Creating the green workforce of the future

It has become very clear that the Covid19 crisis disproportionately impacted young people. Over-represented in the sectors most affected by lockdown restrictions, they were more likely than others to face job loss, money worries and mental health problems.

Not surprisingly, those from marginalised backgrounds fared worst of all. They were twice as likely to lose their job and experienced anxiety and depression for longer because of their existing inequalities.

For some, Covid caught them out at a pivotal moment in their lives. Exciting plans to travel, start university or take up a first job came crashing down.

“I had planned out the perfect year,” says 20-year old Katerina Bondarciuk. “After graduating from high school I was going to take a gap year before university. I had been sure I’d be able to get a job in September and work for the rest of the year, but Covid made this incredibly difficult without any work experience.”

An unexpected email and a lucky break

Bondarciuk then had a stroke of luck. Out of the blue she got an email about a new green skills internship scheme launched by the city specifically for young people unemployed because of the pandemic. “When I got this opportunity I took it right away! I thought it would provide the perfect work experience to help me get a job,” she says.

She was lucky, not just to live in Sweden, whose government had recently decreed that initiatives supporting the green transition were to be promoted by cities to help set the country on a positive path out of the pandemic. She was also fortunate that Gothenburg was her home.

For the city had seen that youth unemployment was rising sharply because of Covid and it had very quickly and cleverly found a way to respond to this local challenge within the context of the national focus on solutions for a more sustainable future.

“With the Green New Deal project, we wanted to both create employment and ensure that young people bring new knowledge into the future, which is very important to have when society is to recover in a sustainable way after the pandemic,” says Linda Högbacka, who was then Pandemic Planning Manager for Gothenburg’s Labour Market and Adult Education Department.

Three steps to creating the ideal support network

The idea for the new internship was that it would provide a mix of experiences and education to help interns both think differently about resource management in their own lives and communities and also gain skills and knowledge that would give them an edge when they apply for a job.

“First we created a network with all the other city departments with responsibilities and know-how that could be shared, in areas like recycling, waste management, water, street cleaning and the circular economy,” says Ernest Radal, Project Manager of Youth Initiatives for the city.

People who know how to work green and why working green is a must are the future workforce of our city
— Ernest Radal, Project Manager of Youth Initiatives, Department of Labour Market and Adult Education

“Next, we identified a strong actor in the civil sector, The Gothenburg City Mission, which runs second-hand stores and has expertise in areas like reuse and upcycling as well as staff able to provide support and mentoring.”

This NGO was delighted to be asked to join the team.

“The project is a fantastic opportunity for young adults to get an insight into our activities and learn more about sustainable development, recycling, store building, customer service and e-commerce,” says Sara Habte Selassie, Project Manager with the Gothenburg City Mission.

“In the final step”, Radal continues, “we connected the initiative with the private sector, involving local employers like Volvo and the Liseberg amusement park as well as smaller hospitality, healthcare and gardening businesses.”

First-class training in second-hand stores

The internship launched in January 2021 with a budget of €700,000 and a social media campaign and on-the-ground work by social services to reach 18-25 year olds not in work or studying.

Every three months a new group of aspiring green workers, mostly refugees, newcomers or long-term unemployed, embarked on their internships, some wanting to get into work – and some wanting to change the world!

“The interns work in one of the Mission’s second-hand stores, serving customers and learning how to distinguish between different materials in terms of their resource use and sorting donations into the right containers,” explains John Harfouche, Project Coordinator, Labour Market and Adult Education Department.

My hope is that participants will open their eyes to the green transition
— Sara Habte Selassie, Project Manager, Gothenburg City Mission

“Experts from city departments, the Mission and specialist organisations come into the store to teach the interns about everything from the lifestyle wheel to waste hierarchy to how the city is implementing the 2030 Agenda. They also learn a lot about how they, as individuals, can do their bit for the planet.”

Sandra Alm, a researcher in the City’s Water Department, is really pleased to have the opportunity to meet the interns and “To reach out with knowledge about how and why to sort waste and why we need to reuse and reduce the amount of waste we produce. In addition, we see it as an opportunity to help educate and inspire young people to choose a professional career in waste management and the circular economy.”

Interns learn about living sustainably through their work in a second-hand store
The city discussed initiatives to support the national focus on the green transition
Youth services, non-profits and young people debated youth unemployment solutions

Interns learn how to recycle – and what they’re good at

Bondarciuk loved both the practical and theoretical elements of her internship, which started with helping to set up a store.

“I learned so much about interior decorating and the visual aspects of the store as well as the worth of different second-hand clothes and customer service,” she says. “I got to work a lot with my creative side and that was one of my favourite parts of the experience. It taught me a lot about myself and what I am really good at”

“We also got to meet many people from different companies who taught us different ways to live more sustainably. It’s important to know that simple changes in our everyday lifestyle can really help and improve the condition of the world and make it just a little more green.”

The initiative was so popular the number of interns taken on increased significantly over the year. Nevertheless, the project team was still careful to watch and listen to see if there was anything more they could add to the whole experience. And it turns out there was.

While the store supervisors were helping interns with their mental health by personally motivating and lifting them, the project team noticed that many needed help with other things to get into the labour market.

“Our department started providing study and career coaching to add to the in-store mentoring,” explains Harfouche. “Through this we saw that some people had never been shown how to write a CV, so we did that. They also didn’t know how to get in touch with potential employers, so we invited companies into the store to meet the interns and also set up recruitment fairs.”

An internship meant we got young people out of their homes during Covid
— John Harfouche, Project Coordinator, Department of Labour Market and Adult Education

A Covid initiative so good it’s here to stay

By the end of 2021, 70-80% of the year’s 257 interns had gone into jobs or education after receiving their Green New Deal Diplomas.

“All companies in Sweden work in green issues in some way so it’s a really good thing for our interns to know about these things and to be seen as green ambassadors,” says Harfouche. “Feedback from employers also showed that they value the interns’ employability and were able to choose the right people for the jobs they had available.”

Not surprisingly, the city has decided the initiative will continue. Bondarciuk’s involvement is set to continue for a while too!

“I developed so much love and interest for the second-hand industry with sustainable and timeless fashion during my internship,” she says. “When it ended I was offered a job working at the second-hand store. Without the experience I have gained and the wonderful people I have met I would not be in this position.”

Cities dream, act and lead our future. This example from Gothenburg is one of the finalists for the Eurocities Awards, in the category ‘Act together – skills and competencies for the future’. The winners will be announced on 9 June 2022 during the Eurocities Conference.

Tiphanie Mellor