Every other month, Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director at Suez Recycling and Recovery UK and recently appointed President of the CIWM, discusses the big issues from his point of view, and this time he focuses on the changing skills and competences needed by our workforce to support the waste to energy sector as it adapts to the rapidly developing policy framework……
Skills underpin economic success!
Any successful organisation, business, sector or economy needs an effective workforce, one that is motivated, well-trained, and has the key competences and right skills to maximise performance, output and impact. In a steady-state environment maintaining these skills and competences is relatively straight forward, with top up training, mentoring, shadowing and other traditional forms of staff development and support. But how can we stay productive and develop our workforce effectively if the policy framework is changing as rapidly as we are facing in the resources and waste space right now?
Being ready for decarbonisation and net zero, delivering on the circular economy and maximising resource efficiency are all game changers in terms of the UK’s environmental footprint, but they are also a seismic shift (or a revolution) for our sector and the ‘day jobs’ for thousands of employees. We are helping to shape this future, working with Government, to set the right policies and timeframes, but are we ready as a sector for the front-line challenges that these will bring and are the sector’s workforce fit for purpose and ready to adapt?
This is the question that has been on my mind for some time and which fuelled my theme for the next 12 months as I take on the reigns as President of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (the sector’s leading professional body) – just how ready are we as a sector in terms of the necessary skills, competences and available workforce to continue to shape and deliver critical services in this changing landscape?
Short term pain over the next 5 years?
Its only just over 2 weeks since the launch of my presidential report (Skills for the Future) but the issue has never been more critical – today’s major headache is a shortage of HGV drivers partly because of BREXIT and equally on the back of COVID, which is really straining both public and private sectors alike. As other sectors begin to bounce back from lockdown they are targeting the same pool of qualified drivers and we just don’t have enough qualified people to go around! Should we have foreseen this shortage, and if we had what could we have done to protect ourselves? And what’s next? Could it be a shortage of trained recycling teams at the MRFs? We really must start to plan as a sector much better for the next 5 years of significant transition and beyond….
With the DEFRA consultations now done, can we predict what our sector will look like in 2025 with any accuracy, and even if there are some uncertainties surrounding DRS, materials substitutions, start dates for core materials collections and suitable new end markets, we have a pretty good idea of what is coming, so are we ready for this challenge in terms of our staff and their skills, knowledge and competencies?
We will need more collection staff, better trained to support households and businesses as they adjust to segregating more materials for recycling, including quality control over food waste collections. We will need an army of repairers, trained and competent to fix anything from a mobile phone to a washing machine, and they will need to be accessible and available when consumers need and want them. There is a clear need for more communicators across the sector as we take residents and businesses on a range of new journeys from new materials for collection, to the need for quality control at source, to DRS and its potential impact on kerbside recycling – change is definitely a constant for the foreseeable future. But what about energy recovery and associated activities?
The short term will see a few new sites, but the real opportunity will focus on upgrading the efficiency of the existing sites (engineering skills) and better heat offtake (engineers, plus lawyers to support the commercial deals and offtake agreements etc.) – so are these resources readily available today?
I have a plan….
If we think back to the late 1990s and the beginning of the move out of landfill, our sector sought expertise from overseas (waste to energy engineers, designers etc. from Denmark, Germany, Netherland etc.) and from similar UK industrial sectors (power and energy mainly). But over time these sources were not enough to fuel our demand and so we worked collaboratively with universities and professional bodies to develop appropriate training to supplement appropriate engineering (and similar) degrees and apprenticeships, making us more robust as a sector and allowing sector specific specialisms to develop and flourish.
So, if we have done this before, we can do it again! Better thermal efficiency and more heat offtake will drive demand for engineers, so lets develop the relevant courses and on the job placements to support this timely additional professional workforce.
And over the horizon we have carbon capture utilisation and storage plus hydrogen opportunities which we must plan for, both from an R&D perspective, but also from a skills and competences agenda – so lets start planning together…...
Plus of course there will be the huge uplift in green and food waste collected on the back of mandatory proposals in England from households and businesses, and with this new feedstock availability we will need a portfolio of new IVC, AD and hybrid facilities. Do we have enough sites today, probably not, and we certainly don’t have the professional workforce in scale and skills needed to deal with the additional millions of tonnes we are expecting.
And finally, there will be pressure on our sector to advance some of the novel technologies that have been seen entering our space in recent years, in particular chemical recycling to deal with low grade plastics, the films and wrappers, and other new niche materials that will become part of the core collections programme from 2024 onwards. These sites, which are often small and very technical, will again create a significant number of new opportunities, but are we working with universities and the technology innovators to be ready for when this workforce is needed, and can we retrain our current operatives to play a new role in this bright green future?
It’s not all technical though ….
The CIWM report I commissioned also identified a number of non-technical and non-waste related skills that we will need to develop, and fast. For us to thrive as a sector, supporting the greening and decarbonisation of other sectors, like manufacturing, agriculture, chemicals and transportation we must adapt and develop our soft skills that underpin better collaboration, develop more whole-systems thinking so we solve the problem and not the symptom, become more confident with data and put it to better use whilst embracing the opportunities afforded by anticritical intelligence etc. These are fundamental to driving use from a recycling-based system to one where circular business models are the norm, where carbon accounting is a cornerstone of all decision-making, and where the value of materials is widely acknowledged and maintained.
So what happens next?
The next 5 years will see significant change, the policy is relatively clear, so we must be prepared. The transition from 2025 to 2040, when the sector is targeting decarbonisation (the ESA launched its Net Zero Strategy a few weeks ago) is less certain, but the end point and starting points are clear, so we can plan for the scale of change. If we are serious about playing a key role in the UK’s net zero efforts then we must have the right skills and competences ready to deployed when they are most needed, and that means working together today to map out specific roles and their needs so we can create the right training and experience opportunities before we miss the window of opportunity!
I have recently given evidence to the Environment Audit Committee on their green jobs review, and along with others have been calling for a Green Skills Task Force that will map out the skills and competences needed in a number of sectors that will be going green at the same time.
This should help us to prioritise a roadmap for how we secure the skills, how much retraining is needed, and where new courses must be developed, not only in our waste management silo, but across renewable energy, green transport, manufacturing etc. By doing this we should avoid our sector fighting with other sectors for a limited number of qualified experts (whatever the role) and build the attractiveness of these sectors as great places to build new careers, ones that will help save the planet and have long-term career opportunities too.
And this is why my 12 months as CIWM President will be focused on the skills agenda, working with the senior team at CIWM on new partnerships (with other professional bodies), with our members and their trade bodies, and with Government to drive forward this critical initiative that will underpin our delivery of net zero carbon and resource efficiency. The opportunity is huge, but we must work together if we are to be successful, so please get involved in whatever way you can ……
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Adam is External Affairs Director at SUEZ Recycling & Recovery UK Ltd, working with DEFRA and other key industry stakeholders on the rapidly evolving policy landscape in the UK, and representing the company on numerous technical working groups and with the media. He is also President of the CIWM and a member of their Trustee Board, and Chair of the ESA’s Policy and Resource Strategy Working Group. He has over 25 years of waste & resource sector experience spanning academia, local government, consultancy and for the last 4 years in the private sector with SUEZ. He is also a Fellow of the RSA, RGS, CIWM and IOM3.
Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director @ SUEZ & CIWM President