This is the time-honored question, one I get asked so frequently, from very qualified individuals, that I decided to answer it online. It is heartbreaking (and encouraging) how many skilled and interested people are looking for work in the sustainability field. The good news is the sector is growing exponentially.
If you ask anyone in the field they’ll probably tell you they got there by luck. That’s certainly true for me. I’m less smart, strong, and fast than other candidates, and much less skilled. But I happened to be in the right place at the right time. That said, there are a few steps we can all follow to improve the odds. Luck is good, but as the mountaineers say, you make your own luck. (To a point.)
The seven keys to one day finding a job in sustainable business:
1) Be ruthlessly opportunistic, taking low paid jobs, internships, and volunteer positions in the field in which you want to work to get experience;
2) Make your job a green job. Don’t take you eye off the ball even if you end up working in unrelated fields for a while to make ends meet; in fact, you might try to make your job in that unrelated field become the job you want. Several environmental directors I know have simply proposed that position with a company previously uninterested in such work. In the end, EVERY job is going to have to become a job that focuses on climate change if we hope to solve this problem.
3) Work the hell out of the network, i.e., constantly network with people and keep their contact info–few people ever got a good job by responding to a want ad. And don’t worry about pissing someone off by contacting them too much: you are just reminding them you’re around, and people can’t keep track of everyone;
4) Don’t ever get discouraged, particularly if you’re currently doing something you don’t deem “environmental.” We all have to survive. I cooked burgers, shoveled gravel, and drove a skid-steer.
5) Get your foot in the door. Since these sorts of jobs that are really cool are rare, sometimes you have to get into an industry as something other than the sustainability person, then either work to create that position or work your way into that part of the company. In other words, just being in the tourism industry, for example, is a start if you want to work in sustainable tourism. The whole business world is moving towards sustainable practices, so opportunities will start appearing;. And once you get your foot in the door, work HARD! Show up early. Be friendly and talk to everyone. Volunteer to clean toilets. Propose new projects. Find funding for stuff nobody knew about. Eat lunch at your desk. Look people in the eye when you talk to them. Squeeze hard when you shake hands.
6) Educate yourself constantly no matter what you’re doing. You should read every book on sustainable business you can get your hands on, so that when a good opportunity arises you can talk the talk, and know what people are talking about. Anyone who wants a job in this field MUST have read, and be able to discuss The Ecology of Commerce, Natural Capitalism, Power to the People, Cool Companies, Lean and Clean Management, Cradle to Cradle, Crimes Against Nature, Tom Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded, Hell and High Water (Joe Romm’s book on climate change) and probably a dozen other related books by the likes of Bill McKibben, John Elkington, Gus Speth, Lester Brown, Herman Daly, etc. (Shameless self-promotional plug–you should also buy my book, written for people like you, called “Getting Green Done.” www.gettinggreendone.com.) You have to understand climate science and policy, green building design, and energy efficiency. It also doesn’t hurt to make sure you’ve read the background stuff: John Muir, Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and philosophy, particularly ethics, including work by Peter Singer, (“the Life you Can Save,” for context (the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder), as well as any work that answers the question: “how ought we to live?” You should subscribe to Grist (grist.org) and read it daily to stay up to date on environmental issues.(And send them some money if you have it) You should also read www.climateprogress.org every day, like taking your vitamins. You don’t have to agree with these books or websites, but you have to read them. In fact, you should listen to Limbaugh and Hannity as much as you can stand it, and read stuff that pisses you off and which you disagree with. Peter Schwartz from the Globl Business Network once said you should read everything–Bride magazine, techical manuals, even if you just skim that stuff, so you have a sense of what’s happening in a range of fields. I force myself to read, say, Redbook, at the dentist’s office. I hate it, but it gives me insight into other people’s lives and ideas. Plus, you can do this because you have time-after all, you’re looking for work.
7) Learn how to write. Writing is thinking and writing is communication, and you’ll use it every day. Most people I interview say they know how to write, and they are almost always wrong. I spent 20 years working hard on learning how to write, getting my ass kicked by editors, and I still underwhelm myself on a daily basis and marvel at good writers. You need to work on this your whole life.
I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, but there’s nothing more specific out there, other than some cool internet green job sites. It’s a bewildering thing, trying to get into this, or any, field, and a lot of it is just random chance. Ask anyone with a dream job, and they’ll tell you that at one time, they were flipping burgers, or driving a skid-steer, wondering what the hell they were doing with their life. It was certainly true for me. And I bet it will be true again.
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