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Sustainability and natural resource management skills:


Since committing to the Paris Agreement in 2015/2016, Australia has engaged in reducing carbon emissions and combatting climate change. In an effort to deal with the effects of climate change and improve sustainability, there is an increasing need for sustainability and natural resource management skills.

The 2009 Green Skills Agreement revised training packages to include ‘green skills’, and the cross-sector project on Environmental Sustainability Skills continued the emphasis on sustainability skills by aiming to identify duplication and gaps in sustainability skills which span industries.


COVID-19 impact

The National Agricultural Workforce Strategy states consumer expectations and government standards promote the need for end-to-end supply chain traceability and visibility, and the scope of requirements is being extended to support environmental sustainability and social responsibility. With the appearance the pandemic may have its origins in an uncontrolled food market supply chain, there is an increased need to build and maintain the high standards and integrity of Australian supply chains in the current era of global concern about the origin and safety of food.

An increase in demand for complementary skilled landscaping and nursery workers is anticipated in the Agriculture, Horticulture, Conservation and Land Management IRC’s 2021 Skills Forecast, following the impact COVID-19 has had on peoples’ use of domestic space, notably gardens. The skills forecast reports gardening was the second most popular lockdown activity people planned to do after watching television and is predicted to maintain its current surge in popularity due to associated economic, recreational, health and environmental benefits.

The Australian Government’s Modern Manufacturing Strategy is a key part of the Government’s JobMaker plan, introduced to support economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The strategy’s associated roadmaps related to sustainability and natural resource management include those prepared for Resources Technology and Critical Minerals Processing National Manufacturing and the Recycling and Clean Energy National Manufacturing.

Initial responses to the pandemic by the states and territories included:

  • The Western Australian Government recovery plan includes The Green Jobs Plan, and three fee-free skill sets for young people and job seekers were announced in support of this plan.
  • The Queensland Government announced funding for 11 environmental projects in the Great Barrier Reef catchments, which were expected to support around 130 jobs.
  • The Jobs for Canberrans Fund supported a new team in the ACT Parks and Conservation Service to help maintain the Territory’s parks and reserves.
  • The Tasmanian Government, as part of its Jobs Plan, announced funding for a number of industries and projects related to sustainability and natural resource management, including for renewal energy, national parks, and waste management.
  • Victoria in particular was harshly affected by health measures introduced to control the spread of COVID-19. Announcements related to building sustainability and natural resource management skills in the state include:

The Food, Beverage and Pharmaceutical IRC’s 2021 Skills Forecast highlights changing consumer demands have been accelerated by the pandemic in relation to ethical, sustainably sourced products, and selection of brands that promote transparency and alignment with the consumers’ values.

Industry skills needs

The reviewed literature indicates the primary sustainability and resource management issues impacting the skills requirements of Australian industries: climate change, the circular economy and ethical and transparent supply chains.

The 26th annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) in Glasgow, Scotland was held in October 2021, following a deferral in 2020 due to the COVID19 pandemic. The Outcomes of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow document states COP26 clearly established 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming as the limit all countries will need to work toward, and that countries must revisit their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by the end of 2022.

Australia’s 2021 NDC update committed to net zero emissions by 2050, inscribed low emissions technology stretch goals, affirmed the 2030 target, and reported 2021 projections results showing Australia is on track to exceed this target by up to 9 percentage points. The low emissions technology stretch goals are underpinned by the Technology Investment Roadmap and aim to drive priority technologies to cost parity with higher emissions alternatives. The priority technology stretch goals include clean hydrogen production, low-cost solar electricity generation and storage, and low emissions steel and aluminium production.

The Australian Government response to the Inquiry into Australia’s Waste Management and Recycling Industries states the circular economy exchanges the typical ‘make, use, dispose’ cycle with one in which material resources are kept in productive use for as long as possible using processes such as waste avoidance, reuse, repair, repurposing and recycling. The federal government supports the transition to a predominately circular economy to transform waste into sustainable resources and reduce the impact of landfills.

