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Get Your Dream Green Job
Are you fired up and ready to go… green? These days, it seems like you can’t open a newspaper without finding a story on green jobs. Some industries, like green construction, are even growing, despite the recession. Other sectors, such as clean tech, have taken the same hit as the rest of the economy. But there are signs — like the fact that run-of-the-mill companies are increasingly looking for in-house sustainability chiefs — to indicate, recession or no, the green revolution is here to stay.
Inspired by the opportunity to do well by doing good, you dust off your resume and press your interview suit. You’re all set now to go out and get a job that marries your career with your values, right?
Not so fast, say industry veterans. Just because you’re a smart cookie with tons of gold stars in your current field doesn’t mean the green world is waiting to scoop you up. There are some key steps you should follow to get a foot in the door and, ultimately, snag your berth in the new industry. Do it wrong, however, and you could find yourself shut out without a prayer.
Do a Gut Check
Are you truly passionate about helping the planet and fighting climate change? Or are you just sniffing around because you think this is where the jobs are? If you can’t define “sustainability” and think “green” is a color, consider a different path. In the green world, authenticity is key. Employers are looking for people who walk the talk. “I’ve even had employers say if the person drives up in an SUV, they don’t have a chance,” reports Jim Cassio, a workforce development consultant and author of the new book Green Careers: Choosing Work for a Sustainable Future.
Green businesses usually operate on a triple bottom line. Sure, they want to make money, but they also make decisions based on the environmental and social impacts of their work. If you don’t already get it, they don’t want to educate you. Phoebe Higgins landed a job as a loan officer with the San Francisco offices of the California Fisheries Fund last fall, even though she was competing against more experienced banking veterans. The Fund works to improve the sustainability of fisheries. Higgins, a recent graduate of the Green MBA program at Dominican University in Marin, says her relative lack of inexperience was balanced by her previous work at non-profits and her then-current job as a community bank sustainable programs director. “They wanted someone who wasn’t going to be changing culture so dramatically from a lifetime in banking,” she says.
Plus, in an era when customers scrutinize companies for signs of greenwashing, green businesses want to make sure everyone in-house shares the same values. “The moment someone sniffs you out as phony, your business falls flat,” says Nick Ellis, a managing partner at Bright Green Talent, which recruits white-collar workers, like CFOs and scientists, for green companies.
Nail Your Niche
Think “green” just means solar panels? Think again. A green job could have you doing anything from researching ways to turn algae into fuel, to setting up carbon credit trading systems, to designing software for the new smart grid. Or you could end up at a company that does any one of those things, but working in a core role — like keeping the books, making sales, or designing marketing programs. In other words, there’s something for everyone.
“Be very clear about what you’re already good at and how to leverage that,” says Nicola Acutt, associate dean at San Francisco’s Presidio School of Management, one of the first green business schools in the country. Just as you would with a traditional job search, assess which skills you enjoy using and what kind of company you most want to work for. There’s no need to try to shove your square peg self into a round hole to play in this space. “The clearer you are about your objectives, the easier it is to help people help you achieve them,” says Frank Marquardt, author of Green Careers.
Learn the Biz
Once you’ve decided what kind of job you’re looking for and the specific space you want to work in, do your homework. If you’re interested in green building, for example, it’s not enough to know that energy efficient buildings reduce fossil fuel consumption and help fight climate change. You need to be up on industry technologies and practices. (Pop quiz: What’s an R-value? What’s cellulosic insulation made of? Where would you use an insulated concrete form?)
“Everyone I talk to wants you to understand what they’re doing,” Marquardt says. Learn the terminology. Know who the key players are. Understand the opportunities for — and threats to — the particular industry’s growth. “For example, for a while wind was facing the possibility of no more tax credits,” says Carol McClelland, CEO of GreenCareerCentral.com, a subscription-based information clearinghouse for green job seekers. “That was a big red flag. That was going to dry up the whole industry.”
Get up-to-speed by subscribing to industry newsletters and reading industry blogs. And get grounded in green economy fundamentals by reading the classics — books like Paul Hawken’s Natural Capitalism, William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle, Daniel Etsy’s Green to Gold, and Van Jones’ The Green Collar Economy. While some companies will forgive your lack of experience, they won’t forgive your failure to self-educate.
If you’ve never worked in the green space before, employers will study your resume for signs that you’re nevertheless a dedicated environmentalist. Have you spent the last three years participating in river cleanups? Looks good. Did you start a recycling program at your current workplace? Impressive. Did you participate in a Sierra Club get-out-the-vote campaign? You’ve got cred.
Volunteering can also fill in gaps in work experience. Want to work on coastal issues? Connect with the Surfrider Foundation. Interested in solar? Participate in a solar installation work party with GRID Alternatives. If you’ve got the chops, try serving on the board of an environmental non-profit or startup. And if you have the flexibility, you could even try volunteering at your target company. “You’re picking up some valuable experience,” Cassio says. “You’re getting your foot in the door, making some good contacts, and you have an opportunity to prove yourself.”
