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5 steps for getting hired in a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ sustainability job market

Many sustainability professionals are getting laid off. Take these 5 steps to get back on your feet if it’s happened to you.

The market seems simultaneously great and terrible.

The market seems simultaneously great and terrible.

Charles Dickens wasn’t referring to corporate sustainability when he wrote: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Yet this describes the state of the sustainability job market. Despite plenty of people losing their jobs and many job seekers struggling to find work, many companies continue to hire and face difficulties in doing so; searching "sustainability" on Indeed and other job sites turns up hundreds of open roles.

"What we’re seeing in the sustainability job market right now is very Jekyll and Hyde," said Ellen Weinreb, managing director at Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting. "People are being laid off, yet it seems like everyone is starting a new job." 

Perhaps this reflects the peculiar unevenness of both corporate sustainability and the current economic climate. Sustainability is, after all, not a sector but a business function. But unlike with the accounting or legal departments, not all companies view sustainability as mission-critical.

"Despite how far we have come with the financial markets realizing how sustainability and ESG deliver better investment returns, when there is a down market, the first thing to be cut is often corporate sustainability teams," said Shannon Houde, a career and executive coach at Walk of Life Coaching. 

Be this as it may, continued stakeholder demands and looming SEC regulations in the United States won’t allow companies to get away with sustainability cuts for long. While some companies have tightened their sustainability budgets during the current economic downturn, enough remain committed to advancing their sustainability and ESG strategies. 

While it’s difficult to find data about just how many companies have let go of sustainability and social impact staff in 2023 so far, anecdotally it’s noticeable. The beleaguered tech sector has seen mass layoffs at Salesforce, Meta, Lyft and Amazon, among others — including many people working in ESG, sustainability or social impact. In my work to help folks in-between impact jobs, I’ve heard from people who were laid off from Disney, Moody’s, Dutch Bros Coffee and even sustainability golden child Unilever.

If you’ve recently lost your job in corporate sustainability, you aren’t alone. Here are some practical steps on how to get back on your feet.

1. Stay engaged in the sustainability community

Just because you lost your job doesn’t mean you're no longer a corporate sustainability professional. Yet losing employment can make one feel aimless. But building a routine to stay engaged in the sustainability community is critical to finding your next gig — both practically and for maintaining motivation. 

Join local or virtual networking events focused on sustainability to stay connected with friends and colleagues. Stay current with sustainability news and trends by reading your favorite newsletter (perhaps one from GreenBiz) — to continue to feel part of the "corporate sustainability world." Listen to sustainability careers podcasts, such as the Environmental Defense Fund’s Degrees.

"I make time for experiences that have controlled and expected outcomes," said Ashley Scott, laid off from her ESG job at Catalyze, a commercial and industrial renewable energy developer. "If I follow the directions for how to bake a cake and add in a directed amount of time, then I will end up with a cake. The job search is nothing like that — it’s unpredictable and emotionally draining — so I try to find a balance between experiences with outcomes I can and can’t control."

2. Know where to look and don’t be deterred by ‘unicorn’ job descriptions

One of the biggest frustrations for sustainability job seekers is the fact that many job descriptions seem to be looking for candidates with the perfect credentials: years of industry and sustainability experience, advanced degrees and more. Don’t let it deter you; few folks working in sustainability have experience that perfectly fits their job description.   

"I always say that if you have three years of proven work experience in corporate sustainability, know most of these frameworks and standards and have the skills they are requiring, you should still apply," said Houde.

While you are certain to face rejection in the sustainability job search, it can sometimes be a winning tactic to apply for a job you aren’t perfect for. You never know. 

Of course, you also need to know where to look for these jobs. Some great places include Ed’s Clean Energy & Sustainability Job List, Reconsidered’s Impact Jobs Hub, the Green Jobs Board, and even GreenBiz’s Sustainability Job Board. LinkedIn also is a great resource for finding jobs, as folks in our community often share open roles in their feeds. You also can learn more about the career journeys of others, and other useful sustainability careers tips on my Impact Hired Resource Hub.

3. Build connections, not contacts  

Many sustainability jobs are filled before they even materialize as a formal posting. Knowing as many people as possible in the right places is critical for learning about and being considered for these roles. Networking is key. And while you should be networking all of the time — even when you are gainfully employed — doubling down while in between jobs is important.

The problem with networking while job hunting is that you always will be suspected of "only wanting to talk to get something." The strongest and deepest relationships form when you connect without expecting anything in return. That being said, job seekers can find both in-person and virtual ways to grow their networks authentically. Focus on the process rather than the outcome. Try to connect on particular sustainability subjects that interest you, such as circularity, ESG, climate tech and so on, rather than looking for generic career advice.  

LinkedIn is the greatest networking tool created — it’s like being at a perpetual professional conference minus the happy hour. Schedule time each day to spend there interacting with your network by liking and commenting on interesting posts from sustainability influencers and people working in industries you are interested in. And don’t be afraid to make posts of your own, resharing interesting content or making observations about current events in sustainability. Who knows — you may become an influencer yourself. Also, think twice before changing your banner to the green "Open to work" banner, as there’s some evidence that this might actually hurt your cause. 

4. Define your personal sustainability story and ‘superpower’

Success in a corporate sustainability career means forming a personal brand that current and future employers can connect with. Because many sustainability roles are changing continuously, the best constant is your professional story. Start from within. Spend time writing down the key points of your sustainability journey so far, including what interested you in a career in this space, critical roles you’ve had and what you learned, and the impact you hope to have.

Once you’ve done this, narrow your focus to define your sustainability super power. This could be anything from data analysis to communication and ESG reporting to GHG inventorying. You might consider starting a blog to generate content about your specific area of focus. Or, there’s always trusty LinkedIn, where you can both blog and create short posts showing your interest and understanding of a sustainability subject. 

In an uncertain sustainability job market, those who can successfully position themselves as specialists are winning out, according to Weinreb. Many candidates she’s working with are getting multiple offers — typically for roles requiring some kind of specialization, such as ESG reporting, net zero strategy or Scope 3 experience. Weinreb advises generalists looking for new roles to narrow their focus and how they frame their experience. 

5. Keep going despite the setbacks 

Finding a job in sustainability is difficult even during the best of economic climates, and you are going to fail along the way. When you work in corporate sustainability, the fact that this is a calling and not just a career entangles our personal and professional identities. We feel part of a broader movement to use the power of business for addressing the climate crisis and other social and environmental problems. But when our company no longer wants or needs us, it shakes our world. 

Remember that you aren’t the first person to have lost a job — some of the most successful people in the world have been laid off or fired at some point in their career. 

"If you've never been scared, felt rejected or faced a room with everyone telling you ‘no,’ you're likely not taking the risks you should," Angela Chang, a leadership and career coach, recently told me. "Remember that the feeling of failure doesn't mean you're a failure. It means you've opened a door to something better. Keep going."

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