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Sustainability and the rise of the green apprenticeship

Green apprenticeships and sustainability in business

Two million good-quality green jobs by 2030. Electricity to come from clean sources by 2035. Net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The sustainability commitments made by the UK are bold, as we all know they need to be. But, what do these statistics, promises and pledges mean in practice for the skills and employability sector?

In this article, we look at sustainability through various lenses within our industry. We explore how government, training providers (through green apprenticeships), employers and their supply chains are doing their bit to build a more sustainable society, before it’s too late.

A convergence of crises

We have become accustomed to the word ‘crisis’. A game-changing pandemic, a chronic skills shortage, an impending climate disaster. All of it affects us both personally and professionally. The industries we work in continue to fight for survival, seeking innovative and sustainable ways to remain relevant. Throw social inequality and a crippling cost of living crisis into the mix, and we see a levelling-up agenda that fundamentally depends on successful collaboration between employers, providers and educators. The endgame? Equip a more inclusive workforce with the right skills for a significantly more sustainable future. It’s hardly surprising, then, that sustainability is fast-tracking its way up the strategic agenda for training and education providers.

Employer-led demand for ‘green’ skills

Successful providers pride themselves on being employer focused. If your (arguably) most important stakeholder is hurtling towards admirable environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies that they simply don’t have the personnel to deliver on, it’s time to act. The majority of organisations now issue a sustainability report. Thousands have joined governments in pledging to reach net zero in the coming decades.

In short, industry (and the investment behind it) is finally opening its eyes to our collective crisis. And it’s not just being led from the top. A 2021 Corporate Climate Crisis report found that nearly three quarters of UK workers wanted ‘more transparency from their employer on environmental impact.’ Forward-thinking providers are putting themselves forward as strategic workforce development partners to these employers. They are keen not only to be part of the solution, but to help shape it.

HE sector and sustainable actions

The HE sector continues to play a critical role. It is ‘leading research into climate change and sharing expertise with government, businesses and local communities’. A total of 140 universities pledged their support for Universities UK’s climate change commitments ahead of COP26. Although the debate continues around ensuring they are getting enough government support to help them achieve their goals, this demonstrates the need for collaboration between government, industry and education/skills. Sammy Shummo, Group Director of Apprenticeships at London South Bank University (LSBU), is heavily involved in the Greater London Authority-funded Green Skills Hub. He explains, “The cross-sector group looks at which new standards can be brought in (such as the Level 4 Sustainability Manager) and which apprenticeships can, at the point of their review, be updated from a sustainability lens, including architecture, civil engineering and building services; programmes that LSBU already delivers.”

From green jobs to sustainability within all jobs

This is where it gets interesting. For many of us, the term ‘green jobs’ evokes a mental image of wind-turbine construction workers or conservation officers knee-deep in wetlands. Indeed, the job site ‘’ lists 212 such roles. This covers thousands of vacancies relating to environmental, renewable energy farming, material management and the like. These are clearly born out of a market opportunity spotted by someone clued up on the predictions from the global Green Jobs Initiative. It asserts that ‘a greener economy could generate 15 to 60 million additional jobs globally over the next two decades.’

Green Apprenticeships Advisory Panel

However, that is just part of the picture. There is another, harder to define, area for employers and their learning and development partners to focus on. We must increase of sustainability within all jobs, not just new ones. 

Speaking on a ‘green apprenticeships’ podcast for the Institute for Apprenticeships, Judy Lin Wong explains the role of the Green Apprenticeships Advisory Panel (GAAP): “The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) is not just concentrating on developing the area of new green jobs. It has also developed a sustainability framework for people to find out what the sustainability elements are of all jobs. For example, in the industry of hair and beauty, the chemicals that you use, how you dispose of them, and how you protect yourself and the environment are all part of this framework.”

Indeed, Kaplan Financial asks ‘What role does sustainability play in accounting?’ in the Learn Better podcast episode with professor of accounting at Oxford University, Richard Barker. He explains that the link between sustainability and accounting is becoming increasingly close, inviting the listener to consider that an accountant’s role is to monitor and understand the performance of a business, which can be just as much about the environmental and social impact as it is about financial performance. And that the two are highly interdependent. The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants gives sustainability a prominent seat at the table, by including it as one of its seven priorities for the accountancy profession; acknowledging that “accountants are in a unique position to make real, impactful change and be at the centre of sustainable development.”

The role of apprenticeships in driving the green agenda

The GAAP works closely with the Green Jobs Taskforce (set up by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education) to “develop an action plan for creating the necessary new green jobs and skills.” The panel is keen to enable apprenticeships to play a major part in delivering on this strategy. Panel member Tammy Bristow (group talent manager at JCB) describes the role of the panel as “vital in helping to define the apprenticeships standards that will secure the skills, knowledge and behaviours fundamental to enabling a green economy.”

