Another Earth Day has come around, and that means college graduations are just a few weeks away. Soon-to-be alumni throughout the nation are dusting off résumés, poring over job listings, and then moving back into their old bedrooms at home “for a little while.” I predict a progression of messages from dear old Dad. (Welcome back. Clean the garage. Don’t get too comfortable. Get a job already.)
With so many aspiring eco-job-seekers entering the world of gainful employment, it seems like a good time to take the temperature of the environmental-management job market. To find out what’s going on, we talked to the career services directors at four leading environmental graduate schools. Collectively, these schools are sending 340 master’s-level students into the world of work this year. Our tour guides to the 2008 green job market are:
- Karen Kirchof, Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University
- David Parker, Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara
- Lisa Yee-Litzenberg, School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan
- Peter Otis, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Strength of the job market
The green-career experts rated the ’08 job scene on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 was: “super hot — the best ever” and 1 was: “weak — we’re worried.” All four felt that the current market was north of “3” (average) and might even be “4” (very good). And they pointed out that even an “average” year for them would be considered “excellent” in some fields. Almost all of the grads are expected to land a job they want. So even if 2008 only remains steady, students at these schools are in pretty good shape.
The current recession is not going unnoticed, but the impact seems fairly small. “It’s true that we are seeing some tough economic times,” said Yee-Litzenberg, “but we have not seen a correlating shortage of job opportunities in the environmental management fields.”
Parker agrees. “While I have heard of some firms cutting back,” he said, “most firms are in desperate need of strong entry level to mid-level employees. There are more recruiters this year, and I don’t see things slowing down, even with talk of a recession.” Parker added that “more Bren students were placed before March than ever before.”
It’s a good year for these job seekers to be job seeking.
Where will these students be going to work? The chart below reflects 2008 estimates (Yale and UCSB) and previous year’s grads (Michigan and Duke).
|Master’s Graduates Employment, By Sector|
|U.S. federal government||29%||12%||15%||15%|
|U.S. state and local gov’t||10%||8%||6%||14%|
All four university reps have noticed some 2008 trends: Kirchof says that consulting employment is on the rise among her graduates, and that the consultants coming to campus often have large government client portfolios, especially from federal government agencies. She also notes that Uncle Sam himself is still a big employer of environmental professionals. Agencies looking for talent have expanded the use of “direct hire” methods to overcome the byzantine federal hiring process that defeats so many would-be public servants.
Yee-Litzenberg agreed. She notes that federal agencies like the USDA Forest Service are doing more direct outreach to universities to fill choice positions that feed into management-track opportunities. The nation’s forest agency nabbed an “Innovations in Government” Award for the program to recruit future environmental leaders.
If there is a small downer in the 2008 market, it might be in the nonprofit sector. “A slow economy hits fundraising hard, and that can mean both more people staying in their current jobs, and fewer dollars for new hires,” Kirchof says. On the up side, she notes an increase in the number of nonprofit opportunities on “the business side,” including job listings for more development officers, operations managers, and finance-related managers. Although many of Kirchof’s students continue to have an interest in a nonprofit career, she has seen a slight fall-off in job offer acceptances. She names the cause: debt. “Higher education can be pretty expensive, and some of our students are understandably drawn to places with higher salaries to pay off student loans.”
There’s also a bit of panic among employers as they compete with one another for the best people. “The big issue across the board is the shortage of talented environmental professionals and the anticipated large number of retirements taking place in the next 3-5 years,” Parker says. In-demand skill sets include air and water quality management, life cycle assessment, alternative energy, water supply demand, and green investments.
One of the most sought-after jobs for Otis’ grads is that of sustainability director for a major corporation, university, or municipality. The 21st century sustainability leaders would be as likely to take classes in the School of Business as they would in the “environment” master’s program, he says, and eventually the lines among the schools will be even more permeable than they are today. Additionally, he says, climate-related careers are on the rise. “We are receiving a lot of jobs related to climate change and energy in general; it is way up from five years ago when the field wasn’t a household word as it is becoming today.”
Yee-Litzenberg points to a surge of interest in clean technology investing. “Those who couple strong finance skills with deep sustainability knowledge are sought after by private equity, venture capital and investment banking firms.”
It’s not all about global warming, though, as Yee-Litzenberg notes that landscape architecture and environmental policy jobs are also on the rise. And Parker notes that environmental media career opportunities are hitting the big time at UCSB. “Film, video, webcasting, website design, and related fields are all in demand,” he says. “There is a huge need for creativity in getting the message out in a way that really counts.”
Mixed messages about international careers
We live in a global economy. No doubt about that. All four of the schools have significant numbers of international students. In addition, many of the U.S.-born students want a job that will take them to other parts of the world.
That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to land an international job right out of graduate school. “There’s language skills, the need for in-country experience and cultural knowledge,” Kirchof says. “People need to have high quality technical skills in their area of interest, and they need a more international network of job contacts.”
The upside, of course, is that a smart aspiring professional can find ways to gain the needed knowledge, experience, and networks through intentional choices about classes, professors, internships, fellowships, and study abroad options.
Is a “professional” master’s program for you?
All four of the schools surveyed are “professional” or “career-focused” environmental science and management degree programs. That may be one reason that employers are eager to hire their graduates — in good times and bad. Programs like these are designed to train people for real world environmental problem solving in targeted areas like coastal environmental management, sustainability planning, corporate environmental management, water science, policy and management, and global environmental change.
The practical approach aims to graduate environmental management professionals who have the right mix of scientific, policy, finance, and management knowledge needed to address the issue at hand. At the same time, students learn core competencies that will allow them to be quick learners if and when their interests — or the issues around them — start to change.
That’s the idea, anyway, and employers seem to be buying it. If you’re considering graduate school, you might want to think about investing in a master’s program like the ones here. There are lots of other great programs to choose from as well. Googling a phrase like “professional environmental management graduate program” can get you started.
How does the job market look to you?
Are you a student facing graduation, an employer looking for talent, or a career services director watching the market for green grads? We’d love to hear your stories and questions. Log on now and tell us how things look where you are!
Kevin Doyle is the president of Green Economy, a Boston-based firm offering consulting, training, facilitation, and strategic planning help to the public and private institutions building a more sustainable economy. He is the co-author of The ECO Guide to Careers That Make a Difference: Environmental Work for a Sustainable World, and is at work on a new book about climate change careers. He welcomes your green career questions here or directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.