Send your question to Umbra!
Q. Dear Umbra,
My son is in college and cannot decide which degree to get. He is interested in environmental issues and currently is enrolled with the degree of Civil Engineering. He just isn’t sure if that’s the “job” he wants. He expressed an interest in Construction Management so he can get into green building. Are there any degrees that are better than others that will lead to employment opportunities and are environmentally based?
A. Dearest Greg,
How you must be fretting. Your son is in college, perhaps entirely or partially on your dime. He’s interested in the environment, which has not traditionally been the highest-paying industry on the planet (unless you were in the business of destroying it). And now he can’t decide on a major.
But I have good news for you: The environmental field is booming. It’s booming so much it’s not even a “field” anymore! Green is becoming a critical aspect of how cities work, how products are manufactured, and how we get around, power our homes, and do business. Just about any major could theoretically lead to gainful green employment, assuming a few other pieces are in place — like, say, the economy continuing to pick up and your son remembering to iron his best interview shirt.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [PDF], green jobs saw more growth than any other industry from 2010-2011, the most recent year for which data were available. They saw four times more growth than all other industries combined. And Greg, guess which type of green jobs grew the most during that time? Construction. Both civil engineer and environmental engineer made CNN’s list of best jobs in fast-growth industries. Turns out your son is a smart cookie.
But if he’s not so sure what he wants to do, he should feel free to experiment. The number-crunchers at BLS estimate there are about 3.4 million green jobs in the country, from making appliances to making movies, from retrofitting buildings to writing advice columns (just kidding, they never ventured down to the basement to count me). At least one job site reported almost twice as many green-job listings this spring compared to last year. With the surging interest in energy efficiency, alternative transportation, and sustainable systems, those opportunities should continue to grow.
At least one expert says they’ll grow whether we like it or not. Bracken Hendricks, a green-jobs advocate who was a founder of the Apollo Alliance and is now senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, put it to me this way: “Whether through careful planning or painful crisis, in the coming decades climate change will fundamentally alter our economy.”
Hendricks says this will create all sorts of possibilities: “Transitioning to low-carbon energy means relying on intelligent buildings, distributed energy, and smart grids, while resilience to climate impacts depends on restoring coastal ecosystems, rebuilding infrastructure, and better city planning. These things are happening now and will only accelerate regardless of politics in Washington. So whatever your field, whether in civil engineering, software design, municipal finance, or plant ecology, your skills are part of the solution for a changing planet. In the near future every job will become a green job, and knowing this can be a competitive advantage as you prepare to enter the job market.”
Did you hear that? “Every job will become a green job.” Your son is sounding smarter by the minute! I encourage you both to take a look at the resources put together by Green for All and spend some time on BLS’s Green Jobs page, a handy source of statistics and information (now frozen in time, as the program got cut [PDF] during the sequestration this spring).
But mostly, Greg, worry not. As you probably recall from your own days of yore, life is often circuitous. Why, an informal survey of Grist employees reveals majors in international relations, business administration, art, psychology, even criminal justice! Your son will find his way. Just be glad he doesn’t want to be a lawyer — talk about a risky career move.