How to Find a Job in Sustainability
Defining a career in “sustainability” is tricky. But, as the profession becomes mainstream, the opportunities to integrate an individual’s purpose into a company’s environmental and social goals are abundant.
According to Katie Kross, a sustainability educator at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business who has been observing the market for almost two decades, “The sustainability job market is booming. There has never been a better time to pursue a career in sustainability.”
But the inconvenient truth remains that the route to sustainability as a profession is puzzling. The historic business transformation comes with no standard playbook. And as the sector evolves, the answers to what an ideal job title, description or pay looks like evolve with it.
Changes and Challenges
The competition for sustainability jobs is fierce, with applicants from both inside the company and outside huddling to be part of the green transformation. 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 to find a job. “After over 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 and referrals in place yet I couldn’t get an interview call.”
The problem, said Matthew Sekol an industry executive and sustainability advocate at Microsoft, is that “everyone is peddling the same boat. It’s inspiring to be in this space, but there’s a lot of noise out there which might be getting in the way of those who are qualified.”
To stand out, Carol Stickler, North America sustainability practice lead at the branding agency Ogilvy Consulting, recommends thinking of an area of sustainability you would want to focus on, transferable business skills that can integrate into it, the type of organization and culture you might be most comfortable in, and where you see yourself driving the most impact. “We aren’t at a stage where there are people with lots of experience in brands and sustainability,” Stickler said.
Advice for Job-Seekers
With sustainability entering a new era and hiring sustainability teams being trendy, corporations are taking advantage of the momentum.
Alison Taylor, a research scientist at New York University who helps businesses implement ethical practices, has a warning for those looking to pursue a career in sustainability. “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.” She recommends that aspirants also look for opportunities beyond roles with “sustainability” in their job titles.
When evaluating suitable career pathways, it’s essential to understand a company and industry’s core business issues and sustainability priorities. Traditionally, sustainability teams have been housed under a company’s corporate responsibility, marketing, or investor relations departments. Putting sustainability under these umbrellas has brought criticisms of greenwashing, so looking for a sustainability role in the operations department of a company can help identify a high-impact role.
Ask questions like: 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.
The good news is that expanding corporate budgets, net-zero climate commitments, and government policies will in the future increase new job opportunities. But these assumptions notably vary from country and sector. Countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia offer sophisticated markets and many opportunities for green jobs, with India and Brazil showing high potential, according to LinkedIn’s first Global Green Skills Report. The report identifies agriculture, corporate services, design, energy and mining, manufacturing, and public administration as sectors with high potential for an accelerated transition to jobs in sustainability.
Salary and Industry Standards
Aashna Aggarwal, an international student at Columbia University’s Sustainability Management program, shared her job-hunting experience, drawing an interesting parallel between the job market and dating apps. “I see it as a matching problem on dating apps where you have people willing to hire and students looking for jobs, yet the gap between demand and supply prevails. We also have an economic problem with no standardized salary benchmarking for our profession, skills, education, and passion.”
As the sustainability profession matures, some trends are starting to coalesce. GreenBiz’s 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; for directors, $227,158; and for vice presidents, it’s an impressive $404,972.
These salaries reflect that the world is witnessing a historic economic transformation; over just a few short years, sustainability has evolved into ‘business as usual.’ “Just like the internet completely transformed businesses in the early 2000s, sustainability is about to transform the way we do business like never before, but we are at a nascent stage,” said Microsoft’s Sekol.
It’s important to note that GreenBiz’s salary averages are “averages” and only focused on a specific geography — the U.S. The data does not show any significant shift in gender wage parity or an average compensation for early and mid-career professionals.
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. Sustainability jobs have not avoided the racial, ethical, and social disparities that make it more difficult for historically disadvantaged sections of the community — including people of color, women, and international students — to enter this space.
Overcoming these barriers and others requires working collectively, said Taylor. She recommended that classmates and professionals could share job offers, compare notes, and help each other out. “To break the barriers, you need to protect yourself and those around you,” she concluded.
Prerana Tirodkar is a graduate student in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program.