The Sustainability Industry Reference Committee (IRC), supported by IBSA Manufacturing, is reviewing the MSS Sustainability Training Package, stating three sets of changes are driving the case for change: the ban on waste, a global shift towards a circular economy and the need to align qualifications to emerging and future job roles:

  • Australia is one of around 100 countries impacted by restrictions introduced by China on the import of recyclable materials, and the Australian Government has banned the export of unprocessed waste overseas via the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020.

  • There is a global movement towards a circular economy which include recycling, reuse and remanufacturing principles, which if the Australian manufacturing sector keeps pace with the trend and moves toward closed loop systems will enable Australia to offer traceable premium green products and reduce reliance on imported goods and materials.

  • Demand for skills in sustainable operations is driving a need for a more sophisticated and strategic skills base including knowledge and understandings such as science-based targets, triple bottom lines, governance, leadership and management, data interpretation and communication. Additionally, the terminology used in the qualifications does not reflect contemporary language and concepts, and, as the entire sustainability sector functions on legislation, the qualifications need to promote greater awareness of government regulations.

A KPMG report commissioned by the CSIRO examining the potential economic effects of circular opportunities in the Food, Transport and the Built Environment sectors estimates that a circular economy could increase Australia’s GDP by $23 billion.

The Supply Chain Leaders’ Sentiment Report states that supply chains can have a direct and tangible impact on the environment, and sustainability is a priority for consumers and businesses. Policies and initiatives that supply chain leaders are implementing include ethical sourcing, sustainable supplier selection and material selection, and the use of recyclables. The environmental impacts of doing business are being addressed through emissions reduction strategies, the use of renewable energy, electric vehicles and alternative fuels. Almost half (48%) of the respondents to a survey conducted by Lonergan Research for ELMO Software indicated they would not work for a business that did not take action to address climate change, and 84% believe Australians businesses should do more to reduce their emissions and carbon footprint.

While sustainability principles within supply chains is a whole of industry concern, procurement and supply chain management are specifically delivered under the Transport, Government and Business Training Packages, and have been prioritised in previous year skills forecasts for Manufacturing subsectors including Textiles, Clothing and Footwear.

Industries that may experience changes to skills demand in relation to climate change policy include, for example:

  • Utilities – the electricity sector accounts for 33% of Australia's total emissions. The 2021 Industry Outlook for the ESI Generation, the ESI Transmission, Distribution and Rail, and the Gas subsectors of the Utilities industry highlight the shift to renewable energy resources.  
  • Electrotechnology – the Electrotechnology IRC’s 2021 Industry Outlook states solar installation has been steadily growing, with the current two and a half million installations anticipated to double by the mid-2020s, and around 50% of clean energy jobs are projected to be in operation and maintenance by 2035. Additionally, the phasing down of the use of synthetic refrigerants to reduce hydrofluorocarbon emissions to refrigerants with a low Global Warming Potential, which are more flammable, toxic to humans and operate at extreme pressures.

Some specific examples of industries where sustainability and resource management skills, particularly environmental sustainability, have been identified as important include:

  • Agriculture, Food and Pharmaceutical Production and Process manufacturing, particularly in relation to chemical manufacturing (fertiliser and feedstock), due to changing consumer values increasing the importance of the ‘social licence to farm/operate’ and government policy and regulations. These industries are prioritising environmental sustainability, incorporating ethical treatment, waste minimisation, traceability and provenance, and supply chain management.
  • Manufacturing and Related Services, particularly Textiles, Clothing and Footwear are also impacted by the increasing importance of a social licence to operate, which is redefining how, and which kinds of businesses firms operate. Industry and customers are placing greater emphasis on sustainability and product stewardship, minimising waste, recycling, repurposing and ethical sourcing.
  • Business, Government and Financial Services, due to ethical and environmental sustainability decisions made in procurement and supply chain management, and government policy and regulation. Stakeholders and consumers have increasing expectations that organisations ‘make good’ on the commitments stated in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports.
  • Retail and Wholesale and Transport have a direct and tangible impact on the environment, and are prioritising ethical sourcing, sustainable supplier and material selection, recycling and the use of recyclables. Strategies for the use of renewable energy, electric vehicles and alternative fuels are also being implemented.

