Archive for May, 2009

Green Jobs (Everybody Wants One)

Posted on May 19, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , |

I’ve served as a campus sustainability professional since 2004, and my observation has been that each year brings with it a new initiative or buzzword or idea that sweeps through sustainability offices in higher education.  For example, 2004 was the year that green building and LEED seemed to reach a tipping point on university campuses, and 2005 witnessed a boom in biodiesel projects.  Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” led us all to calculate our carbon footprints in 2006, and thanks to the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, in 2007 we decided to do something about those carbon footprints by committing to become climate neutral.  2008 offered us a frightening glimpse of the future as the complex interconnections of energy, climate, water, and food became apparent, and these topics coalesced in the tangible form of university trayless dining initiatives.  So naturally, I’ve been waiting for the next big thing to reveal itself for 2009, and I’m ready to declare that the wait is over.  2009 is the year of green jobs.

Over the last few years, a number of people have come to me seeking advice about green jobs.  Usually the inquiries have come from undergraduates, and they’ve historically come at a modest but steady pace.  The last few months have been totally different.  Yes, I’m still hearing from students – and a lot more students to be sure – but also from mid-career professionals who are ready to make a change, MBAs seeking a new direction, and young alums who don’t want to get locked-in to their current (non-green) paths.

I’m certainly not a trained career counselor, but there are a few things that I’d like to say to job-seekers and potential employers about green jobs.

  • First, not all green jobs are born green.  Or, to put a different spin on it, one approach could be to “green” an existing “brown” job.  This is easy to say of course, and I certainly know from experience the difficulty of putting this into practice.  A number of years ago I worked as a water and sewer engineer for a utility, and I encountered a considerable amount of resistance and even some ridicule when I proposed that we initiate a series of water conservation programs.  Yet, times do change.  A few years after I left, the combination of population growth and a severe drought triggered a water emergency, and now that very same utility has a reasonably robust (although certainly not exemplary) water conservation program.  Certainly a lesson for greening an existing brown job would be to know when the time is right.
  • Second, for recent graduates, inexperience in the workplace can be an advantage when they seek a green job, as it’s harder to unlearn a way of thinking than it is to learn it.  My former colleagues at the utility had to unlearn a way of thinking before they could see that reducing demand for water was just as important if not more so than simply adding supply.  I was inexperienced enough not to be burdened with their mental framing.  When I tell students that their inexperience can help them, I also add that some in their generation (not all, mind you, but some) think in systems and readily see connections in ways that quite frankly their parents’ generation does not.  I attribute this in part to the fact that these young adults were raised in a world of hyperlinks.  The ability to see connections without pre-existing frames will put any seeker of green jobs at an advantage.
  • Third, a number of students will tell me that they’re planning to just “finish up” their major, and then they want to get a green job that’s presumably something completely different.  If they dislike their major, then that’s fine.  However, I do advise students to first think about whether they can leverage what they already know before they make a clean break.  Similarly, when someone with many years of professional experience tells me that they want to start over, the first thing I ask is to see their resume, which often reveals a set of experiences that if framed the right way can help make the next step to a green job easier than they might have otherwise thought.  I also remind them that young green companies need experienced hands to help them grow, which offers another point of entry.
  • Fourth, if employers haven’t figured out by now that that this generation of students not only want green jobs but are demanding them, then they are missing out on a golden recruiting opportunity that can also help to transform their companies.  I know a lot of people with green jobs, and I would describe most of these people as being highly motivated and passionate about their work, as it gives them a sense of meaning and purpose in what they do.  What employer wouldn’t want to capitalize on that?  If I had to describe my colleagues when I worked as a highway engineer many years ago, well… motivated and passionate would not be amongst the words I would have selected.

So what new initiatives might those of us in the campus sustainability community undertake related to green jobs?  One possibility would be to partner with campus career services centers to host green jobs speakers and fairs, and to attract employers that offer entry-level green jobs to recruit at our campuses.  A second possibility of course would be to continue working to green existing brown jobs on our campuses.  A third suggestion is to provide opportunities for students to work part-time in some sort of campus green job, such as a dormitory eco-rep or sustainability office intern, so that they can gain experience prior to entering the workforce.  A fourth suggestion is to promote class projects that use the campus or neighboring community as a hands-on laboratory for learning about sustainability, which again provides students with tangible experience prior to graduation.  Finally, beyond our own campuses, another idea would be to include opportunities for potential employers to meet and interview sustainability-minded students at a future AASHE conference.  (The time is certainly ripe for some bright entrepreneur to launch a green version of Monster.com, which with apologies to Red Sox fans I’ll call “GreenMonster.com” but until that happens perhaps there’s a role for AASHE to play).

In closing, given everything I’ve already said, I will caution that at some point in time that is likely closer than we think, green jobs will just be known as jobs.  Remember ten years ago when the internet revolution spawned e-business?  I distinctly remember the then-dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School noting as he launched a new initiative in e-business that before long, we wouldn’t be using the word “e-business” anymore.  The “e” would go away; it would just be business again, albeit something quite different than before.  He was right.  I think the same will hold true for green jobs.  There will still be jobs that are most certainly not green, but those that are will be so ubiquitous that we won’t find ourselves calling for them to be created by the millions.  The only trick is for us to figure out how to get there from here.

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional

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