The waste management industry has, over time, successfully - and quite correctly - rebranded itself as the ‘resources sector’. The idea that there is value in our waste is firmly established.
But the sector is now facing a new realisation: the modern, much more technologically advanced and mature, world of waste management will need a significant influx of highly skilled workers to continue its rapid development.
In order to one day match our EU counterparts’ more impressive track records in waste management, the UK must ensure it attracts the right kinds of skilled, ambitious workers into sustainable resource management.
The question is who are these individuals, what are the skills they and the sector need and where will they come from?
The introduction of landfill tax, after which I founded the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group, was a key moment for the sustainable resource management world.
This was the beginning of a shift away from the simple landfilling of waste to the development of a varied and complex sector designed to keep as many of our resources as possible out of the ground.
The transition from a focus on landfill to a focus on the implementation of the waste hierarchy has inevitably meant a changing profile for the waste management professional.
Whereas comparatively few skilled workers are required for traditional waste treatment methods, many more are now needed to run MRFs, engineer energy-from-waste facilities, implement sustainable product design, strategise partnerships between waste producers, recycling firms and manufacturers. The list is endless.
The key thing for the sector is to ensure that young people looking for long-term employment in a vibrant and ever-changing sector see the opportunity offered by a career in sustainable resource management.
The traditional image of the industry as being ‘dirty’ and somehow detached from wider environmental concerns may have dissuaded our talented young apprentices and graduates in the past. But now is the time to really celebrate the success of the sector and draw in a high calibre of applicant for resource management jobs.
With the range of skills needed, young people with a background in any number of subjects, including engineering, chemistry, design and architecture, could enter a career in waste. Waste firms are also increasingly open to the potential for ‘upskilling’ existing employees.
Furthermore, both in-house and external training within the sector is expanding and improving all the time.
Aside from careers focused on the actual running of machinery or collections, the sector needs a raft of skilled communications and marketing professionals, offering opportunities for many who may never have thought their chosen career could lead them to waste.
With such drive and energy apparent across the world of sustainable resource management, one of the biggest challenges the industry will face will be to bring in enough workers with the right skill sets to support its expansion.
Environmental and resources management remains a growth sector at a time when the rest of the UK economy is struggling.
That alone should be a tremendous draw to those looking for a lasting career that will provide variety as well as endless opportunities for progression.
Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, co-chair of the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group and former chair of the education and skills select committee