As shown in this short video, the GAAP uses a colour-coded system of shades of green to describe the impact each apprenticeship standard and its related occupation can have within the green economy. “All apprenticeships are affected by sustainability, but in different ways. A light green occupation does not directly reduce the impact of climate change, but there may be more duties that could be done more sustainably. A mid-green occupation can play a part in achieving net carbon zero. That might be a need for new knowledge, skills, and behaviours to enable the use of new technologies and approaches. A dark green occupation directly reduces carbon emissions and sustainability is embedded throughout that role.”

Green apprenticeship standards

The GAAP currently has endorsed 44 existing apprenticeship standards – from the Level 2 Dual Fuel Smart Meter Installer to the Level 6 Environmental Practitioner, and also a range of less overtly ‘green’ apprenticeships including the Level 4 Data Analyst and the Level 6 Project Manager. The opportunity for providers is to work with their employer partners to understand their sustainability targets, and to think creatively about how their apprenticeship programmes might be flexed to incorporate activities and teaching that supports those goals.

Practical application for sustainable practices

At the 2022 Annual Apprenticeship Conference, delegates heard from Alex Miles, Managing Director at West & North Yorkshire Learning Providers and Charlotte Bonner, national head of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) at the Education and Training Foundation. They shared how ESD is growing in importance as a ‘core component of quality education’. Taking a collaborative approach, they support training providers and employers in implementing some of the strategies for ensuring sustainable practices are embedded within all programmes. “Our ambition to move towards net zero requires us to transform the way we create products, services, and systems, and this is fully dependent on how individuals, teams and organisations learn to innovate and apply those learnings in the real world,” they explain.

As is the case with broader environmental campaigning, much of their approach is about raising awareness and ensuring that the impact on sustainability stays front of mind. They encourage learning providers, employers and learners to be continuously questioning and innovating. All the answers may not yet be known, but to be challenging and seeking innovative, more sustainable practices will inevitably lead to change. ESD requires FE and skills organisations to identify sustainability projects and activities for learners to undertake – resulting in a deeper understanding of the issues and learner-generated ideas for positive change.

The speakers made further practical recommendations for educators to encourage, including completing digital footprint reviews and finding ways to reduce it, signing up to climate-change pledges and putting themselves forward as organisational representatives, undertaking ‘green’ challenges, and drafting sustainable-development strategies for their employers.

Practical applications 

It’s through these practical examples that sustainability within apprenticeships and, ultimately, within all our jobs, is really brought to life. Take one of the fastest-growing higher-level apprenticeships: Level 7 Senior Leader. Corndel delivers this programme in partnership with Imperial College Business School, and Corndel’s Director of Strategic Relationships, Kamini Sanghani, is herself participating in the programme.

Sanghani explains how sustainability is incorporated into the Imperial College and Corndel Executive Development Programme. “From the outset, we explore how values-based leadership is playing an ever-increasing role in a society where customers and employees want to align with brands that operate ethically. The programme helps leaders to consider the environmental, social and political context within which their organisation operates, and empowers them to identify and lead strategies and change programmes to drive performance in this environment. We pair the world-leading business and scientific expertise of Imperial College Business School with Corndel’s business-relevant curriculum and expert-led coaching to transform ideas around sustainability into real action.”

This focus is also evident in other higher-level apprenticeship programmes, such as the University of Hertfordshire’s MSc in Strategic Leadership. The course includes a 30-credit module on social responsibility, governance and risk; acknowledging that this is a golden thread of any senior leadership position and a capability that is set to be increasingly valued by employers.

Formalising the value of sustainability – Ofsted’s view

As with any change initiative (let alone one on such a scale and with so much at stake), the likelihood of meeting targets and goals is, in part, dependent on recognition of progress. From a sustainability perspective, this can be seen in some of the criteria Ofsted set, and the kinds of best practice its inspectors highlight as the bar to aim for. Some of this is evident in the value it places on personal development – specifically around accountability to make educated, informed, more sustainable decisions and engaging in debate, project work or community activity. A number of best practices within the Quality of Education component are explicitly celebrating ESG – for example, green skills being effectively contextualised within the programme, and sustainability being included in the curriculum.

Support from the apprenticeship industry

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) held its first green skills summit in February 2022, an indicator to providers that the support network is growing to help them deliver in this area. Leading voices in the industry were present – including skills minister Alex Burghart and AELP board member Nichola Hay, as well as some learners who were there to share their motivations for, and experiences of, early-career green occupations. Jane Hickie, AELP Chief Executive, explains, “AELP will be going straight to work on how we can support learners, providers and employers in the transition to a green economy. This starts with setting up a group to look at how a sustainability charter for Independent Training Providers can ensure learners know providers take their environmental impact seriously.” 

