Skip to main content

What's next for sustainability career hiring trends

Sustainability job seekers hit their stride in a maturing career.

I recently caught up with Katie Kross, a sustainability career expert, writer and managing director of the Center for Energy, Development and the Global Environment at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Katie and I have been compatriots for 12 years.

Like me, Katie researches sustainability/CSR employment trends, advises job seekers about best practices and tweets job openings daily. She is the author of "Profession and Purpose: A Resource Guide for MBA Careers in Sustainability." I asked Katie to share her most recent observations on the sustainability jobs market.

Ellen Weinreb: Are sustainability jobs on the rise or fall? Are you seeing any trends?

Katie Kross: I have observed a general uptick in sustainability jobs, especially in a couple of areas. I’ve noticed more specialist sustainability roles posted this year. For instance, rather than just sustainability manager roles, I’m seeing job openings with titles like sustainability product manager; senior manager; responsible sourcing and director; and sustainability communications.

Katie Kross

Intuitively, I think this makes sense. When sustainability was a new discipline, teams were small and there was a need for generalists. But as corporations have started to grow their sustainability teams (some of them now have more than 100 people in their sustainability departments), it makes sense that we will see increasing specialization.

For related reasons, I have also seen more entry-level and junior-level positions posted this year — for instance, jobs at the analyst or program coordinator level with corporate sustainability departments. Again, as sustainability departments get larger, it makes sense that they would begin to have some hierarchy with room for junior-level positions as well as more senior ones.

Weinreb:  What kinds of specialization do you see most often?

Kross: I’ve seen a few different "buckets" of specialized jobs. First, I’ve seen more roles that focus on products and packaging specifically. These might include jobs with titles like product stewardship specialist, lifecycle analyst or manager of a sustainable packaging initiative.

I’ve also seen roles that focus specifically on responsible sourcing and supply chain management. Labor rights and environmental compliance in supply chains is not a new topic, but it is one area that companies are carving out more dedicated roles for.

The third big bucket I’ve seen more roles in recently is in sustainability marketing and communications. Many companies used to use consultants for some of these types of projects, but are now establishing teams in-house. 

Weinreb: Any other trends that have caught your eye?

Kross: I’ve seen a rise recently in job openings based in Asia — and China specifically — focused on CSR and environmental issues. Many of the U.S.-based multinationals are hiring teams of CSR and sustainability personnel based on the ground in China. Also, I’ve seen U.S.-based environmental organizations hiring not only technical experts but also roles focused on strategy, operations and finance for environmental and climate initiatives in Asia.

For instance, just in the last few weeks, I’ve seen an opening for a clean power program director with the Energy Foundation in Beijing; manager of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s China Industry Practice (also based in Beijing); and an associate with the Asia program office of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative. 

Weinreb: Those posts are in direct response to China’s aggressive and ambitious climate agreement.

Kross: Agreed. There is a lot of work to be done, and that will create opportunities. Bilingual jobs seekers are especially well positioned to drive the sustainability agenda forward in both the U.S. and Asia. 

Bilingual jobs seekers are especially well positioned to drive the sustainability agenda forward in both the U.S. and Asia.

Weinreb: In our [GreenBiz and Weinreb Group] 2016 State of the Profession Report, we found that "peak sustainability" was in the year 2008. Is this your finding?

Kross: I think the term is misleading to job seekers. When people read "peak sustainability" in your report, it gives the impression that corporate sustainability investment is down now and hiring is on the decline post-2008. In fact, what your chart measures in the report is the creation of new sustainability departments — that is, companies hiring a sustainability executive when they’ve never had one on staff before.

Sustainability is becoming a more mature industry, so it makes sense that we are not registering a lot of first-time hires these days. But from where I sit, sustainability hiring still looks very robust. In fact, those companies that may have added their first sustainability executive three years ago might now have openings for two to 10 more people on their team this year. 

Those companies that may have added their first sustainability executive three years ago might now have openings for two to 10 more people on their team this year.

Weinreb: The outcome of the recent election may change the sustainability world. I know it’s early, but what is your take on whether we’ll see any shift in the sustainability jobs market post-presidential election?

Kross: It’s too early to say definitively. But I think that now, more than ever, the sustainability agenda is going to be driven by the private and NGO sectors rather than policy mandates. Consumers still care about the environment, about labor rights, about where our goods come from and how they are made.

They are more aware of these issues than ever — and they expect more from companies on these issues. So I think we will still see the sustainability agenda taking center stage, with the private sector playing the lead role. That should translate into continued growth in corporate sustainability jobs and more integration of sustainability into every corporate job. 

Weinreb: I totally agree.  We’ll have to meet again next year and compare notes.

More on this topic