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Finding your 'sustainability and…'

Job seekers need more than just a degree in sustainability to be attractive to companies. It's important to pair your degree with another skill or interest.

Electric car and tree

When I tried to find a job in sustainability, the people I was talking to needed more specificity. Image by Sophia Davirro/GreenBiz.

The sustainability careers marketplace exists in an odd contradiction. Job posting abound, I constantly hear from businesses that they can’t find qualified talent in sustainability. But simultaneously, job seekers interested in sustainability express a frustration that they can’t break into the field, and students coming from degree programs in sustainability often struggle to find positions as they graduate. Similarly, more experienced professionals in other fields who are hoping to pivot into sustainability careers feel rudderless as they try to break into seemingly unfamiliar territory.

What’s the disconnect? After years of navigating my own sustainability career and many conversations with others seeking their own path in the field, I realized that it’s typically insufficient for sustainability career hopefuls to express their interest area as simply "sustainability." Additionally, it’s hard for potential employers to justify hiring someone who has education in sustainability but doesn’t have exposure to other industries or disciplines. Instead, it’s invaluable to determine a discipline or niche to link to sustainability, or as I call it, your "sustainability and."

If you’re in the position of trying to navigate beginning a sustainability career, articulating your "and" can help narrow an extremely broad and diverse interest — sustainability — into something you can turn into a job.

You likely already have "ands" that may make sense to combine with sustainability. If you’ve always gravitated towards business-oriented, quantitative fields, you may love having a "sustainability and finance" career. If you couldn’t get enough of Legos as a kid and find yourself interested in buildings and architecture later in life, you may love a "sustainability and the built environment" career helping to improve the efficiency of buildings.

There are myriad fields that you can combine with sustainability: finance; engineering; policy; marketing; economics; computer science; apparel and fashion; economic development; and so many more. There are even other "ands" you might not realize can be turned into sustainability careers.

For example, you might love graphic design — why not pursue a graphic design position at a company focused on making more environmentally friendly products so you can put your skills in service of sustainability? This also demonstrates how more seasoned professionals can take their non-sustainability experience and mesh it with sustainability.

Sustainability 'ands' are freeing, not constraining.

As you get further into the search or into your experience, your "and" will likely narrow even more. A college student who knows that she’s interested in sustainability and public policy may eventually find that she wants to specifically address water pollution policy issues in North Carolina. A marketing professional with 10 years’ experience who is pivoting into sustainability may realize that he’s specifically interested in influencing consumer behavior to promote more zero-waste lifestyles. These are specific problems and specific solutions all under the umbrella of sustainability.

When I first got to business school and began realizing that I needed to better hone my "sustainability and," I worried I would box myself in by pinpointing that other field that I wanted to focus on. As I began to network and tell potential employers that I was interested in all things sustainability and was largely function-agnostic, I thought I was keeping my options open and giving myself a chance to fit into any role that a potential employer might need.

However, I found that people I was talking to needed more specificity. What skillset could I bring to make an impact in sustainability? I realized that I was ultimately interested in combining my interest in waste reduction and circular economy with my burgeoning business acumen and design thinking. Focusing on this specific topic made my job search easier, not harder. People I networked with gained a better sense of what excited me and what I could actually bring to the table.

Sustainability "ands" are freeing, not constraining. I was surrounded by many others seeking sustainability-oriented careers while I was earning my MBA, and it was fascinating to see what my peers chose as their "and."

Some chose venture capital; they wanted to help find and fund the companies making strides in sustainability. Others dove into project finance, using their spreadsheet and modeling skills to help renewable energy developers plot out how to finance projects. Others had a marketing lens; they wanted to figure out how to use the power of behavioral economics and advertising to influence more sustainable consumer behavior. Seeing all of us find our "ands" didn’t seem at all like we were constraining ourselves to one field; rather, I watched as we took our natural aptitudes and interests aside from sustainability and figured out how to leverage them in service of sustainability itself.

Depending on your career level, here are tips for finding your “and.”

For undergraduate students seeking first jobs

The first step is determining your "and." You may think back to classes you’ve enjoyed or childhood interests. Next, operationalize it by gaining education or experience in your "and," if you don’t have it already. If you can, combine two academic concentrations to make a double-major, or maybe a major and a minor. One of those can be environmentally related, and the other can be your "and." In addition, it’s helpful to seek internships or extracurricular experience that help you deepen either your "and," your sustainability expertise or both.

For instance, the student who thinks she’s interested in public policy and sustainability may seek an internship with a local policymaker’s office and ask to assist with sustainability issues in the district. This may help her see that she’s really interested in local water issues. It also provides an invaluable signal on her resume that she’s gained experience in both policy and sustainability. If you’ve already graduated and are still pinpointing your "and," reflect on some of the possible ones that already exist on your resume. Consider gaining additional experience in that other interest area, even if it’s not sustainability-related, to help you navigate toward the intersection of those two things.

For experienced professionals trying to pivot careers into sustainability

The easiest way to move into a sustainability job is to use your previous experience as your "and," then gain sustainability knowledge to supplement it. Someone with several years’ experience in food procurement may find it interesting to work on responsible procurement of food that’s been grown using sustainable agriculture. Someone who has managed a warehouse or office may enjoy becoming their facility’s zero-waste manager.

There are unlimited ways to integrate sustainability into your existing area of discipline. If you’re concerned that you don’t have enough exposure to or education in sustainability, consider taking free online classes in sustainability areas of interest, subscribing to industry newsletters or potentially enrolling in an executive education class.

Navigating the sustainability careers landscape continues to be challenging, but I’m excited by how many "ands" can be combined with sustainability to create fulfilling jobs and lifelong careers. Some reflection on your "and" can pay huge dividends as you find the position that’s best for you.

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