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Green for All

You want an environmental job. And who wouldn’t? You get to go to bed at night knowing you’ve done something good for the world. You can be smug about your job with less nobly employed friends. You can move out of your parent’s basement. These are all good things.

Still, you wonder. Are there any educated guesses about what employers are thinking? We’ve got you covered. Our prognosticator has traveled throughout the green employment community and returned with some predictions to get you going.

1. Compliance with rules and regulations is still a strong eco-job driver.

Businesses still invest most in environmental activities when they are required to do so. Government still invests most in insuring that existing laws, regulations, codes, policies, and programs are implemented effectively. For these reasons, the vast majority of environmental professionals work within the existing infrastructure of compliance with regulations for clean air, health and safety, clean water, solid waste, and hazardous waste, as well as with zoning laws and building codes.

Although the job growth in 2014 will be slower in these core environmental area than in a few emerging ones, the starting base of jobs is much larger than in newer niches. The total number of new jobs in compliance-driven sectors will be a significant number even under slow growth.

The takeaway: Before you ask “what’s new?” consider asking “what’s required?”

2. Eco-job growth often follows overall economic growth.

Environmental careers are not recession-proof. In most cases, eco-job growth parallels overall economic growth. States that have high levels of population growth, new construction, increasing resource extraction, manufacturing output, and general prosperity, also have more eco-job opportunities.

Why? Because more people and more economic activity means more permit requests to prepare and process, environmental reviews to conduct, meetings to hold, soil, air and water samples to gather and analyze, lawsuits to deal with, sites to monitor, and … well, you get the picture.

Although it’s true that progressive environmental and sustainability policies generate additional eco-employment in some states and municipalities, levels of general economic activity are a more reliable metric for estimating eco-job growth.

The takeaway: Eco-jobs will rise most in metro areas with healthy economies.

3. Climate resilience work is increasing. Disaster response, too.

Rising sea levels that bring more flooding. Stronger storms of all kinds. Longer and more frequent drought. Heat waves, wildfires, pests, and death of the first born.

These are some of the expected consequences of global climate change. (OK, we made up that last one.) What’s really bad for people and the planet, however, might be quite good for green employment. Jurisdictions and businesses of all kind are spending on projects to protect themselves from expected hazards, and to be better prepared if and when disasters exceed these preparations.

Make no mistake, climate change resilience work is expensive and labor intensive. This will be especially true in coastal areas, where public and private institutions are already investing in both “hard” and “soft” approaches to climate change resilience. Work is underway on building seawalls and jetties, moving important infrastructure out of harm’s way, raising buildings, nourishing beaches (or retreating from them), protecting wetlands, building out “green infrastructure,” and generally preparing to be more resilient in the face of a changing climate.

Resilience and disaster response work employs a broad spectrum of professions, including planners, lawyers, engineers, scientists, analysts, underwriters, technicians, people in the construction trades, laborers, and landscapers.

The takeaway: People with skills and experience needed for climate resilience efforts will have better than average employment opportunities.

4. “Sustainability” will often be assignments for employees, not new jobs.

Being a “sustainability manager” is one of the more popular dreams for the green-inclined. Bringing a sustainability lens to procurement, energy, transportation, waste, food, housing, water, landscaping, building design, supply chain — even janitorial services — is an enviable job. Moreover, there is no shortage of possible employers. They include municipalities, colleges and universities, school districts, hospitals/medical centers, manufacturers, commercial buildings, airports, corporations — even prisons.

If “sustainability” is a growing set of activities throughout the economy (and it is), shouldn’t it also be true that there is a robust job market for sustainability staff?

Maybe not. We found that many public and private employers prefer to dole out sustainability assignments to existing departments — especially “facilities management” and procurement — instead of setting up new and separate sustainability offices, with their own managers and staff people. Under this model, achieving sustainability goals may require some new training of existing people, but may not involve hiring of graduates from “sustainability” programs at colleges.

The takeaway: Look for sustainability “jobs” under traditional job titles in EHS (environment, health and safety), facilities management, energy, and procurement.

5. The long awaited wave of eco-retirements may be arriving.

Tens of thousands of people, especially those in federal, state, and local environmental government agencies, started their environmental careers in the 10 years between 1972 to 1982. Assuming a starting working age of 24, this cohort of workers will be between the ages of 56 and 66 next year. Another very large group of eco-professionals will be between 50 and 55 in 2014.

These are important numbers. Even accounting for the obvious trend of people working longer, and retiring later, the environmental workforce is clearly an aging one. Employers are eager to attract and hire a new group of employees who have 21st century skills and sensibilities to take over from those leaving the workforce.