    Internet job postings

    Internet job vacancy postings that contained requests for sustainability and natural resource management skills were examined for occupational trends. This includes land and resource management, environmental protection, water treatment, and environmental engineering. The chart below compares the percentage of internet job postings in each occupation (ANZSCO Major Group) that requested sustainability and natural resource management skills.

    Internet job postings that requested sustainability and natural resource management skills, by occupation (2018-21) 

    Source: Burning Glass Technologies’ Labor Insight™ Real-time Labor Market Information tool.


    Sustainability and natural resource management skills are rarely directly requested in job postings. They are requested the most for managers and professionals and almost never for sales workers or community and personal service workers. This suggests employers will only request these skills when the job is environmentally focused.

    The following graphic shows examples of occupations where sustainability and natural resource management skills are highly requested, and some examples of the types of requests employers are making for those in these occupations.

    Occupations with sustainability and natural resource management skills requested are normally directly within an environmental field, such as environmental advice or management. They are also relevant for policy and planning positions where environmental concerns are a factor.

    Case study

    Food and Pharmaceutical Production and Agriculture

    The Food and Pharmaceutical Production industries provide direct employment to more than 215,000 people and food and beverage products are central to the employment and sustainability of the agriculture, meat, seafood, wine, wholesale and retail, and tourism and hospitality industries. This industry includes:

    • Food processing and manufacturing
    • Beverage manufacturing
    • Pharmaceutical and nutraceutical manufacturing
    • Feedlots and wild game harvesting
    • Wholesaling and retailing.

    The Food, Beverage and Pharmaceutical IRC’s 2021 Skills Forecast has identified sustainability as a priority, with changes in skills requirements for the sector’s workforce being led by consumer and industry trends, and the regulatory environment, which is highlighted in the following quotes from the skills forecast:

    COVID-19 is accelerating the emerging consumer focus on health and wellbeing and ethical, sustainably sourced products, including from plant-based proteins. There is also a broader trend of caution and selectiveness towards brands that demonstrate purpose, transparency and alignment with consumers’ values, including a renewed emphasis on supporting local, independent manufacturing businesses. Aligned with this, Australia’s ‘clean and green’ identity, which is enhanced by strict biosecurity governance, and its reputation for high-quality, trusted and verifiable products is a unique advantage. This is sustained by ‘country of origin’ labelling, blockchain, traceability and provenance investments and initiatives that enable the industry to validate sourcing information, meet consumer demands, support smarter value chains and combat food fraud.

    The Food and Agribusiness Growth Centre (FIAL) commissioned report Capturing the Prize includes the agriculture, fishing and food-related manufacturing value chain, including agricultural machinery, seeds and packaged food products sectors. The report includes the quote:

    Training institutions are already observing a shift in the way the Australian workforce is responding to changing skill needs. For example, officials at the Australian Institute of Packaging said in an interview that training courses for workers in the packaging industry are focusing more strongly than in the past on recycling, sustainable materials and technical skills. The type of workers attending these courses has also changed over the past couple of years, according to the Institute: from professionals such as packaging technologists and industrial designers to a greater number of attendees with non-packaging backgrounds (such as quality control professionals, sustainability and environmental professionals, or production staff).

    The media release from Federation University, a dual-sector tertiary education provider, Federation launches Australia's first hybrid TAFE and university degree includes:

    The first half of the degree embeds a Diploma of Food Science and Technology to develop student’s knowledge and core practical skills across food testing, quality and sustainability…Graduates of the new Bachelor of Sustainable Food Systems can expect to work in food safety, product research and development, regulatory affairs and quality assurance, and contribute to activities which promote a circular economy.

    The Agricultural industry comprises the following industry sectors:

    • Production Horticulture
    • Broadacre Farming
    • Livestock Farming
    • Mixed Crop and Livestock Farming
    • Agriculture Support Services
    • Agricultural Product Wholesaling.

