Edition 110, September 2020

If we want a Circular Economy, we need a Workforce Trained in Circular Skills

By Adrienna Zsakay, Circular Economy Asia

New Skills is the Game Changer

The circular economy has made the industrial revolution famous for one thing – the linear economic model we know as the take-make-waste system. Yet a closer look reveals a history we should not ignore, and in fact, may provide the answers for the circular and sustainable revolution we now seek.

The industrial revolution is considered to have its beginning around 1760 and lasting for approximately 150 years. It was the most dynamic time in the whole history of the human race. The sheer number of innovations, inventions and extraordinary entrepreneurship that pushed through change was astounding. To start the world shifted from using organic and natural forces (water) as the primary source of energy to coal and later oil.

At the same time, novel inventions in textile spinning and weaving could be mechanized with these efficient sources of energy. This lead to increased productivity which did not just create modern industries but reduced the costs of goods, making it more affordable for a broader segment of the population.

Our free online course ‘The Essentials of the Circular Economy’ delves into this time in history in a lot more detail. There is, of course, a reason this historical perspective as background for the circular economy. To know where we are going, it is often a good idea to see where we have come from.

You see, there is one thread that unites the past with the sustainable and circular future we want. The single most remarkable feature that enabled the industrial revolution was skills training. A skilled workforce across every single sector of every industry was vital for the innovations and inventions to become part of society.

The earliest skills training were more practical. All types of engineering jobs emerged to build, fix and maintain the machines in the factories that drove industry. As the world changed the rise of the first department stores saw knowledgeable floor-walking assistants serve as guides to retail treasure troves as well as being thoroughly instructed in the art of making a sale. These lavish department stores with trained staff contributed significantly to the beginnings of the consumer and disposable society we have today.

And, finally, no conversation on the industrial revolution would be complete without a mention of Henry Ford, the inventor of the mass production assembly line. The primary requirement to maximise the efficiency of the flow of the assembly line was a stable workforce that could be trained and then relied upon to fulfil their assigned daily tasks.

In the early days of automotive production, a high rate of turnover (as much as 378 percent, or 53,000 employees per year, according to Henry Ford in his book, My Life and Times) kept manufacturing facilities from meeting production goals. To Henry Ford, skills training was an absolute necessity to achieve a stable workforce.

By now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with the circular economy? Skills development is part of any career trajectory; either as an exercise for self-improvement for a broader range of job opportunities or promotion within a company or employers maintaining skills and training to keep their competitive advantage.

But are we training for the circular economy or sustainability? Do staff know what is expected of them to participate in a company’s sustainability and circular ambitions? In many cases, the answer is no.

Let me give you an example. Recycling is becoming an increasingly important activity in many companies, yet do staff know what happens to the materials they recycle? Probably not. Research shows that people are more likely to recycle if they see what happens to the materials; otherwise, it becomes a vague concept created around a narrative focused on ‘saving the planet’.

By establishing a circular economy narrative based on circular systems thinking, your company story can include:

  1. How many jobs did your recycling create today (this week or month)?
  2. Consider calculating how much a company recovers and reprocesses instead of how much a company recycles.

Although it may seem like an impossible task engaging the local school or university could make it a community exercise.

The Practical Side to the Circular Economy

While many people and organisations focus on education and awareness, the real work is in implementation, and the truth is most companies have no idea how to get started with the circular economy other than recycling. Even at that most basic level staff are ill-equipped to participate in waste-as-a-resource programs.

Expanding the recycling narrative from an environmental perspective to a raw material resource recovery initiative that could directly impact your company is a story worth discovering.

Although companies may be hesitant to invest funds into circular training, the world is changing, and soon these practices will become more commonplace. A company’s participation in resource management will, before long, become a necessity to future proof their supply chain.

Basic training for all staff will be critical for a company to achieve its sustainability and circular goals.

The newly launched Circular Skills website currently hosts three online courses with 15 more in the pipeline just for 2020 alone. Anyone interested in the circular economy should start with the Circular Economy Foundation Course and move to other courses as per their skill requirements.

Over the coming months, Circular Skills will expand to include online workshops, in-house training and industry-specific courses that address skills for new circular business. For example, Levi Jeans has just started selling jeans with recycled content. There is no reason why a small to medium size enterprise or start-up cannot also collect unwanted textiles for reprocessing into new textiles for the circular fashion industry.

Most entrepreneurs will want a sound understanding of the business model and what skills are required for staff to work in a circular reprocessing industry. Our courses and workshops aim to address this gap by bringing together qualified people, through the extensive network we have gathered over the last several years, to ensure we deliver the highest skill training standard possible.

Adrienna Zsakay
Ms Adrienna Zsakay, CEO of Circular Economy Asia and www.CircularSkills.org. Ms Zsakay is based in Malaysia and can be contacted via email: adrienna@circulareconomyasia.org