Dear Shannon: What's the state of the sustainability jobs market?

Dear Shannon

Dear Shannon: What's the state of the sustainability jobs market?

Businessman image by Viorel Sima via Shutterstock.com

Dear Shannon is a career advice column for sustainability professionals and wannabe professionals. If you have a question for Shannon, send it to [email protected].

Dear Shannon,

I have a master's in sustainable business and worked in corporate communications at a telecoms company for eight years before going back to school. The sustainability jobs market seems even more confusing now than it did before I started studying. What is the future for those of us looking to build a sustainability career? The inconsistent organizational design of the functions, job titles and talent strategies across companies and sectors leaves me scratching my head. I'd appreciate it if you could shed some light.

-- Tristan, Washington, D.C.

Dear Tristan,

The state of the sustainability profession certainly is a hot conversation piece these days. In the last few months, I have come across more than five articles by thought leaders analyzing where we are all heading, and they are anything but conclusive. You are not alone in feeling it is hard to get the facts straight.

The sustainability sector is evolving quickly, and yet not in a universal way. There is both uncertainty about the field's future trajectory and little consensus on where it stands right now. On top of that, every company is talking about it a bit differently and branding it in its own language, making an online job hunt very difficult.

The first step in moving forward is to scrap the notion of the elusive clear-cut answer and start listening to what makes sense. When you do that, certain themes emerge time and time again.

Here are a few trends I have seen rising to the top:

1. Sustainability positions are being filled internally

Companies that have bought into the value of the triple bottom line aim to have sustainability embedded as a strategic initiative that is part of their larger mission, goals and strategy. They figure that sustainability issues can be taught, but that understanding the business's products, services and key stakeholders, as well as knowing how to navigate and implement change across the politics of a company, is best done by an insider who knows the landscape and players already. This trend is even more pronounced at higher job levels.

However, as sustainability becomes more ingrained in the fabric of businesses operations, new opportunities are created. When companies place a high value on a range of knowledge and expertise, your past experience becomes an asset. This is great news because you have strong work experience and are taking steps to make a career change.

"Substantial work experience serves those working in corporate citizenship well because their roles require a multitude of skills in order to establish and implement programs, engage stakeholders, and move corporate citizenship forward at their companies," says a Boston College's Center for Corporate Citizenship (BCCCC) report.

Andy Cartland, founder of sustainability recruitment company Acre, said in a recent Guardian article that both innovation and a sound knowledge of business are the top two skills employers are looking for. "Business folk in mainstream functions are inherently suspicious of the soft world of sustainability," he said. "To make inroads, you need to be able to speak their language and understand their priorities. ... It's all about how you integrate sustainability with the commercial success of the business."

2. Semantics are inconsistent, underlying ideas are not

The sustainability sector is notorious for phrases and buzzwords that hold different meanings for everyone. With the key words constantly changing, and no clear idea of what to search for or what a potential employer wants, job hunting quickly can become frustrating and defeating. Have no fear! Being aware of this puts you a step ahead.

Once you begin to break down terms such as sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR), community investment, philanthropy, resilience and innovation, you realize that most companies are looking for the same competencies. Remember, this is an emerging field where changes happen at the speed of creativity; jobs are new and fluid and fit in differently from one organization to the next. However, what you are actually trying to accomplish -- positive impact on the environment and communities -- varies less. Shift your focus towards your mission and job function and let the jargon fall away.

Susan Arnot Heaney, corporate responsibility consultant and fellow at BCCCC, reflects on this in her own practice: "During my tenure at Avon, I spent time at the Avon Foundation, which is a public charity, then was tapped for the newly minted CR practice that was part of the corporate communications team, only to have the CR role moved to global HR, and finally to a small but separate CR team. Through all of the organizational shifts, our actual CR roles and responsibilities -- and the core commitment -- were unchanged and unwavering."

3. Entrepreneurship is the new black

Many sustainability initiatives are happening inside companies, initiated by current employees who are not in formal sustainability roles. These sustainability sleuths are getting creative and channeling the entrepreneurial spirit in order to place themselves at the center of change.

Businesses today are looking to on-board new skills to keep up with the pace of change. They want thoughtful innovators who think creatively and can thrive in a role that is constantly growing and evolving. "Some of the most important new work skills needed to operate in the global workplace include the ability to determine deeper meanings, social intelligence, adaptive thinking and cross-cultural competency," the Amani Institute says in its State of Talent Development in the Social Sector report (PDF).

One surefire way to get the function you want is to create your own job. It is far better to carve out a sustainability job where you currently are, I explained in the same Guardian article mentioned above, because you have contacts and know the sector. Next, all you need to do is make the business case for your new role. So, find a way to leverage your knowledge of the telecoms sector and the role you were working in to create your own sustainability job.

4. Specialists thrive over generalists

The social enterprise sector is growing, proving the case for organizations trying to solve a niche societal problem and creating a demand for freelancers and consultants with niche experience. The more you can develop specific expertise in one or two areas such as water, human rights, supply chains or ethical trade, the better off you will be.

The market is getting less charitable in terms of allowing career changers in, as there are now good numbers of solid candidates already working in this space. I see on average 100 applications per role. So the more you can build your thought leadership and your personal brand around your niche areas of expertise, the better. Get out there and research, tweet and talk about the issues you are knowledgeable and passionate about.

I did some market research for Acre last year to inform the structure of its recently launched associate offer, the Bench. The findings showed the likes of Interface and M&S looking for technology scouts for technical competencies, rather than strategy consultants or generic benchmarking. These two companies are at the leading edge in sustainability so perhaps this is only true for companies with more mature CSR policies, but it was interesting to hear them looking for technology scouts for things like recycling polymers or roof insulators in Holland. Now that is niche!

The takeaway from all this is that you cannot leave it up to others to interpret the landscape or forge your path. In order to position yourself for the sustainability career you want, be prepared to do your own research and blaze a new trail to innovate your career in sustainability.

"Companies would be far more willing to hire sustainability professionals," Acre's Cartland told the Guardian, "if they think they're getting an innovator who can genuinely help them do business in better ways that haven't been thought of before."

Businessman image by Viorel Sima via Shutterstock.com