    The Agriculture, Horticulture, Conservation and Land Management IRC’s 2021 Skills Forecast includes:

    [Qualifications that] are intended for employment in a niche occupation or specialist industry… often facilitate socially and environmentally valuable or geographically specific skills that are critical for jobs with few employees nationwide. The Diploma in Organic Farming, for example, not only provides the framework for produce to be grown organically and sustainably, it also imparts the leadership skills for companies seeking to be certified as organic. This industry is projected to grow at an annual rate of 15% – which, according to IBISWorld, is the highest of any industry – over the five years through 2024-25, reaching $3.7 billion. This reflects rising consumer demand for information about the provenance of their food and assurances that farming practices take into account climate change by harnessing natural capital through methods such as regenerative agriculture.

    The National Agricultural Workforce Strategy includes:

    Arguably the most important factor impacting on the AgriFood sector in both Australia and globally is the simultaneous challenge to, on one hand, increase productivity to supply enough nutritious food for a global population still growing at around 160 people per minute and, on the other hand, do this in ways and using systems that also enhance ecosystem health…While sustainability challenges must be met both globally and by each country individually according to its own specific needs and circumstances, the 'front lines' of this battle to enhance the sustainability of our AgriFood systems are farms and agribusinesses and they will require much support to do this. An essential component of this support must be an upskilled, fit-for purpose workforce.

    Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture are a major issue for the sector. It is estimated that around 14.5% of current global GHG emissions come directly from agriculture…GHG emissions from agriculture must therefore be mitigated and reduced if the social licence to farm is to be maintained…Increasing production, productivity and profitability in the AgriFood sector at the same time as reducing its GHG footprint will clearly not be based on business as usual; new knowledge, skills and technologies will be required for these essential changes to be made. Each of these will require an upskilled workforce if Australia is to maintain and enhance its competitiveness in global markets, which are becoming increasingly discerning in relation to the environmental impacts of agriculture.

    Many studies project net adverse impacts on crop yields due to climate change, and many of those adverse effects will be felt in regions that are at the forefront of both food production and food consumption…Most of the indicators for climate change in Australia paint an equally concerning scenario…Effective and efficient adaptation to climate change is a major challenge for the Australian AgriFood sector if it is to remain sustainable and become more resilient to future climatic perturbations…This level of adaptation will have direct workforce implications, most strongly felt at the regional scale, where changes to what is grown and how it is grown will lead to changing demand for skills and workforce profiles.

    The strategy also highlights the cross-industry relationship of maintaining sustainable practices with the quotes:

    Sustainability transitions are clearly a team effort with significant implications for greater knowledge and a broader range of skills, not just for the on-farm workforce but also for workers in other parts of the value chain and the service sectors such as agronomists, input providers, banks, and farm insurance agencies.

    Sustainability transitions will create new job opportunities in the AgriFood sector and require the current workforce to be upskilled. FIAL estimates that opportunities to create healthier soils could increase job numbers by 30% from 2019 to 2030. Equally, it estimates that employment linked to waste collection, disposal and recycling services could double from 2019 to 2030.

    Manufacturing and Related Services

    The Manufacturing and Related Services industry is very diverse, covering multiple sectors. It forms a large part of the Australian economy and is one of Australia’s largest employing industries. Manufacturing has been targeted as an integral part of Australia’s economic growth, particularly in the recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing the global challenge of climate change. Manufacturing has the potential to increase the demand for sustainability and resource management skills, as shown in the following quotes.

    The Recycling and Clean Energy National Manufacturing Priority Road Map includes:

    Materials and energy are at the heart of manufacturing. Modernising how we use them is central to building an advanced manufacturing economy that realises more potential from our resources and supports our national resilience, economic recovery and environmental sustainability. The move to more sustainable solutions for materials and energy is happening around the world. Companies committed to greener supply chains - including manufacturers and their customers - collectively wield over $5 trillion in combined purchasing power. Over 1,100 companies worldwide have now pledged to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, often by working with their manufacturing suppliers and manufacturing customers. These global demand megatrends are reshaping the landscape for manufacturing, accelerated by market and policy pressure to reduce emissions and waste, the scale of public and private green investment, and the falling cost of technology. Australian manufacturers are well positioned to use our unique industrial advantages - combining innovation, abundant clean energy, material resources, and onshore industrial base - to become competitive global players.

