I’ve been on the road. I started the first week in October at the University of Michigan and ended it at a “career visioning” retreat in the Connecticut woods with students from Yale. My impressions? At both universities, I found aspiring environmental professionals who are committed to building a sustainable society. (I also found great vegetarian food.)
As we talked about “sustainable solutions” careers, more than one student let me know that their most important career concern was location and that national statistics about job prospects were pretty much meaningless. Having already decided to make a life in, say, Missoula, Mont., information about job opportunities in D.C., San Francisco, or Indonesia had little or no value.
I hear this from older job seekers and career changers as well. People have taken to heart the “think globally, act locally” message. All over the country, “locavores” are seeking out local food supplies for local diets. It stands to reason, then, that demand would grow for a locavore green-career strategy.
In response, I’ve been on the phone with a diverse collection of people who have built their careers as a response to place. Below, ten strategic tips for green-career locavores.
- Define your territory. One might think that the word “local” has the same meaning everywhere, but one would be wrong. For some people, the “local” area can be as small as a neighborhood or small town. For others, it can mean a regional area or watershed. And for still others, “local” can include the better part of an entire state, or even a multistate ecosystem. You’ll need your own definition so that you can draw the boundaries of your service territory.
- Focus on results. When you join a community of people in a local area, you’ll immediately discover that there is only limited interest in the successful unfolding of your personal career. There is serious interest, however, in how your work will — or will not — make a measurable difference on the ground. What are you here to accomplish? Will your work protect threatened habitats? Decrease greenhouse-gas emissions? Bring green jobs to the local area? Give a voice to marginalized people? Increase the number of LEED-certified green buildings? Produce more organic food?
- Start contributing. Locavore career builders understand that local job opportunities often come to those who have built a reputation for caring about the local area, getting involved, and achieving results. It’s great if you can gain that reputation right away from a secure, paid position with a healthy salary and good benefits. That’s not always possible, though. Whether you’re starting from a good green job — or trying to find one — it will be important for you to show up in the civic and political activities of the local area and find a way to make a significant contribution.
- Don’t focus on job titles and descriptions. In a specific local area, there aren’t always a lot of impressive — or even descriptive — job titles to go around. A person in local government with a job title like Planner I or Recreation Coordinator may be the “go-to” person in the entire county for advancing the green agenda. The coolest environmental educator may actually be an assistant librarian at the high school. An independent construction worker may be leading a nascent green building boom or promoting solar power. When you’re a locavore career builder, you’re looking for a platform to do your work and make a contribution. That platform may — or may not — have a traditional job description attached to it.
- Local employment sectors have more permeable boundaries. As your employment focus becomes more local, you’ll notice that there are thinner walls between business, government, academia, and the nonprofit world. The community is smaller. Everyone knows everyone else. They meet each other at the same meetings, support (or oppose) the same political candidates, send their children to the same schools, and generally work together. So don’t worry if you find yourself making your contribution from inside a small environmental consulting firm (for example) instead of the nonprofit activist group you expected to work for.
- Skills and knowledge still count. I get communications from many would-be green-career builders in local areas who express exasperation that their passion for the local area and long-time contributions to local issues have not been enough to land them a good job. As we explore their situations, I often learn that these people have allowed their skill levels — especially in technical areas — to fall behind the times. Local employers are still employers. They want competent people with 21st century skills.
- Save money. Live within your means. Practice DIY. Share with others. If you plan to limit your career options to a specific geographic area, by definition you are limiting the number of places that you might work and making yourself vulnerable to fluctuations in the local economy. To reduce your risk level, it helps to live within your means and sock away a safety fund to get you through hard times. Increasing the number of “do it yourself” skills in your tool kit will decrease the amount of money you have to pay to others. It will also increase the number of skills you can offer to friends and neighbors — either as a gift of yourself, or as part of a community economy of barter and exchange.
- Locavores often become entrepreneurs. If you care about a local area and are committed to making a specific kind of contribution, it’s unlikely that you’ll ultimately be deterred from your work by a slack job market. Eventually, you’ll want to get to work and you’ll start looking for creative ways to get paid. For many people, that means starting your own business (either alone or with partners), launching your own nonprofit organization, or finding grant money to underwrite a project within your job.
- Develop multiple revenue streams to support your work. Locavores often find that there just aren’t enough well-paying jobs in the local area to go around. Sometimes, the salary and benefits for the jobs they can find aren’t enough to completely finance a comfortable life. To make more money, they take on short-term paid projects, develop revenue-generating avocations, teach an extra class at the community college, or make creative arrangements with a spouse for one to focus on a higher paying job so that the family as a whole can contribute to building a local green economy.
- Learn from locally focused professionals in other areas. You’re not alone! Just as you fell in love with Tucson or Fayetteville and will do anything to build a secure career close to home, there are equally passionate devotees of the Kitsap Peninsula or Southeast Iowa. Reach out to them and learn their tricks. For example, you could share your stories and strategies with others by logging on to Grist and posting a response to this column!
Kevin Doyle is the president of Green Economy, a Boston-based training, consulting, and research firm with services for the institutions and individuals building a more sustainable world. He is coauthor of The ECO Guide to Careers That Make a Difference: Environmental Work for a Sustainable World and is currently at work on a new book about climate-change careers.