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Clean careers and greener pastures

- Lem Chetty

The green economy could save South Africa in more ways than one – cleaning up the environment will contribute to the economy, too.

Plastic pollution and waste © Bas Emmen Unsplash |

One expects solutions to environmental climate crises to be found in the lofty realms of academia, activism, laboratories or engineering and, although these skills are important, there are answers closer to you and me. So, says Dr Presha Ramsarup in the Centre for Researching Education and Labour (REAL) in the Wits School of Education who created the Green Skills Project for South Africa.

While designing the Green Skills Project as part of South Africa’s first Environmental Sector Skills Plan, Ramsarup’s research revealed that, at an occupational level, green jobs don’t have to start from scratch but can be an adaptation of just about every current process of work. Furthermore, and in keeping with the purpose of green jobs, which are not only careers in the environmental sustainability sector, but any career which can be transformed a sustainable way, the green economy starts on the ground.

Freshly minted old jobs

“Originally there was a focus on technological change in transition to a greener economy, but what we’re after is a just, sustainable solution. It is a triangular solution of working greener – in an ecological, economic, and social way. In creating a plan for development of this economy, we had to ask how green jobs can achieve this triangle of elements,” she says.

So, there will be the scientists who look for green solutions, and Chief Sustainability Officers within corporates to determine social impact, wind energy farmers to find sustainable energy solutions. However, green jobs also require everyone to focus on the green aspect of their work – energy-focused auditors and engineers, writers and teachers, bakers and more. The informal sector, particularly in South Africa, will continue with the work of waste pickers and sorters, recyclers and market gardeners.

“We had to look at what the jobs could be that would enable people to enter the community, change the products and process of work, so that they answer the bigger questions about social justice and society, in addition to the ecological question. We are looking at new streams of work and how they can help local communities. This type of work is about sustainability that is moving beyond science and technology,” she says.

Defining the green economy

To begin the process of greening the economy – which refers to transforming current economic activity in a sustainable way – we must start reskilling with a green eye, so to speak. Green skilling can begin at school and tertiary level, although postgraduate skills include analysis, planning and development. These can be adapted to take care of South Africa’s water, waste, clean energy and biodiversity, according to Ramsarup’s brief for the Environmental Sector Skills Plan commissioned by the government.

Greening includes reshaping the “blue” economy too, which looks at the oceans and coastlines, which are vast in South Africa. The skills and human capacity required to effectively manage, protect and utilise the resources in and around these areas are often highly specialised and scarce.

“Knowledge of marine ecosystems and their inter-connectedness with continents and global systems is essential. Additionally, there is a great need for localised expertise to work along the coasts, as well as off-shore,” says Ramsarup.

For waste-water treatment works alone, green skills span engineering, sustainable farming, catchment management, business analysis, investment and economic planning, procurement, marketing and communications, air quality inspection, health and safety monitoring, teaching and more.

Green learning by sector

Ramsarup says the environmental sustainability sector is currently unregulated, despite its size possibly being on the same scale as mining. “There is no Seta [Sector Education and Training Authority] for instance, around the green economy, so part of our research focuses on change-orientated learning pathways and sustainable development. It includes understanding the educational needs around greening in different sectors,” she says.

She is currently researching the paint, agriculture, paper, public procurement, coal, mining and automotive industries. “The idea is that green jobs are not a homogeneous concept [within the sustainability area], but they should resonate within the South African working system and how to strengthen them through the integration of green skills.”

Conceptualising and skills planning green jobs could take a decade, Ramsarup estimates but, for now, the focus is on greening the current landscape.

“It is about envisaging the work and reimagining it, whether it is from a production process or not. Where are the environmental hot spots in the chain? We can first address those needs with the knowledge we have and turn them around in a more environmentally-friendly way,” she says.