IfATE is positioning itself as best placed to lead the way in predicting future skills needs, acknowledging that to get it right, it will need to effectively engage with its huge network of employers and then use that insight to shape sustainability components of occupational standards within apprenticeships and other qualifications. Jennifer Coupland, IfATE’s Chief Executive, gives examples of work in progress – a new low-carbon heating technician apprenticeship and training for technicians to build and maintain electric vehicles. Some of this is evident in the programmes being offered by the likes of Remit Training as it looks to promote the benefits of technical training within the automotive sector – an industry at the forefront of ambitious green targets.

Beyond apprenticeships

As Coupland suggests, for society to really achieve its goal of reducing the impact of climate change, the industry needs to work as one – that is to say across the vocational training sector from T-Levels to apprenticeships and AEB to traineeships. The demand is there; with IfATE reporting that half of 18- to 34-year-olds ‘express a desire for a career that helps protect the environment.’

There is some encouraging activity taking place. For example, FE Week reported in April 2022 on the launch of a new partnership between Pearson and MOBIE, resulting in an enhanced BTEC Level 3 National Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment, in terms of a fresh focus on ‘quality, performance, energy efficiency, sustainability and future digital technologies.’

For example, Greater Manchester Combined Authority has launched a retrofit skills bootcamp to support the city’s carbon neutral goals and to support more than 200 unemployed people or career changers back into sustainable work in the local area.

Learning Curve

And Learning Curve is now well under way with its Level 2 course in Understanding Climate Change and Environmental Awareness, which was launched in 2020. They have now supported 500 learners complete the qualification and have had excellent feedback, with many learners quoting that it has opened their eyes to how they can have a positive impact on the environment.

Louise Campbell, Director of Flexible Learning at LCG, said: “At LCG we want to continue to develop courses that relate to the current issues around the world. Our Understanding Climate and Environmental Awareness course gives people the knowledge they need to make a difference both in their personal lives and in the workplace, and it is available fully funded through the Adult Education Budget.”

Regional priorities and a mixed bag for green apprenticeship opportunities

A report commissioned by Friends of the Earth in 2021 revealed the regional scope for the creation of green apprenticeships, claiming that at least 44,000 green apprenticeships could be made available in London, with 20,000 in the West Midlands and 14,000 in Greater Manchester. A WPI report from Autumn 2021 stated, “Our analysis finds that by 2030, in a central scenario there could be 505,000 green jobs in the capital (a net increase of 50,000 jobs), reaching over a million by 2050.”

As well as the obvious questions around how to make sure these opportunities are created consistently across the country, the report highlights some red flags in this push for making green jobs achievable and accessible. Many young people were unaware of green apprenticeships or were unable to access them. Some disadvantaged groups were less likely to be able to access them, which has resulted in calls for targeted bursaries.

The supply chain and importance of ‘green’ credentials for providers

There is another angle for training providers to consider: their own sustainability practices and commitments. In their quest to have a partnership so strong that they are effectively seen as an extension of their employer partner’s team, it is becoming increasingly important for providers to show that they are aligned in terms of their own approach to sustainability. Being able to explain your organisation’s stance on ESG issues and how you are going about meeting your own goals will certainly be called upon in RFPs and tenders. It also enables you to have those all-important strategic conversations with your stakeholders.

A number of providers are already openly sharing their approaches. Here are two examples.

Qube Learning gives substantial detail to back up its claim of ‘actively integrating eco-friendly practices into the business’, relating to both how it delivers training and how it operates from an internal perspective.

Parenta Training aligns itself with the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development, proactively seeking synergies between the targets set for 2030 around ‘ending poverty, fighting inequality and addressing the urgency of climate change’ with its own ambitions to contribute to a progressive, healthy society through education.

Inevitably, providers will need to ensure they have the processes and systems in place to align with their employer partners’ objectives and approaches. This should involve some analysis of their own supply chain, questioning whether it sufficiently supports inclusive, efficient, and agile programme delivery.

Aptem support

For example, Aptem has committed to a corporate sustainability and ethics strategy that has three lenses. First, the products and services we offer are designed to streamline our customers’ business processes, helping them to reduce the need for paper, embrace remote learning and working, and improve operational efficiency. Second, as a SaaS business, we look for sustainability within our own supply chain, for example, selecting Microsoft Azure which has a commitment to sustainability. And third, from an operational perspective, we are diligent in our efforts to operate a paperless office with all communication sent via email and documentation stored online, and are mindful of our energy consumption, water usage and waste in our London hub office. The majority of our internal and customer meetings are held remotely which minimises the need for business travel.

Working collaboratively and keeping sustainability front of mind in our working practices and within our products and services is the only way we can, collectively, make change happen.

Talk to Aptem about how we support providers in their sustainability journey.

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