When Ashna Mudaffer decides to write her master's thesis on the topic of the circular economy in 2019, she is literally entering uncharted territory. She attended a single seminar on the circular economy at Johannes Kepler University in the Management with a Focus on Sustainability program and immediately realized, "This is my topic," she says. At the time, her university in Linz, Austria, didn't have a dedicated course on the circular economy, only a research institute founded in 2015. There she finds a supervisor and shortly afterwards even a practical example for her master's thesis. She does an internship at the injection molding machine manufacturer Engel in the Upper Austrian town of Schwertberg.
At the globally active company, she analyzes the business processes and develops strategies on how the company could become "circular." Among other things, she proposes that Engel take back defective and worn-out machines in the future and refurbish them. It is the core idea of the circular economy: the manufacturer of a product should no longer be responsible only until it is sold, but should also ensure that valuable resources are preserved in the economic cycle.
True circular economy is much more than recycling. Proponents envision closed, regional value chains in which products do not end up in the trash, from which the few recyclable materials are then fished. Instead, many new jobs are created because technology has to be maintained, repaired and refurbished. The European Union has also recognized this potential and is putting pressure on it. Since 2015, there have been a number of new laws as part of the "Circular Economy Package". Companies need appropriately trained employees to provide commercial and technical support for the transformation process. "The circular economy is experiencing absolute hype right now," confirms economist Erik Hansen. "And skilled workers for this field are in short supply."
Demand is high
Hansen is the founder and director of the Institute for Integrated Quality Design in Linz, where Ashna Mudaffer wrote her master's thesis. It was only after she had her degree in the bag that Hansen and others in Linz founded the master's program "Sustainable Business & Circular Economy" at LIMAK Austrian Business School. "More and more universities are offering their own programs or founding research institutes that combine technical aspects of the circular economy with entrepreneurial ones," says Hansen.
Some universities have so far only offered individual modules or lectures on the subject. However, there are also more and more specialized bachelor's and master's degree courses on the circular economy. And the range of in-service training opportunities is also growing. The experts trained in this way are expected to support companies in their restructuring efforts - and not just in industries that process materials themselves, such as the textile, chemical or automotive industries. "Even large asset managers like Blackrock or consulting firms are looking at the circular economy," Hansen says. The demand is so great that he has to give cancellations every day for lectures, roundtable discussions or cooperation requests from companies. It's simply getting too much.
Among the specialized bachelor's degree programs is the one offered by the University of Applied Sciences Wiener Neustadt. Students in the "Sustainable Production and Circular Economy" program learn how a circular economic system works. After graduation, they can, for example, work as a product developer or development engineer already in the design stage to ensure that products last longer and are more reusable. Or they can develop strategies for material cycles as project and resource managers.
Not everyone wants to start from scratch
If a bachelor's degree isn't enough, students can delve even deeper into the circular economy in one of the master's degree programs. At the Cologne University of Applied Sciences, the Metabolon teaching and research center offers events for bachelor's and master's students on the topic of circular economy. At the Bern University of Applied Sciences, there is a four-semester master's degree in "Circular Innovation and Sustainability." Students who have completed their bachelor's degree outside Switzerland must have worked in a suitable profession for three months to be admitted. The University of Linz is also responding to demand and expanding its program. Three new degree programs will start here by fall 2024: The bachelor's degree in "Sustainable Plastics Technology and Circular Economy" and the master's degrees in "Plastics Management and Sustainability" and "Polymer Engineering and Science."
But not everyone who is interested in the subject in their professional life wants to start completely from scratch. For those, there are part-time programs in addition to the full-time courses. The Rosenheim University of Applied Sciences has been offering the part-time master's program "Circular Economy" since the summer semester of 2022. It is aimed at professionals who already work in industries where the topic is relevant and costs around 14,500 euros. What all the courses have in common is that they aim to combine business skills with a technical and ecological understanding of production cycles. "The circular economy is a holistic concept that must link all areas of our economic system," says Linz economist Erik Hansen. The career opportunities are correspondingly diverse. Both service and industrial companies as well as administration, governments and international organizations need trained circularity experts. The same applies to the digital industry.
A great opportunity for industries with a bad reputation
If a course of study is too extensive for you, you can also continue your education in so-called Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs for short. These are online courses offered by universities on special platforms with up to ten thousand participants - open to all and usually free of charge. The platforms edx.org and udemy.org offer various courses on the circular economy. At edx, for example, interested parties can take the course "Circular Economy: An Introduction" from the Dutch Delft University of Technology. And at coursera.org, too, interested parties can find more than 30 such continuing education units, offered by international universities such as Lund University or the University of London.
Erik Hansen is certain that the range of courses on offer will increase in all areas. "Especially for industries that don't have a good reputation, such as the plastics industry or energy-intensive industries like the metal industry, the circular economy is a huge opportunity," says the economist. They can become better and more sustainable with the help of the experts. And also attract new employees more easily with this endeavor. "Because people prefer to work in an industry that is part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Ashna Mudaffer has also found such a job. She now works at Business Upper Austria, the location agency of the state of Upper Austria, where she is responsible for project organization related to the circular economy. Recently, she got a call: Her former internship company Engel has taken over parts of the strategy she helped develop. The company is now buying back old machines and reprocessing them. "This shows that something is happening in the industry," the master's graduate is pleased to say.
Because of changes that are becoming more difficult to undo every day due to human activity, it appears that our basic existence is in jeopardy. It takes a comprehensive approach to address environmental, social, and economic challenges if we are to stop global warming before it reaches catastrophic proportions. The Sustainable Development Goal concerning education is to promote the societal and individual transformation required to reverse direction.