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The number of education programs by schools and universities on this new cross-disciplinary, sustainable-production model is growing. The demand for this type of profile is increasing in every sector.

The circular economy will create 24 million jobs around the world by 2030, according to the International Labour Organization. Calculations by the European Union (EU) for this same period point to an annual increase of 0.3% in employment related to this area, which will result in around 700,000 new jobs. They would make up a new workforce of professionals working under a norm that breaks away from the throw-away culture and proposes that waste be transformed.

With this paradigm shift, new roles and unprecedented tasks are emerging. It is increasingly common to ask that employees be able to calculate the environmental footprint of a product or design it to extend its lifecycle and increase its recyclability. But, how and where can we get training in the circular economy, an area that, as experts emphasize, is a philosophy affecting all business activity rather than a series of isolated bits of knowledge? What education programs are there and where are they taught? Who are they intended for? Is there a market and outlets for this training?

The circular economy

What is studied in a master’s in circular economy?

  1. History and principles of the circular economy
  2. How it fits within the European Green Pact and the Spanish sustainability strategy
  3. Environmental management tools
  4. Product life cycle
  5. Ecodesign
  6. Calculating the environmental footprint of products and services
  7. Circular economy business models
  8. Communication in the circular economy
  9. Changing the corporate culture
  10. Access to energy transition funding and subsidies

A varied, intergenerational profile

The circular economy is being talked about by the public, politicians, the media, and companies. It has filtered into the popular imagination and crops up when people talk of fighting climate change or the energy transition. As a result, courses based around this topic have proliferated. One of the first schools to offer them was the Bilbao Engineering School of the University of the Basque Country (UPV) back in 2002, which was teaching its students to ecodesign a product: How to design an item to minimize its environmental footprint.

Since then, the range offered by this university and other schools has grown and diversified. Today, the UPV has a Master's in Circular Economy: Application to Companies, which began as a postgraduate degree and is now in its third consecutive year. Rikardo Mínguez, its director, explains that there are 25 students per year from very different backgrounds: “We have professionals who are sustainability directors or CSR managers for their companies. They come from industries like construction, food, or automotive. They want to move on and be retrained with circular economy skills. And in class, they are mixed in with new graduates. There's a lot of synergy among them. It leads to a very good educational environment and information exchange. In parallel, the school and Repsol Foundation are sponsoring an education and research program to disseminate the circular economy and study its impact on the value chain.

The EU estimates an annual growth in its GDP of 0.5% by 2030 due to the professionalization and development of the circular economy.

Just as this Basque university has spent two decades talking about these concepts, other schools, such as ESCI-UPF and the Pompeu Fabra University business school in Barcelona, offer very specific courses closely tied to the current trend, such as a postgraduate degree in Sustainable Transition Management and the Climate Emergency, which focuses on business creation in an era of global warming and will start its second year in September.  Lela Mélon, its director, says that its spirit is open and practical: “There's an enormous change in the way of teaching. We come from old systems with a lot of dense theory. What we teach here is applicable, from the very first class, to the world of business.”

Fifteen students enrolled for the first year. They included graduates in economics, law, and communication and experienced professionals with over 50 years of age. “We produce sustainability consultants who can work for a company or set up their own. Auditors specializing in producing environmental change commitment reports, for example, or green public procurement. The push from the EU is creating great demand,” added Mélon. 

A girl studying

A philosophy rather than a degree

Experts emphasize that this economy is a philosophy that encompasses everything, and not just a degree in itself. Companies are transforming their essential nature and their practices. They start with the technical aspects but include the cultural aspects as well. Trash is no longer trash. It's now waste – a resource that can be transformed into a raw material and can enter the production chain over and over again. Ignacio Fresneda, from the Industrial Transformation and Circular Economy's People and Organization Department at Repsol, explained that what most characterizes this new order is that its cross-disciplinary: “People go into master's in circular economy with anything from a degree in chemical engineering to law, economics, or agroforestry engineering. The practices, whether in the fashion or energy industries, may be different, but they will be governed by the same principles.

