Defining a "sustainability" job is tough. It’s a new profession in an intense growth period. The expanding company budgets, ambitious net-zero commitments and an increase in investor focus lead to a sense of confusion amongst sustainability professionals and recruitment candidates over standard pay packages, defined titles, responsibilities and green skills needed to do the job well.
"The sustainability job market is booming. There has never been a better time to pursue a career in sustainability," said Katie Kross, a sustainability educator at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business who has been observing the market for almost two decades.
But the inconvenient truth is that the route to sustainability as a profession is puzzling. The historic business transformation comes with no standard playbook; there is little pay benchmarking and prevailing confusion between employees and employers due to a lack of defined employee key performance indicators (KPIs) or an individual’s roles and responsibilities. And as the sector evolves, the answers to what an ideal job title, description or pay looks evolve with it.
And like many jobs in corporate America, despite an increase in focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, the sector continues to be dominated by individuals identifying as white, adding to the challenges faced by historically disadvantaged sections of the community.
Some trends are starting to coalesce. GreenBiz’s most recent benchmarking study, the State of the Profession 2022, analyzed trends in the American sustainability job market. According to the report, the average total compensation for sustainability managers is $146,900, $227,158 for directors and for vice presidents, an impressive $404,972. These salaries reflect an economic upheaval and the historic business transition the private sector is going through as we move toward a greener economic system.
"Just like the internet completely transformed businesses in the early 2000s, sustainability is about to transform the way we do business like never before," said Matthew Sekol, sustainability industry advocate at Microsoft. "But we are at a nascent stage."
However, it's important to note that these average salaries are only focused on specific geography and this development does not show any significant shift in gender wage parity or an average for early and mid-career professionals.
There is high demand for sustainability workers and an increase in supply of sustainability jobs, but there is still a sense of randomness to how sustainability jobs are getting filled.
In just a few short years, the economy will need to overhaul how it does business in order to avoid a climate catastrophe and remain in operation. Climate commitments and government policies will help increase new job opportunities. Countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia offer sophisticated markets and many opportunities for green jobs, with India and Brazil showing high potential. LinkedIn’s first Global Green Skills Report highlighted agriculture, corporate services, design, energy and mining, manufacturing and public administration as sectors with high potential for an accelerated transition to jobs in sustainability.
This evolution is already occurring with corporate sustainability teams shifting from hiring broad generalist roles to specialists. Many of the most interesting jobs in sustainability don’t have that word in the job title. As the profession rapidly evolves, "just saying you want a job in sustainability cannot be a starting point," said Joel Makower, co-founder of GreenBiz Group. "You need to be more specific and do more."
The competition for sustainability jobs is fierce
Despite increasing resources, opportunities and more job openings in sustainability, students graduating with sustainable development, climate science and environmental policy degrees still struggle to find suitable job opportunities.
Lupe Cornejo, a sustainability management graduate student, found this out the hard way. She had checked all the sustainability education boxes but was still struggling.
"After over half a dozen applications, I started questioning my approach and the hiring process," she said. "I couldn't understand what I was doing wrong — I had the right degree, referrals in place, yet couldn't get an interview call."
Both applicants from inside companies and outside are eager to be part of the global green transformation. And according to GreenBiz’s 2020 state of the profession, although two-thirds of new hires in sustainability teams are from outside the organization, most professionals in sustainability report getting their position because someone they knew at the company or someone from the company contacted them.
"You cannot neglect your networking; this is the most important part of the search. Most job seekers are successful in their sustainability searches because of the relationships they’ve developed and the conversations they’ve had, rather than relying solely on online postings," Kross said.
So while there is high demand for sustainability workers and an increase in supply of sustainability jobs, there is still a sense of randomness to how sustainability jobs are getting filled.
"I see it as a matching problem on dating apps," said Aashna Aggarwal, a Columbia University’s Sustainability Management graduate. "You have people willing to hire and students looking for jobs, yet the gap between demand and supply prevails."
But that matching is also difficult for the companies doing the hiring.
"We aren’t at a stage where there are people with lots of experience in brands and sustainability," said Carol Stickler, North America Sustainability Practice lead at Ogilvy Consulting in New York. "It’s going to be difficult to find people with experience of both because sustainability is a new and emerging area. So you have to make judgment calls and ask yourself if applicants have the potential to grow into the role and be successful long term?"
Be wary of corporations jumping on the sustainability bandwagon
With sustainability entering a new era and hiring sustainability teams trendy, corporations are taking advantage of the momentum.
"It’s inspiring to be in this space, but there’s a lot of noise out there who might be getting in the way of those who are qualified," said Sekol.
According to experts, business leaders are restructuring and expanding budgets to build sustainability teams that are well placed and empowered to tackle stakeholder expectations and capture new business opportunities.
However, Alison Taylor, a senior advisor to Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and executive director at Ethical Systems, a research collaboration on ethical culture housed at New York University's (NYU) Stern School of Business, has a warning for those looking to pursue a career in sustainability in this time of unprecedented growth in the sector.
"Everybody who wants to work in sustainability should be cautious about a job that’s called a 'sustainability' job," she said. "We lack clarity on what skills qualify as sustainable. It can mean different things in different sectors, industries and geographies. For example, it could mean working in marketing, program management, risk advisory or being an environmental engineer, a human rights lawyer or a climate expert."
When evaluating suitable career pathways, it's essential to understand a company and industry's core materiality issues and sustainability priorities. Traditionally, sustainability teams have been housed under a company's corporate responsibility, communications and marketing, or investor relations function. Putting sustainability under these umbrellas has brought criticisms of greenwashing, so looking for a sustainability role in the core-business function or operations department of a company can help identify high-impact opportunities.
Ask questions such as: Where does the sustainability department sit? What is the seniority of the chief sustainability officer? How does the department work with the rest of the organization?
"It's important to be critical. Look for influence, budget and power," Taylor said.