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So You Say You Want A Green Career? Changing institutions to Develop the Green Leaders of Today and Tomorrow

Interested in a green career?  You’re not alone.

Polls suggest 80% of students and recent graduates want jobs that have positive impacts on the environment; 92% say they would rather work for environmentally friendly organizations. What careers provide these opportunities?  What should you study at university?  How do you prepare?

The career choices seem overwhelming, but I suspect you know this. The Department of Labor composed a list of jobs it considers green. These include liquor sales of certified organic products, motor vehicle brake system manufacturing for hybrid vehicles, environmental law, architectural and engineering services focused on energy efficiency, mass transit planning, regulation of utilities, and agricultural and natural resource industries.

Everything, basically.

The Green Economy Map attempts to make sense of all this diversity in a single graphic.  It is helpful seeing the big picture, but if you are facing the difficult choice of selecting a career, all you can do is shrug your shoulders and wonder how to make good choices.

Fortunately, there are green jobs to be had, if you know where to look.  A survey of human resource managers–the people that do the hiring–found that 40% of organizations surveyed report they are currently creating green jobs or adding green duties to existing jobs. Another survey–this time of executives that oversee sustainability efforts for their organizations–warns us not to wait for a new class of green” jobs to emerge; instead they believe current job categories will just morph to become more green. Perhaps.  But it is unlikely that executives running the organizations of today know what careers will emerge from the green revolution.  Certainly executives during the industrial revolution could not have predicted the careers that emerged from the chemical revolution, just as no one really saw all the careers emerging from the digital revolution. No one knows for sure what new careers might emerge from the green revolution, but these surveys suggest that the qualifications needed to succeed tomorrow, whether at a traditional or yet to emerge career, will likely require an understanding and skill set related to sustainability.

Which leads us to the essential questions: How do you go about getting these qualifications? How do you prepare for these jobs?

For those already in a career, the news is good.  The survey of human resource managers found that most organizations plan to help current employees develop greener ways of working by offering them on-the-job training, and many also are encouraging, or even paying for, employees to take courses and obtain formal certification.

For students deciding about majors, classes and schools, the unknowns are greater and the choices more difficult.   It is a rare person, young or old, who knows with confidence exactly what he or she wants in a career.  Probably the best advice is the standard advice: follow your interests, get as much experience as you can, and be prepared to take opportunities as they arise.

Those opportunities should include selecting your university, classes, and summer work experiences based on how well they are designed to help you understand and solve the challenges of sustainability.  Universities are developing these sorts of programs and you should choose among them based on the resources and faculty committed to them, the breadth and depth of offerings, and a track record of testimonials.

Universities, in turn, must expand the opportunities they provide students to develop and integrate sustainability into existing and emerging careers.  Higher education can be very conservative (professors tend to think we know best and can be slow to change).  Many of our academic programs will respond cautiously, by appending sustainability to existing programs and career training.  This first step is an important, but insufficient.

Fortunately, innovative universities will develop programs out of whole cloth in efforts to prepare students for opportunities that don’t yet have clear career paths. Students selecting these programs will be among the next generation of leaders.  Their choices of classes and degrees will drive how universities respond to the challenges of sustainability.  Their influence in the workforce will shape future politics, culture, and economy. It can’t happen soon enough.  Let’s get busy creating that future. So follow your interests, get as much experience as you can, and be prepared to take opportunities as they arise.

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.

Posted on: September 27, 2010, 9:15 am Category: Getting a Green Job, Opinions, Sustainability and Education Tagged with: , , , ,

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