    We have barely begun to tap the abundant re-manufacturing potential of our waste streams, especially for plastics, glass and e-waste. Less than 5% of our plastic consumption is currently recycled. CSIRO estimates we could capture up to $3 billion value each year through lithium battery recycling alone. We have exceptional natural resources which offer significant green manufacturing potential. Our clean energy resources are unrivalled in the developed world. We are also a top producer of critical minerals, rare earths and important base metals that the global energy transition demands. Manufacturing batteries, electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines needs specific materials. These include copper, lithium and nickel - all commodities where Australia has world-leading reserves.

    On 12 August 2021, the Senate referred the matter of the Australian manufacturing industry to the Economics References Committee for inquiry. The final report includes:

    Witnesses discussed the manufacturing industry's changing skills and training requirements…The committee heard of the increasing demand for skills in sustainability, advanced maintenance and diagnostics, supply chains, procurement, as well as the demand for management and 'soft' skills.

    A number of submitters drew the committee's attention to the opportunities for Australia to maximise its natural competitive advantage for reliable, cheap renewable energy and the role that Australian manufacturing can play in its delivery through the manufacture of supporting technology and products, (such as solar photo-voltaic cells, batteries, electric vehicles, bioenergy, and green hydrogen) - particularly given its reserves of critical minerals, rare earths and base metals - and the export of renewable energy. For example, Science and Technology Australia estimates that the production and export of hydrogen fuel could be worth $26 billion to the Australian economy by 2050 and the ACTU told the committee: … hydrogen, green steel, critical minerals, battery manufacturing, education and training as well as other services. Together, that has got the potential to generate $89 billion of gross value and create nearly 400,000 jobs in Australia up to 2040.


    The Utilities industry employs over 100,000 people, providing vital services in Fossil Fuel and Renewable Generation, supplying high-voltage electricity from generators to distribution networks and directly to domestic and industrial users, gaseous fuel storage and distribution, gas retail, transmission and distribution, and providing water and sewerage systems to households and businesses, and irrigation water in agriculture. The industry is comprised of four main industry sectors:

    • ESI Generation
    • ESI Transmission, Distribution and Rail
    • Gas
    • Water.

    The increasing adoption of renewable energy technologies is reshaping the industry’s operations and may provide opportunities for some sectors to transition workers from fossil fuels. This is highlighted in the following quotes taken from the three 2021 industry outlooks related to energy.

    The ESI Generation IRC’s 2021 Industry Outlook includes:

    The Renewable sector has the potential to employ over 44,000 by 2025 and with the right policy settings, regional areas are poised to benefit the most with potentially about 70 per cent of these jobs being located in regional areas. The energy sector's transition to renewables is among the top five key shifts in the Australian economy.

    Supplying remote areas and communities with affordable and reliable electricity is a significant task. Renewables sources such as wind and solar energy as well as battery storage technology can help in addressing this challenge.

    Energy Networks Australia and the CSIRO predict more than 40% of industrial customers will use renewable technologies by 2027, lifting to 60% in the next 30 years. With the expected retirement of several coal generation plants, green energy sources and methods will improve the efficiency of electricity generation...The workforce needs to be skilled in the implementation, operation, and maintenance of renewables technologies to facilitate the transition between fossil fuels to renewables. Workers are also required to be aware of the latest regulatory and compliance issues regarding these technologies.

    The ESI Transmission, Distribution and Rail IRC’s 2021 Industry Outlook includes:

    Electricity networks are being decentralised due to technological changes, customers' taking control of their energy use, and Distributed Energy Resources (DER) such as solar PVs, battery storage, and wind generating units connected to the electricity grid…Changes to the way electricity is distributed requires the workforce to be upskilled in the safe operation and maintenance of new systems and technologies.