There are some counter trends, however. Politicians and taxpayers in many areas are willing to support generous environmental protection budgets, but less eager to hire expansion of the government workforce. To avoid the cost of pensions and benefits (in addition to salaries), many jurisdictions are choosing to spend their funds on contractors and allow permanent government positions to disappear.

The takeaway: Younger environmental professionals (and career changers of all ages) should look into the age profile of agencies they want to work for, and connect job searches with employer strategies for dealing with the coming retirements.

6. Employment in the clean energy industry keeps rising.

The clean energy industry encompasses jobs in solar energy, wind power, biofuels, tidal energy, fuel cells, energy efficiency, alternative transportation, and more. It spans a wide variety of activities, including manufacturing and assembly, installation and maintenance, sales and distribution, and engineering and research.

While the industry is growing overall, its employment presence is much higher in some states than others. And, as expected, some states have significant solar and/or wind energy sectors, while others have almost none.

Massachusetts is one of the best documented of the clean energy industry success stories. A study from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center found nearly 80,000 clean energy workers at over 5,500 firms in 2013. The employment growth rate for the industry in 2013 was over 11 percent, and companies predicted a growth rate over 11 percent again in 2014. That’s way above the average for all industries in the state.

Other states that appear to have vibrant clean energy economies include California, Washington, Oregon, Texas, Iowa, Illinois, North Carolina, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, and Colorado.

The takeaway: Job seekers with clean energy and energy efficiency experience can find strong employment markets in targeted states.

7. Is water the new energy?

Are you looking for a growing industry with lots of environmental jobs? One word: water. Water drives everything: agriculture, manufacturing, resource extraction, fish and wildlife health, and food processing; not to mention washing clothes and dishes, your daily shower, and all that flushing. Oh, and we drink the stuff.

The “water industry” isn’t limited to water and wastewater treatment and its extensive supply chain — although that segment employs hundreds of thousands of people in the United States alone. In a water constrained world, employment is growing in areas requiring special technologies, such as treating water generated when fossil fuels are extracted and removing salt from sea water. Consider also the growing number of people employed in water reuse, since many regions lack access to enough fresh water.

Just maintaining the basic water infrastructure is a growing source of jobs. In 2011, researchers at the University of Oregon estimated that the United States would need to spend around $335 billion by 2026 to maintain access to adequate supplies of drinking water. The estimate has only grown since then.

Want more? There is also a growing need for water-related planners, lawyers, mediators, policy analysts, and finance specialists.

The takeaway: To find your own possible place in the water world, investigate your state’s “water industry market map” and use it as a guide for employers in your preferred job market. Check out Massachusetts’ map here.

8. Rising hopes for “big data” in environmental work

We all know about the role of big data in the worlds of commerce, finance, telecommunication, and national security. The job market for people who can create, manage and analyze massive datasets is white hot. In fact, in all likelihood Grist’s own “big data” analysts have already sent you a fundraising request based on your reading of this article. (Ha! Just kidding! Everyone gets that fundraising request. Give now. We’re tracking you.)

The jury is out on just how quickly — and how pervasively — big data is coming to the environmental and energy marketplace. Will we soon have a “smart grid” everywhere, for instance, churning out billions of pieces of detailed information on home and business energy use every day? If “yes,” we will need a small army of technicians and analysts to make sense of the resulting mountain range of data for use in effective energy conservation and efficiency programs.

On the ecosystem conservation front, it’s not hard for technologists to imagine an interconnected system of data collection from real-time sensors, satellite imagery, drones (yes, drones), compliance reporting, and old-fashioned sample-gathering. The technical issues, while significant, may be less difficult to overcome than the problems arising from the myriad of jurisdictions and organizations that would need to coordinate data gathering, reporting, storage, and analysis systems.

Our prediction is that a combination of plunging prices, improved quality, and immediate benefits will make the rapid expansion of big data for environmental uses inevitable — sooner rather than later. As this happens, there will be a significant shortage of qualified people to install, manage, and maintain these systems. There will be an even greater shortage of people with the skill to ascertain meaningful trends from the big data pile.

The takeaway: Preparing for an environmentally related “big data” profession now will pay career dividends right away and for years to come.

9. There are always jobs for rainmakers.

This prediction was a good one last year. It will be a good one next year. If you can reliably attract money to an eco-employer, we see serious job interviews in your future. If the employer is a private business, that means bringing in more sales, clients, customers, and contracts. If it’s a nonprofit or academic institution, it means attracting more members, grants, and donations.

We’re not talking about marketing, education, communication, or public relations people here. We mean people whose success is measured directly by more money coming in the door. Lots of people say they want to do it, and that they can do it. Lots of people flame out, or fall short.

The takeaway: Successful sales and fundraising professionals are always in demand.