Dear Shannon: How do I shift to a sustainability job?

Dear Shannon is a career advice column for sustainability professionals and wanna-be professionals. If you have a question for Shannon, send it to shannon@walkoflifeconsulting.com.

Dear Shannon,

I've just been made redundant from my marketing job for an oil and gas firm. I'd like to move into sustainability communications for a similar organization like global extractives but don't feel I know enough about the sustainability agenda. Should I go back to school or look for a lower-paid role in a sustainability-related NGO to get the skills I need?

--Josh, San Francisco

Dear Josh,

You are not alone! In today's economic climate, more and more job seekers and career changers (laid-off investment bankers, lawyers, consumer marketers) are trying to steer their career to the fast-growing sustainability and green markets where they can make a difference.

Although there are more jobs than ever (recruitment agency Acre.com just had its biggest quarter), there is also more competition with 100-300 applicants per open role posted online. You can break into this exciting field, but you have to be smart, realistic and methodical about how you do it.

Often the most important factor for breaking in is not the specific qualifications you have but your ability to understand and bring together a range of complicated issues, put these into business context and then communicate them internally and externally. So your marketing experience should give you a leg up.

1. You can change -- just not everything at once, right now.

The most successful career changers focus on changing one thing at a time: role/function, sector/industry and sustainability issues, but not all three. It sounds like you easily will be able to translate marketing skills into communications for the role/function piece, and from oil and gas to wider extractives for the sector/industry piece. These two are the most important.

Business sustainability roles often are filled by internal candidates who already understand the organization. In a recent survey by Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, more than half of respondents came to their current position from inside the company. This is because companies assume that sustainability issues can be "taught," but that understanding the business's products, services and key stakeholders, as well as knowing how to navigate and implement change across the politics of a company, is best done by an "insider" who knows the landscape and players already.

2. Taking a step back in your career doesn't help your chances.

Buying something on sale doesn't mean it's a good value, and taking a step back in your career doesn't open doors for you. You need to aim for roles that are at your level and still show career progression. Otherwise, you look desperate and insecure. Devaluing yourself in the market will set you back because you won't get the calls for interviews and then you'll wonder why they didn't want someone with all of your education or experience (unrelated as it may be) for half the price.

Think about it this way: If you were the hiring manager, would you want to manage someone with an MBA and seven years' experience if you were just looking for a bachelors and three years? Probably not. Why? Because that overqualified candidate probably will get bored and leave, or will want to get promoted to your job.

3. Going back to school doesn't buy you a job.

If you do decide to go back to school, don't be fooled by thinking it (or the career center on campus) will do the career change for you. I work across the globe with masters graduates disheartened by the post-graduation job hunt. The best advice here is to use your coursework time to do real projects with real companies so it becomes valid work experience that proves your skillset and builds networks. And start that job search six to nine months before graduation to leverage the vast alumni network you will have bought into.

I would challenge you to prove that the roles you are targeting actually require an advanced degree, and that this is the main requirement you are failing to meet. Does a lack of sustainability qualifications actually keep you from getting the roles you want? If not, I would see if there are networks you can join, conferences you can attend, volunteer organizations you could lead or certifications (shorter and cheaper) that could help you build necessary skillsets (such as IEMA, LEED, SROI, etc.).

4. Helping an NGO can help your chances.

More and more, we are seeing hiring managers take on career changers thanks to their volunteer work experience. You can gain skills such as fundraising, event planning, social media or project management this way. Research from LinkedIn shows that one out of every five hiring managers in the U.S. has hired a candidate because of their volunteer work experience.

Doing volunteer or pro bono work is also a great interim opportunity to test which sustainability issues you are most passionate about and to network in that field. Make sure to do high quality, tangible projects for the NGO so that you have skills-based results to put on your CV. What's more, you can do this while keeping your day job and earning a salary.

5. A job search can take up to six months, even if you aren't making a career change.

Career paths don't change overnight, so it's important to plan ahead, stay organized and maintain momentum. Make sure you have a well-articulated vision of your ideal role and start by identifying your biggest challenges in making this career change. Next, you should create a detailed action plan that breaks down each week in the six-month period. Try to address one item per week: Who will you call each week, what research will you do, who will you follow up with?

6. If you cast your net too wide, you'll catch fewer fish.

Yes, you need to keep your options open, but not at the cost of having a strategic and focused job role and sector target. You need to decide exactly what you are selling and to whom. Narrowing down the types of roles is vital for telling a consistent "story" in your CV, LinkedIn profile and networking. If you are looking for too many types of things, no one will know how to help you. You already have identified that you want to work in communications in the extractives sector. Well done! That is focus. Now spread the word concisely to all of your networks.

7. Calling your "friends" never has been so important.

You must get the word out. I know you probably hate the word networking, but just like dating, you only need one fish to take the bait -- or employer in this case. Making a career change means you have to be creative and be determined about building your network.

You never know who may know someone else who's hiring -- it is all about your web of connections. Ask everyone you know if they have one (just one!) other person they can put you in touch with. Go through your LinkedIn contacts and go to "See All Connections" to see who else you can link to at your dream organizations. Then connect with them and ask them for coffee.

Good luck taking the next steps towards your dream sustainability job. 

Writing image by Pressmaster via Shutterstock