State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


How Have Careers in Sustainability Evolved Over the Past 10 Years?

large crowd at career fair
The 2020 All Ivy Career Fair provided a glimpse into the diverse professional opportunities for sustainability students and graduates. Photo: Michael Brochstein/Earth Institute

Every year, the All Ivy Environmental and Sustainability Career Fair helps to connect sustainability students from all over the northeast with potential employers offering job and internship opportunities. This year the fair drew 77 companies and governmental agencies and 810 students into a packed auditorium on February 28.

The career fair is hosted by Columbia’s Earth Institute and sponsored by Columbia, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and Yale.

The annual extravaganza has been held for 17 years now — and it’s been growing in popularity, said Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri, associate director of education at the Earth Institute, whose office helps to organize the event.

“In recent years we have sold out weeks in advance and have had to maintain a waitlist of interested organizations,” said Unwin-Kuruneri. “These organizations come from the public, private and nonprofit sectors and are looking for top talent to fill open sustainability positions. Many employers return year after year to fill their hiring needs with our students and alumni.”

State of the Planet spoke with several recruiters who attended this year’s fair to get a handle on how careers in sustainability have been evolving over the past 10 years or so, and how they’ll continue changing with the times. Here are some of the key takeaways from those conversations.

Careers in sustainability are growing in number and variety.

Terracycle, a company that makes products out of items previously thought of as waste, such as cigarette butts, chewing gum, and toothpaste tubes, was at the career fair recruiting for a variety of positions — including sales, accounting, management, PR, marketing, and R&D. Liana Scobie, the company’s vice president of staff and administration, said that when she joined Terracycle eight years ago, “the landscape was a lot smaller back then. I think that, particularly with entry-level positions, there are a lot more today than there were in general.”

Scobie added that because there are so many people creating new businesses in sustainability, “there are just so many more avenues for people to work in sustainability than there were 10 years ago.”

It’s not just entry-level positions that are on the rise. One of the most notable changes in the field, said Unwin-Kuruneri, is “the inclusion of sustainability into the C-suite; 10 years ago, there were only a handful of people that held the title of chief sustainability officer. Now Columbia University alumnae are in these leadership roles at companies like JetBlue and Tiffany & Co, where they are responsible for setting corporate sustainability strategy.”

recruiter speaks to students at career fair
Photo: Michael Brochstein/Earth Institute

Teckla Persons, a recruiter for the Peace Corps, said that while the nonprofit’s volunteer opportunities are always shifting depending on the needs of each community, climate change has influenced the types of projects that volunteers work on in some areas. “Definitely that’s something that a lot of agriculture volunteers are working on, especially like in sub-Saharan Africa, where they’re experiencing heavy droughts,” she said. There, Peace Corps volunteers are helping subsistence farmers to develop farming techniques that require less water, and implementing other water conservation solutions.

Persons added that because of climate change, “there is a bigger need we’re seeing now for agriculture and sustainable development [positions].”

Shaun Hoyte graduated from Columbia University’s Sustainability Management program in 2016. Now he is a program manager at the utility ConEdison, where he helps customers reduce their electricity use, thereby lowering their bills while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and strain in the grid. He was at the career fair recruiting for positions in marketing, research, program management, data analytics, and more within the energy efficiency and demand management department.

Hoyte said that back in 2013, many of his classmates had trouble finding jobs. “Now I see them all over the world, doing great things at amazing corporations.” One of his former classmates started an electric scooter company; another works at American Express; even Hoyte’s own director at ConEdison came out of Columbia’s Sustainability Management program. “We’re spreading like wildfire,” said Hoyte, “and we’re all willing and able to help each other.”

The mainstreaming of sustainability is driving job growth.

Hoyte said that “All over the place, companies that you wouldn’t think would be investing in sustainability initiatives are now focusing on sustainability, so that they can do right by the community and the environment, and also because there’s a lot of profitability in it…. There are jobs in finance, such as renewable energy finance. There are jobs in energy efficiency. There are jobs in sustainable fashion, sustainable wine. I think sustainability transcends across all business market segments.”

Malcolm Bliss is the vice president of partnerships at Common Energy, a company that connects electricity-users to nearby solar and wind projects, allowing homeowners and businesses to benefit from local renewable energy projects even if they can’t install their own. Bliss said that a few years ago, Common Energy would have been an anomaly, because the idea of shared renewables was so new. “Now, we’re mainstream and providing thousands of households and businesses with lower-cost clean energy,” he said.

“It’s a rapidly changing industry,” Bliss added. “We’re seeing it go from what used to be called ‘alternative energy,’ and the new way of thinking about this is that it’s ‘preferred energy.’ As much as that represents the change in the way people think about this, the roles and the opportunities also are changing.”

student turning in a resume at career fair
Photo: Michael Brochstein/Earth Institute

Among other things, Common Energy was at the career fair to recruit someone to fill a youth leadership position, which surely would not have existed a couple of years ago, before the youth climate movement rose to national and international prominence.

“Youth have an important role in influencing everybody,” explained Bliss. “We feel it’s very important for us to be a part of that, to support the youth climate movement, and provide solutions that these kinds of movements can use to affect the outcomes and the changes that they want to see.”

Regulations are helping, too.

Hoyte from ConEdison said that careers like his are growing at a fast rate, and that is partly driven by new policies and regulations. Because of state and city clean energy goals, utilities must work fast to “reduce carbon emissions by enormous percentages in a very short period of time,” said Hoyte. “The local laws and mandates that are coming out are really leading the charge to drive these changes.”

Similarly, Kathleen Wolfanger, a regional environmental manager at the New York State Department of Transportation said, “I think more than ever there’s a need and a justification to staff up, because the regulations are always changing.” The agency’s workers must navigate complex environmental regulations and permitting processes while planning and designing projects, as well as adapting infrastructure to the changing climate — for example, by making culverts larger and raising roadway elevations.

What’s next?

Sustainability-related jobs are expected to continue growing in number, and Scobie from Terracycle thinks the field will continue to broaden as well. “I’ve been saying that 10 years in the future, I’m no longer going to be a specialist in sustainability because everyone will have to do it,” she said.

Bliss from Common Energy pointed out that “it’s still the early days” for renewable energy. Looking to the future, he foresees “a maturing business ecosystem and ecosystem of solutions around energy, that I think is going to be an opportunity for more historical analysis, and trend analysis, economic analysis, to project and also aggregate opportunities in new ways, trade electricity credits across barriers.”

Hoyte expects today’s trends to continue for the next ten years or so. “The paradigm has already changed, and the focus and the need to mitigate climate change is very evident,” he said. “Nobody’s shying away from it now; we are in the age of consequences, where everything’s heating up and we’re losing natural resources.” He added that through sustainability education, practice, and giving back to the community, “I think we’ll be successful and we’ll be able to beat the challenges that face us.”

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