How to Climb (or Get On) the Green Corporate Ladder

How to Climb (or Get On) the Green Corporate Ladder

While pursuing her graduate degree in environmental geography in 2006, Cheri Chastain took a job as the recycling assistant at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, Calif. It was a part-time gig to pay the bills, and she spent most of her time tracking data on the brewer’s recycling efforts to get a better handle on what it was diverting from landfills and how it could do better.

Chastain, however, had larger goals. Her enthusiasm, ideas, and business savvy won her a quick promotion to recycling coordinator. Within four months she was promoted again, to a full-time position as Sierra Nevada’s sustainability coordinator -- a job she custom designed for herself.

Chastain is one of a new breed of professionals who are turning their environmental passion and industry knowledge into lucrative career opportunities. In an economy where job losses are rampant, some reports predict up to two million new “green” jobs could be created as part of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

And while many of those jobs may be of the blue-green variety -- more labor than management -- there will be many opportunities for college grads and mid-career professionals to make green career moves.

Getting on the Ladder ...
• Launch recycling programs and other green initiatives in your own company to establish yourself as an expert on all things green. Then, if your company decides to create a green position in house, you will be top of mind for the job.

• Calculate the bottom line results of your green projects or volunteer efforts before including them in your resume or job pitch. Hiring managers will be more impressed by your efforts if they can see the financial, as well as the environmental, impact.

• Visit the websites of local green industry companies to search for job openings –- many companies don’t post positions at national job boards.

• Join local green associations and participate in volunteer opportunities. Even if you don’t have a green industry job, these are great ways to expand your network, create some resume-worthy experience, and find out about new jobs before they go public.

• Offer your volunteer services to nonprofit organizations. Don’t just sign up for general volunteer work, come up with specific ways you can support their efforts by using your unique skill set. This creates more substantive experience for your resume.

“I saw a lot of opportunities and I started working on different projects, talking to the owner about programs we could launch,” she says. “I started to carve out a niche for myself.”

Today Chastain reports directly to the owner and together they identify new ways the company can improve its environmental profile and its bottom line. As part of her job she tracks greenhouse gas emissions, researches biodiesel applications, and she is in the process of launching composting programs for the company’s break rooms and restaurant.

“I’m lucky to work under an owner who values sustainability,” Chastain notes. “We collaborate on ideas then I put them into action.”

However, it’s not easy to make this transition, warns Neal Laurie, director of marketing for the American Solar Energy Society (ASES). “Professional positions are the most sought after green jobs,” he says, noting that a recent job posting for a sustainability manager at a big solar company garnered more than 300 applications.

Finding those jobs can also be tricky, in part because there are no standard titles to search for. ASES’ 2009 Green Collar Jobs report lists 160 different green job roles that run the gamut from executive level positions requiring a Ph.D. to entry-level support roles that offer on-the-job training.

Among green professional jobs, entry-level and senior level positions are the best places to make career moves, suggests Peter Beadle, president of, a job board for the renewable energy industries. “Positions at the top and the bottom are the easiest to get, it’s the mid-level jobs that are harder to find.”

He notes that recent college grads have a great opportunity today to launch green careers by seeking out entry-level opportunities in green industry companies or local businesses known for their commitment to sustainability. Because these positions have lower salaries and don’t require a lot of experience, they are easier to get and a likely place for companies to recruit outside of their own employee base.

“CEO and vice president roles are the next easiest way to break into sustainably industries, because these candidates are all highly experienced, usually in related industries,” Beadle says.

If you don’t fall into one of these categories, however, don’t despair. Despite the challenges, mid-level professionals interested in moving into jobs with titles like sustainability manager or renewable energy coordinator will benefit from the fact that very few people have direct experience in these roles, because before now they didn’t exist. 

“A lot of individuals are coming with real estate or development backgrounds, or construction engineering,” notes Laurie. “They are taking the skills they learned in those roles and transitioning them.”

Pick Me

Repositioning your skill set and experience for a green economy is the key to getting your foot in the door for any professional green job. But it takes more than a commitment to the environment: The most attractive candidates are those who can show how their sustainability skills or experiences contributed to bottom line results.
“A key driver behind these positions is showing how you can generate cost savings while being sustainable,” says Laurie. “It adds so much credibility if you can quantify the savings you helped your business achieve through energy saving initiatives or other waste reduction programs. That’s what will give you an edge.”

For many people, the best place to start is within their own companies. Since sustainability programs are new but growing in popularity, many businesses are just beginning to recognize the need for dedicated green personnel, and they often look first to hire from within before posting job ads to the broader public. That gives current employees the best chance to showcase their environmental commitment and skills to management.

If a company hasn’t yet staffed its green initiatives, employees can position themselves as experts by launching internal efforts within their own departments or across the company.

“You can make any job green, even if your company isn’t in a green industry,” says Beadle, who suggests starting programs to reduce energy usage, increase recycling, or to purchase environmentally friendly office products.

“Organizing these kinds of programs gives you something to talk about within your own company, and helps you position yourself for future jobs,” adds Liz Maw, executive director of Net Impact, a San Francisco-based nonprofit networking organization for sustainability-minded students and professionals.

Opportunities are easy to find, and can be accomplished in any-size business, or even on a university campus, adds Laurie. “You just need to identify ways to reduce waste then analyze the cost savings,” he says.

Calculating the cost savings of these efforts is key, agrees Chastain. “If you want to move into a position like this you have to bring it down to dollars and cents,” she says. “It’s fine to say you started a recycling program, but if you can prove that it saved $2 million, as we did here, you are more likely to get buy-in from management.”

Once you’ve launched a few of these programs, use the results to position yourself for a sustainability job within your own company, or put it on a resume when you apply for something new.

Build Your Network

Along with spearheading green programs, college students or mid-career professionals should take every opportunity to educate themselves about the issues and network within their local green community, says Beadle.

“Companies advertising for entry-level green positions are not using global job boards, because they don’t want to relocate people,” he points out. “You’ll have a better advantage if you look locally.”

And remember, companies in green industries need all the same people that every other company does, Beadle advises. “They need managers, and HR people, and administrative assistants just like everyone else.”

He suggests joining local chapters of green industry associations, such as the Northern California Solar Energy Association. Even if you don’t have a job in a green industry, these associations offer excellent opportunities to build local networks and get educated about key issues, without requiring a huge financial commitment.

“The local chapters are cheaper to join, they meet more regularly, and they are more low-key than the national groups,” he says. “It’s easier to meet people from the industry at all levels, and there are more opportunities to get involved.”

Maw also suggests actively seeking out volunteer work with nonprofits and aligning your unique skills with the needs of the group. “It’s fine to help clean up a park, but if you are proactive in reaching out to these organizations you may find more substantive projects that will showcase your passion for a topic and build your credibility.”

She notes that Net Impact has a form at its website that asks those interested in volunteering to detail their skills and interests. “Ninety percent of the time we find someone who will be helpful to us in a way we wouldn’t have even thought of asking for,” she says.

For example, a volunteer recently offered his services as a video editor. “We had all of these videos that we were ignoring because we didn’t know what to do with them,” Maw says. “He came in and edited them and now they are posted at our website.”

Combining a portfolio of volunteer work and green initiatives you’ve led in your current role with a recognizable knowledge of industry topics is key to landing the best green jobs.

“There are a lot of really great ways to create opportunities for yourself,” says Maw. “And they can help turn your passions into a career.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in Chicago.