advantage by equipping their employees with the skills and knowledge needed to make the most of the opportunities ahead. Companies and higher education institutions can work together on this, as shown in the collaboration between Arizona State University (ASU) and Starbucks on the Greener Apron Program, providing online sustainability training to Starbucks employees, who they refer to as ‘partners’.

The Greener Apron Program aims to grow a global network of champions with the knowledge and motivation to increase the company’s – and their own – sustainability efforts.

In addition to giving their partners basic knowledge of the underlying issues, the course enables partners to understand and potentially speak about Starbucks’ efforts to address them. It also aims to equip participants with the tools to make a difference in their

workplace and in their own communities. More than 6,000 Starbucks partners have participated in the program since its launch in 2016. For ASU, this was a prime opportunity to bring sustainability education to a global audience of employees who could put their learning into practice in the workplace and in their home environment.

An opportunity for education institutions

ASU’s role illustrates the opportunity for schools to respond to the growing business need for people across their teams who have these kinds of skills. Specific academic programs on business sustainability can now be found in 46 percent of the top 100 US MBA programs[1]. But although some specialized degrees now focus on sustainability, the vast majority of business leaders and workers do not have this background. They have a wide variety of educational experiences, from science to humanities and vocational programs. Courses that integrate sustainable development across other disciplines will help to equip many more students with the skills and knowledge needed by business.

Extractive industries increasingly need graduates in engineering and geology to have a deeper understanding of risk assessment and management related to sustainable development issues. Companies employing chemistry graduates may need them to understand toxicity or chemicals’ persistence in the natural environment. Students aspiring to work in the food sector may need a systems view of resource dependence to apply their knowledge in a company setting. Degree programs and vocational courses have important roles in responding to these needs.

For example, Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) in New Mexico has a strong focus on sustainable education, providing learning opportunities for its students, professionals and the wider community. To support the local workforce and business community, SFCC provides continuing education, training and certification in green construction, energy efficiency, health and safety, and sustainability. The school’s offerings include many specialty, night and weekend courses that are relevant to architects, builders, facility personnel, energy auditors and building managers.

There is strong experience to build on

These examples come from a new report setting out some promising ways in which businesses and educational institutions are working together on this agenda. The report was produced jointly by Business Fights Poverty, Pearson, ASU and PRME, the Principles for Responsible Management Education, an initiative of the United Nations Global Compact. Other examples include partnerships for in-house company leadership training, or on the delivery of degree programs. The report shows how vocational education can play a central part in this agenda.

The case studies and background research for the report suggested that businesses should:

Collaborate with partners to advance education for sustainable development and connect it to job skills and career paths. Companies can build partnerships beyond business schools across other departments and programs. They can help integrate practical sustainable development insights from business into course design, instruction and experiential learning opportunities.

Invest in employee training and education for sustainable development. Companies can make sustainable development training central to leadership development programs. They can motivate employees through using active learning approaches and exploring real sustainable development examples that connect employees with the company’s purpose and values.

Share business learnings on what works – and what doesn’t – for sustainable development. Educators, businesses and international organizations all need more widely-shared examples of practical business experience, and the lessons that emerge from them. Companies could be more open about providing insights from tracking successes and failures in the company’s sustainable development-related initiatives.

Highlight the business demand for sustainable development skills and knowledge. Business leaders can show HR teams, recruiters, policymakers and academics that sustainable development skills and knowledge are priorities for business. Clear signals from business will help education providers prioritize learning for sustainable development.

Educate and engage other stakeholders on sustainable development, from suppliers and investors to policymakers and customers. Companies can help to demystify sustainable development through portraying it as a normal part of business life. Businesses can benefit from showing how action on sustainable development is central to their everyday work, and essential for a flourishing society, inclusive economic growth and human progress.

Companies, educators and learners all have a stake in the future of work and job skills. The ability to adapt to the changing needs of the economy and workforce is closely connected to progress on the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Business has an important role to play in partnerships to strengthen education and training for sustainable development, in turn helping to deliver on the ambitious agenda set out in the SDGs.

[1] The Next Phase of Business Sustainability by Andrew J. Hoffman, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2018

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