Climate Action

Three steps towards building the climate tech talent pool

Could academia bring rare expertise to starting and building climate tech companies?

Could academia bring rare expertise to starting and building climate tech companies? Image: Unsplash/Antonio Garcia

Jamil Wyne
Founder , Climate Tech Bootcamp
Abrar Chaudhury
Research Fellow, University of Oxford Saïd Business School
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  • The International Labour Organization estimates that by 2030, the green economy could create 24 million jobs worldwide, with climate tech playing a vital role in this growth.
  • Climate tech talent is in shortage; we must build the talent pool fast and at scale.
  • Building the climate tech talent pool will involve a three-step strategy: sourcing talent from academia, upskilling through existing platforms and creating standards and professionalization for the sector.

Recent articles have opined that the slew of layoffs from large tech firms could help channel more talent into jobs that leverage technology to address climate change. Some have even suggested that big tech’s “implosion” could be a watershed moment for moving more talent into the sector.

However, even if each of those employees – totalling in the hundreds of thousands – made their way into a climate tech job, we would still fall significantly short. For example, the International Labour Organization reports that a “greener economy” could create 24 million jobs (tech and non-tech) worldwide by 2030.

The question is where to find climate talent and how to create more of it at scale.

The climate tech talent pool is crucial to this equation and building it will take time. The approach should be multi-pronged and must involve sourcing talent from research and academia, upskilling, creating standards and professionalization of the sector. Prioritizing these steps will help improve the flow of climate tech founders and executives and the legions of employees joining them.

Building the climate tech talent stack.
Building the climate tech talent stack. Image: Climate Tech Bootcamp/Oxford Climate Tech Initiative

Steps to build the climate tech talent pool

1. Channel experts from research and academia into climate jobs

As Dave Miller of Clean Energy Ventures has said, the best climate entrepreneurs are typically “seasoned technical experts who are inventors (e.g. environmental scientists, mechanical engineers, etc.) and have the technical chops.”

Academia is home to a vast yet untapped population of technical experts who could bring rare expertise to starting and building climate tech companies. However, the pathways between academia and industry are underdeveloped.

Trevor Keenan of Earthshot Labs says, “It has been hard for academics to identify industry opportunities. Climate scientists didn’t even have industries to move into until recently.”

While the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States, has a programme that allows its professors to go on “entrepreneurial leave” to pursue opportunities in industry without losing their jobs, such programmes are not the norm throughout academia.

Part of this process to help funnel academics to industry involves rethinking how academics are incentivized. Typically, academics are rewarded in terms of the volume of literature they produce rather than the teams they run and the products they create. In parallel, universities have historically not had deep, organization-wide partnerships with the private sector. The result is that climate scientists and related experts tend to be siloed and focused purely on conducting research rather than its applications.

Universities must also transition from teaching historical case studies to real-time issues via live cases with companies. Climate tech is moving too fast for us to be studying cases of the past. Competitions and accelerator programmes, where professors, researchers and students can work together to solve real-time challenges, should be implemented at scale. Oxford’s Global Opportunities and Threats programme is one example where faculty, students and alumni can collaborate on live projects with companies to tackle the climate challenge.

2. Leverage job and educational platforms

Large-scale job, educational and professional networking platforms can help identify job opportunities and avenues for upskilling.

Manik Suri of Therma says, “There’s a lot of underutilized platforms like LinkedIn, AngelList and Handshake that already have millions of people on their platforms and rather than build new platforms, we should leverage pre-existing ones to upskill and hire.”

With the right partnerships and content, these platforms could house various products and services to support developing the talent force: job boards, tutorials, workshops, certification and nanodegree programmes. Of course, these platforms cannot replace advanced degrees but there are plenty of areas where they can add value. For example, training on carbon accounting will be critical for companies on numerous fronts and can be packaged and deployed in a short-term training module.

On the partnership front, the platforms must build deep collaborations with universities, research centres and startups, among others, to ensure that they are helping develop and channel the right talent. Additionally, these platforms must be more than matchmakers and become “upskillers” and enablers for both sides of the market.

Omitting segments of the population in the design and deployment of climate technologies could jeopardize the uptake and impact of solutions.

Jamil Wyne, Founder, Climate Tech Bootcamp | Abrar Chaudhury, Research Fellow, University of Oxford Saïd Business School

3. Build educational frameworks and taxonomies

Classifications matter a lot when talking about skills and jobs. Take job-seekers in the healthcare industry as an example. Do you want to be a cardiologist, nurse practitioner, hospital administrator or emergency medical technician? Knowing the different job titles, pathways and prerequisites helps ensure a steady flow of talent throughout any industry.

However, when it comes to climate, we’re at square one. What even is a “climate tech job,” what does it mean to be a climate tech entrepreneur or employee and what competencies are required to be one?

Currently, the US Department of Labour lacks deep, specific datasets for “green jobs,” and no consistent skill taxonomies exist across climate jobs. According to Daniel Goldsmith of Julius Education, “There is definitely the need for better skill models to support educational pathways into the industry."

The components and efforts in this pillar are numerous: taxonomies around skills and job descriptions, career maps, and educational tracks and certifications that can help standardize competency levels in the labour market. Overlooking any of these areas could lead to miscalculating supply and demand and misuse of resources.

The importance of soft skills, e.g. becoming comfortable with ambiguity, balancing short and long-term thinking, resilience and cross-sector collaborations, cannot be underestimated when building educational frameworks and taxonomies for the climate change challenging sector.

Finally, we must also ensure that we are inclusive. Omitting segments of the population in the design and deployment of climate technologies could jeopardize the uptake and impact of solutions.

Mia Diawara from Lowercarbon Capital says, “Fundamentally, labour markets are not inclusive or representative of the population. Lower-income communities are often left out of mainstream work opportunities.” Any effort to build talent will inevitably contend with lingering inclusion challenges and as we build the requisite frameworks and taxonomies around climate, inclusion must be a core tenet.

Have you read?

Building the climate tech talent stack, much like addressing climate change itself, will require unprecedented levels of collaboration between disparate sectors while also compelling us to revisit how we upskill and train our populations. People inhabit the world and we need to equip ourselves and our populations with the requisite skills, jobs and networks to fight the climate threat quickly and equitably.

We would like to thank Susan Su, Cassandra Xia, and Niharika Khanna for their time and support in creating this article.

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