This year, the European Commission’s EU Green Week, the biggest annual event on Europe’s environmental calendar, was dedicated to green jobs. Events in Brussels and across Europe looked at the multiple benefits of green employment. As companies move to reduce their ecological footprint, how can we avoid green skills shortages? Green Week also showcased environmental breakthroughs that are creating new green jobs, and how traditional blue collar jobs can become part of a green transition.

It is easy to consider green jobs as the preserve of eco-industries. After all, employment in this sector has grown by 20 % since 2000 and now provides 4.2 million jobs. But the growing importance of sustainability has reached all sectors. Many industries have realised that investing in resource efficiency, energy efficiency, renewable energy, waste and water management actually saves them money by being less reliant on primary materials and imports.

Below, we profile the Global Sales Manager for Recyclables at the Belgian company Umicore, which started life as a mining company over 200 years ago. They took a big step up the value chain and began recycling metal waste rather than digging up raw materials. From circuit boards, Umicore can now retrieve over 95 % of the gold content and transform it into 99.99 % pure solid gold bars. The company has made a spectacular move from literally a coal mine to figuratively a gold mine by recycling metal waste.

Nothing goes to waste in this firm where specialist skills are needed to recycle precious metals from old smart phones, broken laptops and dead batteries collected worldwide.

Thierry Van Kerckhoven specialises in refining precious metals at Umicore’s recycling facility at Hoboken, and also helps the company to find new recycling opportunities.

“We receive scrap materials from Chile to South Korea and from Canada to New Zealand, as well as practically all the countries located between.”

Thierry leads his team in identifying and buying different sources of waste copper, aluminium and zinc – as well as electronic waste. He also helps establish partnerships with businesses to ensure continuous sources of reusable waste.

“We process by-products from the non-ferrous industries and are a service provider for companies in the copper, zinc and lead industries,” he adds.

His employer’s expansion plans envisage more people joining the 10 000-strong workforce of technicians, operators, chemists, administrative staff and scientists. In future, Umicore also expects its employees to handle the increasingly complex global waste streams.

Umicore: facts and figures

  • It is the world’s largest plant for recycling metal waste
  • It processes 350 000 tonnes of precious metals material each year and aims to increase this to 500 000
  • It recovers 17 precious and speciality metals from over 200 complex input streams worldwide

However, we are far from fully exploiting the potential in the waste and recycling sector. Today, less than 25 % of the plastic waste collected is recycled, and about 50 % still goes to landfill. Fully applying the waste laws we currently have would not only increase recycling, but would also create up to 400 000 additional jobs by 2020.

Powering ahead

Another opportunity for green growth and jobs is Europe’s commitment to fighting climate change. However, transforming our energy system into a low-carbon one is no easy task. Investments are needed on a massive scale to develop a decentralised, renewable energy system. To keep Europe’s competitive edge in renewable energy technologies, we also need to invest in workforce skills.

A German utility company has developed a business model which is already reaping the benefits of a greener economy, responding to the largest trends in transforming the energy sector worldwide: decarbonisation, decentralisation and digitalisation.

Henning Joswig worked in coal mining and is now senior manager at innogy SE. It has more than 40 000 employees in 16 countries across Europe who are not only creating and driving innovations, but are also developing themselves towards new horizons. Some of the 50 service technicians, engineers and nautical personnel working at their Nordsee Ost offshore wind farm once worked in coal- and gas-fired power stations.

“I started out as a mining engineer, working in some of the biggest open-pit coal mines in Europe,” says Henning. “Now I work in a totally different approach to power generation.”

Today, he is in innogy’s strategy and technology department, where he is developing innovative future energy systems and storage applications – technologies that are required to unlock the full potential of renewable energies.

innogy: facts and figures

  • It currently supplies energy to around 16 million power and 7 million gas customers in 11 European countries
  • It is among the top wind operators in Europe
  • It is also the largest electricity provider by volume in Germany

Bridging the green skills gap

The EU is offering practical support to help businesses and citizens through a number of programmes, including its Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. The European Social Fund is also supporting actions to upgrade workers’ skills. In Spain, for example, the ESF committed more than EUR 22 million to a Green Jobs Programme which has helped around 60 000 people acquire skills through 2000 different training courses. There has also been a special focus on helping workers in declining economic sectors to re-skill for the green jobs market.

Erasmus+, the EU’s education and training programme, is boosting activities in this area, too. For instance, the Green S&C project has enhanced green skills in Southern Tuscany, Italy, to meet demand from local businesses. Young students and high-school graduates have experienced learning in other countries, developing technical and professional expertise in energy efficiency, waste-cycle efficiency and ecological product development, among other green processes.

Source: Environment for Europeans Magazine