How do you get to sustainability? By degrees.

GreenBiz Intelligence Panel

How do you get to sustainability? By degrees.

Where should sustainability factor into the college education experience? And how much education about sustainability should an engineer or a marketing executive need to perform well at a company that is striving to embed sustainability into the core of their business?

These questions came to mind at a Q&A session during the recent Net Impact conference. An engineering student related frustration that her coursework in sustainability didn’t seem to mean much when talking with an HR manager at a large global corporation. As uncomfortable as it was toanswer, panelists responded that more than likely the interview had been for her role as an engineer and that when that’s the job spec, companies are interested in hiring the best engineering candidate and not the engineer with the best sustainability background.

We recently conducted a survey in partnership with the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, part of the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Our goal was to get a better understanding ofhow to best structure an Executive Master's program that would provide the greatest value to its graduates.  Ultimately, we wanted to identify the general career, personal growthand sustainability-specific needs of a cross-section of people currently working in business.

The knowledgeable want more knowledge

In late June, we surveyed the GreenBiz Intelligence Panel (you can sign up to be a member here) and received 391 responses to our questions about what type of educational program prospective students would find useful for career advancement.

There has been anecdotal evidence that employees who embrace sustainability tend to be inherently curious, with an appetite for greater knowledge and learning.We asked panel members to tell us about themselves, and 68 percent claimed to be very knowledgeable about sustainability. Sixty-four percent of panel members noted that sustainability responsibilities were part of their current job. Yet even while two-thirds of them claim extensive knowledge, almost half (45 percent) are interested in expanding their knowledge of sustainability.

When we asked panel members how they are furthering their knowledge of sustainability, 96 percent said they were visiting websites and reading newsletters. Attending conferences and networking with experts also ranked highly.

Universities provide a career boost

We asked panel members whether they possessed the knowledge and tools needed to advance sustainability in their organizations. More than two-thirds believed they had “most” (65 percent) or “all” (11 percent) of the knowledge, skills, and tools they need.

Confident that they are armed with what they need, it was surprising to find that more than 80 percent of respondents believe formal education could help in their current job or future career.

Digging deeper into the data, we found that those with a bachelor’s but no advanced degree and fewer than 3 years of experience,and those with between 16 and 25 years experience, believe formal education could improve their current job “a lot” (75 percent and 38 percent respectively).

We also found that that many of those with no advanced degree felt that additional formal education could improve their future career potential “a lot.” This was especially true of those with fewer than 3 years of experience (75 percent) as well as 50 percent of those with 4 to 5 years’ experience and 45 percent of those with between 11 and 25 years.

A look at future sustainability education programs

We asked our panel members what type of educational institution they would most likely consider for an Executive Master’ssustainability degree aimed at business professionals. Thirty-four percent preferred a large, nationally recognized public university (such as Michigan or ASU) versus 29 percent who would consider a nationally recognized private university (such as Columbia or Stanford). Only 20 percent are likely to consider a specialized graduate program (such as that offered by Presidio or Marylhurst).

But what would such a program look like?Seventy percent of respondents would look for a program that was designed for full-time professionals. When it comes to content, 64 percent want a focus on solutions and skills, not just theory. And when that information is delivered, they want to hear from thought leaders and those with expertise.

Universities a match for sustainable business

Companies seek to embed sustainability into their strategy and business operations andoften look for partners to help along the journey. Seventy-six percent of our panel members believe universities can help organizations achieve their sustainability goals. Only 4 percent said this would not be a good match, while 20 percent just didn’t know.

More and more students are taking courses that provide them with a fundamental knowledge of sustainability. While this may not be the critical advantage that gets them their first job, in the long run businesses are looking for passionate employees in all departments who understand the benefits of leveraging their sustainability knowledge to achieve greater success.

Photo of graduates provided by Blend Images via Shutterstock.