Go Back to School
Community colleges and university extension programs are increasingly offering classes on everything from the principles of sustainability, to energy management, to alternative energy systems. The roster of classes will only grow, as educational institutions scramble to train the workforce needed for President Obama’s green stimulus programs. Even if you can’t find a class on the specific area you’ve chosen, consider a class on a related subject. You’ll still gain valuable knowledge, and the coursework will further showcase your dedication. In the Seattle area, try Seattle Central Community College, South Seattle Community College, or Shoreline Community College. In the Chicago area, try the Loyola University continuing education program or DePaul University. In southern California, try UCLA Extension.
If you’re positive that playing a leadership role in the sustainability world is the direction for you, consider getting a “Green MBA,” a business degree with emphasis on social and environmental responsibility. The most prominent of these are offered by the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco, the Green MBA at Dominican University in Northern California, and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute near Seattle. For other places, take a look at Business as UNusual, a report on business schools across the country by Net Impact, a membership organization that supports graduate students who want socially responsible careers.
Frame Your Experience
Sure, the green industry is about doing good. But at the end of the day, green companies are still, well, businesses. They may measure results on a triple bottom line, but employees still need to know how to impact the line with the dollar sign on it. A large foundation recently asked Bright Green Talent to recruit a scientist. “Throughout the process they told us, ‘We don’t want hippie granola people who don’t have business acumen,’” Ellis says. Instead, they said, “We need people who are really savvy on the market side and can take a look at a supply chain and figure out where the pain points are and how we can alleviate them so we get better [products] more sustainably.”
So make sure your resume frames your experience in business terms. If you worked on marketing for an environmental organization, for example, Ellis advises you to reword your experience in terms like, “I was driving membership and discretionary dollars to fund our operations.”
“A lot of people miss out on this,” he says. “They don’t create the compelling economic argument for why someone should interview them.”
As much as any industry, the green world is full of job openings that never get posted. Part of that is due to the speed with which green industries are evolving. They are constantly reinventing themselves and redefining the kinds of positions they need. “The hardest part is nobody is quite sure what things are called and where to go to get those jobs,” McClelland says. “You really have to rely on your own initiative to get out and figure it out.
Plus, new opportunities are constantly being created on the fly. A network can signal you when your dream job opens up. Sitar Mody was working at a medical device company when she set her sights on Net Impact. She made friends there, and when a new position opened up, she was at the front of the line for interviews.
Adjust Your Salary Expectations
If you’re coming in to the green sector from the business world, ratchet down your salary expectations. As pumped as you are to go green, there are thousands out there just like you. “So many people want those jobs that employers really have the luxury of choosing,” Ellis says. And if you have your eye on a green collar job, like green construction, solar installation or wind turbine maintenance, be realistic about the earning potential. “Most of these jobs pay, on average, $11 an hour,” says Barbara Parks, of GreenCareerTracks.com.
Take the Long View
The learning, networking and job hunting will take time. “My ideal client is someone who’s willing to work for three months,” says Parks, who coaches green job seekers. Given the state of the economy, that might not be a bad thing. The stimulus package notwithstanding, the market for jobs in green industries today is generally as tight as that in the conventional labor force. But look on the bright side: Use the economic slowdown as an opportunity to build experience and knowledge and, ultimately, make yourself a more attractive candidate.
Consider Staying Where You Are
You don’t have to go work at a green business to have a green job. If you like what you’re doing, consider ways you could help your current company go green. It’s something many businesses are thinking about anyway, Acutt says. Join a committee or volunteer to become the company’s sustainability coordinator, and then implement recycling programs or help the company rethink its energy strategy.
Alternatively, if you’re the entrepreneurial sort, consider starting your own business. The green world is going to need a range of new products for consumers and businesses alike, Acutt says. Someone has to invent, market and distribute them. Why not you?
What’s Your Dream Green Job?
The green world is so broad, it’s possible to do just about any kind of work. The key to transitioning into it — as in any job search — is to find something you like to do and are good at. Here are some examples of the breadth of jobs out there. But remember, these are just a drop in the bucket. The list of career opportunities in the green field is almost infinite. A little digging will turn up the right fit for you.
If you like science...
Biofuel and algae programs need chemical engineers to figure out how to produce energy efficiently. Engineers will also be needed to build better batteries (for cars and the smart grid) and better materials for solar panels.
If you’re a people person...
All businesses need sales people, and community colleges as well as private organizations need instructors for courses to train the new green workforce. Plus, as more and more people decide to make the switch, the demand for green career counselors and job coaches will also rise.
If you’re coming from Wall Street...
Mandatory carbon caps are still in the offing, but the desks that will trade them are being built today, and they need people familiar with basic trading practices. Venture capitalists need people experienced in finding and locating promising companies. And banks are increasingly looking for people who know how to finance green projects.
If you like to design...
New green buildings need LEED-certified architects, interior designers and CAD designers. Designers are also needed in the alternative car industry to envision new automobile bodies.
If you’re into public service...
Urban, land use and mass transit planners are going to be needed to re-imagine our cities and how we move around in them. Policymakers are going to be in high demand to figure out the right mix of rules and incentives to move the country in a greener direction. And new regulators will be needed to oversee new systems, like carbon markets.
If you like to work outdoors...
The demand for sustainable landscaping is going to increase as businesses and homeowners look for greenery that’s suited to the local environment. Green roofs will need green thumbs.
If you’re a computer programmer...
Programmers are needed to design the software to run smart grids as well as the increasing number of energy management and carbon trading tools.
E.B. Boyd is a journalist based in San Francisco.