Industry is greedy for graduates of sustainable development courses to help ensure that it enjoys long-term commercial returns. Matt Baker reports
Sustainable development graduates are arguably among the most sought-after in the UK. The environmental services industry turns over more than an estimated £25 billion and employs about 400,000 people, and the sector enjoys year-on-year growth on a par with the aerospace and defence sectors.
According to the latest salary and careers survey by Environmental Data Services, on average, 46 per cent of employers say they are expanding their environmental teams because of government enthusiasm for new environmental strategies and policies and the introduction of European Union environmental assessment directives.
But there is a more calculating reason. "Put bluntly, businesses generally have to be much smarter and more aware about whether society is going to accept that they have a right to exist at all," says Jonathan Bailey, head of external affairs for the Manchester Airports Group.
The rising awareness of environmental issues makes some people think that the skills being taught on sustainable development courses will not be unique for long. "In ten years, I really hope there's no such thing as a sustainable development graduate because it will be embedded in everything we do," says Peter Guthrie, professor in engineering for sustainable development at Cambridge University. "To separate sustainability from other disciplines should by then be anathema." For the time being, however, there are excellent opportunities for graduates of the 74 UK masters programmes with sustainable development elements.
Lewis Hurley, a graduate of Oxford Brookes University's MSc in environmental impact assessment and management, says: "The EU environmental assessment directive came into force halfway through my course, and employers were contacting us directly rather than waiting for us to finish the course." He now works as principal environmental assessment officer for the London Borough of Hillingdon. "It's great because you're at the cutting edge of social, political and economic change, and we're moving away from the woolly-jumper theoretical brigade into working with large consultancies and bringing sustainable development into the mainstream."
It is no easy task to persuade businesses to adopt more caution in chasing profits. Leadership in sustainable development programmes are becoming more widely available. Graduates from such courses now shape government policy, lead think-tanks and help industry implement sustainable solutions. "The question is how far can a consultancy push a client for a sustainable policy when it might compromise its earning potential?," Guthrie says.
Ethical dilemmas come with the territory. To help students understand them and the often fiery stakeholder dialogue process, Guthrie's course at Cambridge pits students against each other in a hypothetical public inquiry.
As difficult as it can be to effect change, graduates working in areas of biodiversity, flood risk or environmental assessment on major infrastructure projects such as reservoirs, power stations and the opening of Manchester Airport's first carbon-neutral terminal are unanimous that industry does not see their work as a nuisance. "Everyone is aware that climate change is happening now," says Lawrie Newton, local authorities project officer for the UK Climate Impacts Programme. "Our role is to catalyse decision-makers to think about these issues and plan ahead."
So is UK industry finally embracing a form of sustainable development that can meet present needs without preventing future generations from meeting their own needs? "There's still a long way to go, but they'd be stupid not to," says Elizabeth Wilson, senior lecturer in environmental planning at Oxford Brookes. "Take the work done in flood-risk areas such as York, for example. This can help save thousands of economic opportunities and a huge loss of investment. We've come a long way from being seen as a single-focused subject to one that links between natural and social sciences, ecology and politics."
Everyone sips from the wellspring of social responsibility
For the fifth year in a row, Severn Trent Water has been named leader of the utility "supersector" in the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index.
Like other leading energy and water companies around the world, the company seeks to ensure that it embeds sustainable development and corporate respon-sibility in every aspect of its operations. It is also listed on the FTSE4Good Index.
Severn Trent's involvement in waste disposal, water supply and energy production puts sustainable development issues at the top of its agenda.
Sir John Egan, its chairman, has said: "Climate change is the most serious environmental challenge facing the world today and is an important business issue for the water and waste industries over the next 20 years."
The company is exploring how its various arms might generate more renewable electricity and further cut its net emissions.
Andy Wales, group head of corporate respon-sibility at Severn Trent, says corporate responsibility to society "has always been something that relates to the core of our business".
The company inculcates its philosophy in its workforce. "Our strategy is to equip managers who have to take day-to-day decisions in terms of corporate social responsibility with the tools to understand them."
Wales and Jane Miller, Severn Trent Water's management development manager, agree that graduate recruits want the company to be known for successfully bringing in sustainable development policies.
Wales is a graduate of Forum for the Future's masters programme in leadership for sustainable development, which combines work-based learning about sustainability with expert tuition, leadership development and skills training. The course, validated by Middlesex University, has run since 1996 and has produced more than 100 graduates.
Several business schools are currently working sustainable development modules into MBA and other programmes.