    DERs and other technologies are gaining more traction in Australia. However, energy regulations and policies have been lagging behind. The energy sector has identified policy uncertainty and regulations as a key challenge to address. A coherent energy policy can encourage more investment in DERs and improvement of integration with the grid. The safety of the workforce is highly important in the industry, refresher training is conducted to ensure competency is up to date in this dangerous work environment.

    The Gas IRC’s 2021 Industry Outlook includes:

    Hydrogen is among the top six technologies that will gain more traction in 2021. The hydrogen industry can offer enormous benefits by generating career opportunities such as technicians, tradespeople, and professionals, especially in regional areas. Hydrogen can also enhance Australia's fuel security and add to the country's GDP.

    The workforce will need to be qualified to work with hydrogen safely and competently. Workers require skills and knowledge about hydrogen storage optimisation, repair and maintenance of hydrogen storage equipment, requirements for blending hydrogen with gas through gas distribution network, and use of control systems to monitor hydrogen in gas distribution networks. New skills standards should reflect operation and maintenance of equipment and technologies for hydrogen production. The workforce skills and knowledge should cover compliance standards and application of safety regulations, practices, and procedures for handling, transport, and use of hydrogen.

    The Australian Gas industry is rapidly moving towards decarbonisation. New innovations include the use of hydrogen and biogas ... Biomethane can be injected into the network and used for heating, cooking, and energy. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is another innovation whereby carbon is captured and stored underground to mitigate the emission risks…The increasing implementation of new technologies and alternative fuels will require the workforce to have the skills and knowledge regarding safety, environmental regulations, as well as operation and maintenance of new systems and technologies which reduce industry's environmental impacts.

    Property Services

    The Property Services industry comprises five main industry sectors: Architectural, Surveying and Related Services, Cleaning, Pest Control and Waste Management, Property Operations and Real Estate, Property Inspection and Servicing, Security and Investigation.

    Sustainability skills were highlighted in the Property Services IRC’s 2020 Skills Forecast (abridged annual update), stating one of the five main changes and opportunities in the Property Services industry is:

    Consumer (and client) demand: for sustainable, green, energy efficient, and digital technologies, and convergence across these demands.

    The skills forecast also includes:

    The industry is being impacted by significant continuing technological changes to the built environment, particularly new digital-enabled and green technologies and emerging environmental risks.

    The Property Services sector has been significantly disrupted by cross-sector collaboration and convergence of industries. This trend is amplified by the introduction of new technologies and the increase in environmental sustainability regulations and standards for buildings. Such circumstances are changing the necessary skills profile of workers in property services.

    The Recycling and Clean Energy National Manufacturing Priority Road Map also impacts the Waste Management subsector, as highlighted in the following quotes:

    Global markets are gradually transforming from a ‘throughput economy’ (relying on virgin inputs and generating waste) to a ‘circular economy’ (where materials are reduced, reused, recycled and remanufactured).

    The National Waste Policy aims to reduce waste where possible and make productive use of waste where it is generated. The National Waste Policy Action Plan, Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020, and National Product Stewardship Investment Fund will increase material recovery rates, ban the export of key waste streams, support product stewardship initiatives, and boost the role of government as a procurer of recovered materials.

    In the recycling sector, large vertically-integrated companies who collect, process and remanufacture waste occupy a strong market position that helps provide the volume, stable demand, and economies of scale needed to make recycling activities viable. This market structure, and the complexity of logistics and processing systems designed around it, can deter new market entrants or make introducing innovations difficult. More competition in materials processing could help drive down costs and improve quality of feedstocks for remanufacturing.

    Through the National Waste Policy Action Plan, governments and industry are investing in better collection, sorting, processing and transport systems, generally operated by large companies with extensive infrastructure including material recovery facilities (MRFs). This is reducing contamination and the cost of post-consumer material streams, but while essential, it is not sufficient to seize opportunities.

    Updated: 29 Mar 2022
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