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Are entry-level sustainability jobs a needle in a haystack?

We need more of young professionals working on sustainability, climate, circular economy and ESG solutions — and we need them right now. 

needle in haystack

Finding an entry-level sustainability job can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. Image courtesy of Shutterstock/Billion Photos

Master’s student Amythest Devlin appeared in my LinkedIn feed recently with a post sharing her frustration with the sustainability job market. "Opinion," she wrote. "Stop asking for so many years of experience in positions related to climate change. These positions need the perspectives of a younger generation who has been learning about climate change since elementary school. This is an urgent matter and one of the most important sectors of work over the next 20 years. We shouldn’t be asking passionate folks to ‘gain experience’ for the next 5-10 years of that. Put us in. We want to help."

Amythest's frustration is real. She told me that she applied for more than 30 positions only to be told in interviews, "You’re on the right track. If you just had more experience, I would hire you." Other students and young professionals have expressed similar frustrations to me. They are keenly aware of the urgency of the climate crisis, but are stymied by a system that wants them to slowly build their skills before being part of the solution. They know what they have to offer, but have a hard time figuring out how to translate that passion into career opportunities in a discipline that is still relatively new. 

These young professionals are right: We need more of them working on sustainability, climate, circular economy and ESG solutions — and we need them right now.  

So, where are the entry-level opportunities? Are they truly rare, or just hard to find?

As Joel Makower wrote, the war for sustainability talent is real. The job market is hot right now, but it can seem like every company that has woken up to sustainability and ESG issues in the past year has suddenly started posting jobs looking for candidates with 10-15 years of ESG or sustainability experience. (I have been working in this field since 2004 myself and I think that list is so short, I could personally name every single one of the professionals who meet those criteria.)  

But, the good news is that the sustainability job market is hot for entry-level, early career and mid-career professionals, too. It just can be a lot harder to see.

Ambiguous titles and confusing jargon

Let’s face it, entry-level jobs have supremely un-sexy job titles (and often, duties). The job descriptions are full of jargon that can be confusing to students just entering this world of sustainability-speak, with vague titles such as "coordinator," "analyst," "associate" and "fellow." Job seekers new to the market can’t help but be confused about what these terms mean and how they are different. And, why does an "associate" role require a bachelor’s degree at some organizations but a master’s at others?  

Even less helpful, entry-level opportunities are rarely called out as such in job titles. But thankfully, they do exist. They just might not have titles you’d expect.  

Here are a few entry-level postings that have crossed my desk recently:

  • Sustainability Data Analyst, Hasbro, Inc.
  • Engagement Coordinator, Cool Food, World Resources Institute
  • Associate, Corporate Sustainability, ERM
  • Project Development Analyst, SunPower
  • 12-Month Intern, Corporate Social Responsibility, L’Oreal
  • Climate Research Associate, Department of the Environment, City and County of San Francisco 
  • Investment Analyst, Calvert Impact Capital
  • Clean Energy Analyst, Edison Energy Group

Teasing these opportunities out from job boards and email alerts can be difficult. But, believe it or not, it’s an exciting time for entry-level sustainability careers. This is the first time in my own career as a sustainability educator that I’ve seen so many opportunities for young professionals to get started working directly on corporate sustainability and ESG programs immediately. These are real entry points to credible and meaningful careers.

Sustainability career paths are non-linear

The next challenge for job seekers is figuring out what type of role to start in. Let’s say you are interested in sustainable fashion.  Even if you are lucky enough to land a coveted entry-level role on the corporate sustainability team at Nike or Levi Strauss, it’s unlikely that your career will take a step-by-step path up a corporate ladder to chief sustainability officer.  

Anchor your career search on the issue that you most care about.

Most sustainability practitioners build their expertise by working across sectors and cultivating a diverse set of skills. They might work for an NGO, policy advocacy organization or research institute to build their understanding of sustainability issues at a systems level. They might build applied skills by working as an analyst for a consulting, auditing or technical firm by advising companies across multiple industries. Or, they might hone their functional skills across disciplines such as project management, communications, finance, supply chain management or data analysis — all of which are relevant to becoming a successful change agent in a corporate sustainability setting down the road.

Liza Schillo, senior manager of global sustainability integration at Levi Strauss, for instance, started her career as an intern with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. She developed her environmental expertise and program management skills in early roles with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Southern Environmental Law Center, a U.S. Congressional office and the consulting firm Natural Capital Solutions before ultimately moving into business. 

"The work I did before moving into the private sector equipped me with a bigger picture perspective that serves me every day," Liza told me. "I learned about stakeholder engagement, as well as diplomacy. Underlying both of these skills is the ability to empathize with the other voices in the room; this has been a huge asset for me, and was honed during my time in the nonprofit sector."

Advice to job seekers: Work close to the issues

One strategy for entry-level professionals, commonly suggested by my colleague at Duke, professor Dan Vermeer is to anchor your career search on the issue that you most care about.

Passionate about sustainable food? Maybe your dream job is to work on the corporate sustainability team at Mars someday, but you can build expertise by starting with any organization working on this topic. For instance, you might start in food policy or sustainable agriculture program management with an environmental NGO such as WWF, Conservation International or Fairtrade America.  

"Have a point of view on what you think the most important issues in the world are," Vermeer writes. "You may shift jobs, industries, geographies, but your commitment and deep expertise on one or more of the world’s most important challenges will give your career coherence and focus."

The world needs more bright young professionals entering sustainability careers, and it’s incumbent on all of us to help them succeed in finding opportunities to get started.  

The path is bumpy, but rewarding careers are out there — if you can look past the titles. 

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