Way back before the turn of the century (when we partied like it was 1999), I could count the number of real “sustainability managers” on my fingers and toes and still have a couple of digits left over. What a difference a decade makes. Today, I see new job postings every week for sustainability directors, managers, coordinators, and related staff people.

Who’s hiring?

Any institution that has a large number of people and a physical infrastructure that includes buildings, grounds, food service, a vehicle fleet, water/wastewater facilities, intensive use of energy (possibly from their own utility), lots of equipment and appliances that use electricity, a transportation network, and the large-scale procurement of goods and services will eventually require a sustainability manager.

This means cities and towns, school districts, utility districts, colleges and universities, federal government agencies, military bases, and larger corporations. That’s a lot of the national economy. Consider a few numbers. In the United States, there are 3,304 county governments, 19,431 municipal governments, 16,056 township governments, 13,522 school districts, 35,356 “special district” governments, and over 4,100 two-year and four-year colleges. We have dozens of large military installations. And then there are the 50 state governments with their related agencies, and our U.S. territories.

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That’s just the public sector. In the private sector, all of the Fortune 1000 companies will be hiring (or designating) sustainability managers, and thousands of smaller businesses will need staff as well. A recent story in the New York Times highlighted the work of Frito Lay’s sustainability director and offered insights into what corporate sustainability work can look like.

How is “sustainability” being defined?

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Here’s a fairly typical example from a currently posted job description at a major university.

… [T]he coordinated institutional sustainability effort [is] … focused on greenhouse-gas emissions reduction, transportation planning, green building, procurement, waste management, energy and water conservation, and other cross-disciplinary initiatives. The Director of Sustainability will provide leadership and coordination … and develop a consistent plan to reach … goals. The Director also coordinates with the … community to integrate sustainability into the curriculum.

Alert readers will notice a few phrases missing from this definition that are important to progressive policy types. Phrases like “social justice,” “economic security,” “habitat protection,” “inequality,” and “social transformation.” Good eye, Gristers. Many of the sustainability management positions I’ve seen are focused more narrowly on the institutional use of energy, water, and other natural resources, and not so much on treating people and other species well.

Three approaches to sustainability management positions

So, what do sustainability managers actually do? As I spoke with government, business, and university sustainability professionals, three approaches to the position emerged.

The champion and coordinator

The first steps toward sustainability management at many institutions are to:

  • Start talking up sustainability as an institutional goal.
  • Find out what’s going on already.
  • Bring together existing people and departments to set short-term objectives.
  • Set up an information sharing system to assure institutional coordination.
  • Agree on initial projects to pick “low-hanging fruit.”
  • Prepare and release annual “sustainability” reports.

In these institutions, sustainability managers are often hired more for their leadership and communication abilities than for any detailed knowledge of technical sustainability practices. Look for these sustainability managers to be housed in the office of the CEO, mayor, or university chancellor’s office, and to have close ties with “social responsibility” and “community involvement” programs.

These sustainability managers tend to have a very small support staff under the assumption that the detail work happens in the existing departments and divisions. If you’re a superb champion and cheerleader for sustainability and can incorporate a new theme into the current work of lots of different people without spending oodles of new money, you are a good candidate for this job.

The sustainability facilities manager

All hail facilities management! Bow down to procurement and contracting! The push for sustainability is shining a welcome klieg light on these once-quiet institutional backwaters. In some cases, the same directors who have been running the physical infrastructure for years have been newly appointed as “sustainability” directors and sent off to training courses aimed at quickly bringing them up to speed.

Look for this approach in smaller communities, businesses, and colleges where funds for new investments are tight and sustainability approaches must clearly demonstrate that they can pay for themselves over a reasonable time frame. Sustainability managers in this environment will have serious skills in — and knowledge of — life-cycle and supply-chain management, energy systems, building maintenance requirements, abilities of equipment suppliers, and other technical areas.

In this environment, there will often be an all-encompassing focus on how to measure success and an ensuing need for quantitative methods and abilities. People with engineering, finance, and technical project management backgrounds are strongly encouraged to apply.

Sustainability = environmental planning and design

At many municipal governments, the sustainability manager is housed in the planning department and sustainability is treated as the latest definition of “good planning,” just as many architects consider “green building” a 21st century word for “good design.”

Look for these sustainability managers to have degrees and certifications in planning and to be strong advocates of “smart growth” planning ideas — compact development; getting around on foot, bike, and bus; protection of forests and open space; more rigorous building codes; public support for energy efficiency and green fuels; brownfield redevelopment projects; free or low-cost energy audits; high-profile “greening” of public buildings; strong programs for watershed protection and water efficiency; and public information clearinghouses / educational workshops about green lifestyles.

The climate change connection

If sustainability managers across all institutional boundaries have a central focus, it’s producing real reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.

When sustainability managers focus on reducing GHG emissions, they naturally focus on reducing the use of fossil fuels. And that means a focus on LEED-certified green buildings and retrofits, use of Energy Star appliances and supplies, installation of on-site green-energy generation capacity, buying green energy from local utilities, switching to alternative fuel or hybrid vehicles, and so forth.

For people looking to get started in the sustainability field, a good first bet is to gain the technical and managerial skills you’ll need to help institutions dramatically reduce their carbon emissions.

Stories and profiles of sustainability management

For local government, start at the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

For colleges and universities, begin at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

In the corporate world, many of the companies involved with Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies have leading-edge sustainability manager positions.

Let’s hear from you!

Are you a sustainability director, manager, or coordinator in the business, government, or university world? Log in and share your thoughts! What advice do you have for aspiring sustainability managers? What skills are most needed? Which academic programs do you recommend? What trends can you turn us on to?

Kevin Doyle. 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.