As director of program development at The Environmental Careers Organization, Kevin Doyle knows a thing or two about job searching. In this recurring column for Grist, he explores the green job market and offers advice to eco-job-seekers looking to jumpstart their careers.

I received an email the other day from a professor who wanted fresh, expert-certified information about the green job scene. (No snickering about the abysmally low standards for “expert” status, please.) His college planned to offer a new environmental studies degree, and the state legislators wanted to know whether graduates would become gainfully employed in exchange for their four years and $80,000. Picky, picky, picky.

“It’ll be a slam dunk!” the prof answered. “Employers will greet our graduates like liberators, throwing flowers at their feet when they enter the lobby!” It was a powerfully convincing argument, but unlike some government leaders we can think of, the governor required actual data before ponying up the taxpayer’s cash. This is the kind of limited, inside-the-box, “reality-based” leadership our nation’s professors must contend with.

At any rate, an academically rigorous search for verifiable numbers set sail. (Translation: an intern typed keywords into Google.) Immediately, the project ran into an iceberg of a question: How does one define “environmental” jobs in 2006? It’s a good question, actually. If we’re going to talk about growth or decline in environmental jobs (and how to educate people for them), it’s fair to ask which jobs count as “environmental.” What gets left in? What gets left out?

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Long, long ago, in an almost forgotten age (before the internet, before cable television, even before American Idol), environmental jobs were synonymous with an easily identifiable group of people. We’re talking about wildlife biologists, park rangers, wastewater technicians, foresters, sanitarians, land-use planners, certain engineers, geologists, agricultural scientists, marine ecologists, a few niche lawyers, and the occasional recycling coordinator.

All of these professions are still with us, of course, and it’s very easy to describe how many people are employed, what they do, where they work, how much they are paid, what the future looks like, and how best to prepare for a successful career in “the field.”

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In the current lexicon, however, the adjective “environmental” has lost the limited land, air, and water definition it once had. It’s now a generic label attached to a vaguely connected set of lifestyle choices and political preferences. As former Supreme Court Justice Potter is supposed to have said about pornography — you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

And the term has also morphed into other adjectives — “sustainable,” “green,” and “eco-” — that get attached to professions like accounting, marketing, journalism, and architecture. With no accepted definition to depend upon, estimates of the number of “environmental” jobs in the nation have ranged from as few as 400,000 to as many as 4 million — or more.

As industries like agriculture, transportation, construction, manufacturing, finance, energy, communications, tourism, and consumer products all struggle to become more sustainable, the greatest environmental contributions are often made by people far outside of the “environmental” department whose training has often had very little direct environmental content.

Old definitions have disappeared, but new ones have yet to emerge. We’re left with questions. If you have a doctorate in earth science, but spend your days ripping up the planet, are you still an environmental professional? If you work as a brownfields specialist at a development company that mainly puts subdivisions in former green spaces, do you have an environmental job? If the entire company is devoted to brownfields redevelopment should everyone be counted? And what about people who sell organic herbal shampoos, for God’s sake?

It’s clear to me that we are in a messy transition period. We’re moving from a time when protecting the natural world and public health was a limited professional province to an era when all economic activity will (we hope!) ultimately be conducted in rough alignment with high standards of ecological health, social justice, and economic security.

On the road to an environmentally sound economy, perhaps we should allow for a spectrum of environmental jobs, instead of a single definition or a list of job titles. As a recognized expert (hello? I think we agreed about that snickering?), I suggest the following five questions to measure the “degree of environmentalness” for positions in the real world.

  1. What is the intention/mission of the employing institution?
  2. What measurable sustainability results is the employing institution achieving?
  3. What is the impact/role of the specific job toward sustainability results?
  4. What is the importance of environmentally related training/education on the job?
  5. What is the conscious intention of the person in the job?

Applying these questions, we would find (for example) that a committed environmentalist (#5), educated and employed as a conservation biologist (#4), responsible for managing (#3) a successful, ecosystem-scale protection project that also creates jobs for low-income residents (#2) at Conservation International (#1) would rank at the higher end of the spectrum of “environmentalness.”

We would also find, however, that one needn’t achieve that kind of purity of alignment to lay claim to an environmental job. There might be a lot of #5 and #4, for example, but only a little of #1, #2, and #3. The purest end of the spectrum need not be the only definition.

You can play at home! What’s the environmentalness quotient of your job, or the one you aspire to? Where do you draw the line? Which factors count for a lot, and which are less important?

But wait. If our search for an agreed-upon list of environmental job titles has fallen apart, how does one even begin to educate undergraduates in an environmental studies program? A 1999 “Workforce Assessment Project” [PDF] from the U.S. EPA offers a good start by identifying 10 competencies most needed to be successful in environmental work. They are:

  • Communication skills
  • Collaboration abilities — team orientation
  • “Customer” orientation
  • Creativity, innovative thinking
  • Broad environmental sciences understanding
  • Analytical ability, critical thinking, problem-solving
  • Work orientation, professionalism, positive attitude
  • Occupation-specific skills and knowledge
  • Mastery of information technology
  • Leadership ability

The list remains the same in 2006. And here’s a happy coincidence: Those are exactly the competencies that the very best environmental studies programs aim to develop.


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Kevin Doyle is the national director of program development for the The Environmental Careers Organization in Boston. He is coauthor of The ECO Guide to Careers That Make a Difference: Environmental Work for a Sustainable World and The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century.