This mixture of backgrounds, where beginners and veterans come together, results in diverse, versatile teams. Fresneda described a practical case: “Scientists are responsible for selecting the most efficient technologies. They tend to be chemists, engineers, or biologists, who, together with industrial or process engineers, adapt them and integrate them into our current processes.” Afterwards, they must learn to communicate this transformation on a board with different rules of the game. The students are also prepared for this: “When a model undergoes such great change, the challenge also lies in the way to talk about it. You have to motivate people and explain so that they become involved. Emphasizing not only what is good but also what is bad or complicated, with no corporate whitewash,” noted Fresneda.

New businesses

Rikardo Mínguez, of the UPV, says that in his master’s program, at the moment, there are more students than internships available. 

A majority of his students end up by finding work with small and medium-sized environmental consultancies. It is one of the most thriving niche businesses. “A growing number of companies of this kind are subcontracted by large corporations to measure their environmental footprint. They can also offer advice on complying with waste management and recycling regulations and adapting to the European Green Pact – a Europe-wide program to combat climate change – or help calculate their water or carbon footprint, among other things.”

“A background in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is a key factor. And I'm not only referring to a university education, professional training is essential in our sector,” said Ignacio Fresneda from Repsol. For example, the arrival of European funds is opening up a crack for legal specialists in green subsidies, who are experts in applying for them and meeting the requirements: “And for businesses around renewable hydrogen, the new materials, new energies, or big data,” added the expert.

Circular economists

Ten up-and-coming green-economy professions

The report Employment in sustainability and the environment: 10 professions with a future by the International University of La Rioja and Infoempleo (2021) listed ten positions as some of the careers in sustainability with the brightest future.

  1. Sustainable technological solutions and projects analyst: Analyzes the activities that could be harmful for a company and alters them to be more sustainable solutions.
  2. Occupational risk, quality, environment, and CSR technician: Advises companies on how to manage the implementation of regulations or standards for risk prevention, the implementation of quality systems, environmental impact reduction, and corporate social responsibility.
  3. Sustainable logistics consultant: Performs tasks relating to labeling or packaging, product costs (types of contracts and transportation), controlling the company’s contamination levels, and selecting a less polluting means of transportation.
  4. Ecodesigner: Includes environmental criteria in the product design and development phase, trying to take preventive measures to lessen the environmental impact.
  5. Circular economy specialist: Works to ensure that the products that companies put on the market are produced taking sustainability criteria into account.
  6. Environmental education specialist: Teaches about environmental, economic, and cultural processes through the acquisition of skills such as critical thinking and a systemic approach.
  7. Environmental sustainability expert: Manages a company's resources sustainably, both for the production and distribution of its goods and services.
  8. Cultural manager specializing in sustainability: Preserves the sustainability of the management and development of cultural and artistic projects.
  9. Renewable energies expert: Manages a company's resources sustainably, both for the production and distribution of its goods and services.
  10. Environmental engineer: Assessess, prevents, and seeks technical solutions for the environmental problems that a company’s production processes may cause.

Towards the ‘pure’ circular economist

While waiting for these roles, the tasks intrinsic to this new reality, such as ensuring a company is elegible to apply for green subsidies or balancing the books so that a change in energy supply is profitable, are absorbed by a mixture of professionals who are trained and expand their skills along the way. However, an unprecedented position is coming: that of the pure circular economist, in other words, professionals who have grown up in this field, not experts on the fringe of it. This is what Luis Salvatella, director of the joint Master's in Circular Economy at the University of La Rioja, University of Lleida, University of Zaragoza, and Public University of Navarre, believes: “There is still no circular economy manager in every company, unlike with occupational risk prevention, but they will probably start to appear soon.”

This job will emerge in the end. Meanwhile, the demand for circularized professionals continues to grow. Companies and governments, pushed by climate change, are increasingly tightening up their environmental obligations. The circular economy permeates all these requirements: “It is an enormous challenge for society that transcends all sectors and all levels. The most obvious is related to leveraging renewable raw materials through reuse, repair, and recycling. It affects many aspects of companies such as digitalization, logistics, and accounting management. It is difficult to find a sector that is untouched by this necessary revolution,” explained professor Salvatella.

The students in the master’s program he runs stand behind the need for this challenge to be met by a mixed and very well-prepared army. Its classrooms accomodate graduates in chemistry, law, economics, business administration and management, and a variety of branches of engineering. They are the professionals who will cover the scientific, technical, legal, social, and economic aspects of an unstoppable change. The potential circular economists of the future.


Publiished in El País