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Specialization comes to the sustainability career

As the field matures and companies start to embed sustainability into every department, the job titles are getting much more specific.

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It's time to find your niche in sustainability. Image via Julie Vann.

Over the past two years, my LinkedIn feed has been flooded with job postings for "Circular Economy Program Manager," "Director of ESG," "Renewable Energy Procurement Specialist" and the many other roles that were unimaginable even five or 10 years ago. The growth of sustainability career options has been undeniable and I realized how far the corporate sustainability field has come.

Corporate responsibility and sustainability has shifted from conservation and a broader environmental movement, to compliance and risk mitigation, and finally to today where it is being incorporated into business strategy and innovation.

Like the field of corporate sustainability, the career path is also quickly changing. During the earlier stages of corporate sustainability, businesses often started sustainability programs as response to controversies or perceived risks. Businesses would tap internal talent that was readily available and move them laterally into these new roles. As a result, the corporate sustainability career paths of the past consisted of learning on the job and have meandered across internal departments.

As corporate sustainability developed, academic degrees dedicated to sustainability became more common, along with certifications and professional trainings. This has helped professionalize corporate sustainability. This next generation of sustainability professionals will have sustainability backgrounds even at the entry level, something unheard of decades ago. They will also find significantly more entry level roles and the opportunity to directly enter the field as companies are further along their sustainability journey.

Companies are transforming sustainability generalist roles from tactical responsibilities.

But that doesn’t mean their career journeys will be more straight forward.

Sustainability is becoming embedded into business strategy. So companies are transforming sustainability generalist roles from tactical responsibilities such as monitoring natural resource usage to strategic ones, such as developing long term sustainability strategies and integrating that within broader business context. And this next generation of sustainability workers will need to keep up.

As sustainability generalists roles evolve, existing responsibilities are being carved out into specialized roles. For example, companies have started to delegate ESG reporting into dedicated roles. In the past, ESG reporting often fell to the corporate sustainability staff. And as companies realize the range of needs and the skillsets needed to truly embed sustainability across the organization, they are also creating sustainability roles within traditional departments.

For young professionals, this evolution means that there is recognized value for corporate sustainability generalists and the unique skillset required to look at everything with a sustainability lens and weave it into business strategy, innovation and lead cultural change. The creation of ESG roles also offers additional opportunities for those looking to enter the industry through a specialized track with more general sustainability backgrounds. While the creation of sustainability roles within traditional departments offers options for those interested in career switches.

While the sustainability job market is finally growing to meet the academic pipeline pushing out sustainability talent, what happens after entering an organization? Right now, talent management and internal career paths for sustainability professionals is still largely undefined and inconsistent. As an increasingly specialized talent pool, sustainability professionals will hop from one company to the next without a track for linear progression towards the top. This will be the next frontier in the professionalization of corporate sustainability.

The Hire Learning column highlights knowledge from those inside the sustainability office to make sense of the career in this decisive decade. Have an idea you want to write? Email [email protected]. ]

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