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The 4-Step Guide to Starting a Career in Sustainability for Undergraduates

The 4-Step Guide to Starting a Career in Sustainability for Undergraduates

By Trish Kenlon, originally posted on Sustainable Career Pathways 

By now you’ve probably noticed that there aren’t too many jobs out there with the words “entry level” and “sustainability” in the title, huh?  Don’t get too mad at COVID, it’s not the pandemic’s fault (although it certainly isn’t helping).  The truth is, there never have been that many entry level sustainability positions out there. 

That’s most likely because a lot of titled sustainability roles tend to start around the mid-career level and require things like:

  • The ability to drive change in large, complex organizations or systems
  • Knowledge of a particular industry or sector
  • Functional expertise
  • In-depth understanding of a specific topic such as energy, water, or waste

And those are the kinds of things that are typically best learned through real-life work experience (or as my old mentor called it “time in the saddle.”)  Some of today’s better undergraduate programs are getting closer with offerings like experiential learning and consulting practicums, but it’s just really hard to learn things like how to navigate internal corporate politics or how to get something big through the budget cycle as a student. 

So, what’s a recent or soon-to-be college grad with a passion for sustainability to do?  Try this four-step plan for finding entry level jobs and experiences that get you started on a sustainability career, even if the actual word isn’t in the title:

  1. Figure out what you want to do in 3-5 years
  2. Start (or clean up) your online presence
  3. Network, network, and then network some more
  4. Start building (any) experience

Step 1: Figure out what you want to do in 3-5 years

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”  —Michael Porter

The diversity of roles that fall under the sustainability umbrella is pretty incredible.  That’s good in that there are endless possibilities for how you can bring your unique talents to the space.  That’s bad because it can make pinpointing how you fit in really daunting.  The most important task you have right now is to do some serious research, networking, and soul searching to figure out roughly what you want to be doing in about 3-5 years. 

Why is that so important?  Because you’ve got to use that vision to help you figure out what entry-level jobs and experiences to target that will help you build skills that will get you to that dream job in a few years.  Start by narrowing down your dream job by sector, industry or levelfunctional role or team, and the sustainability issues or tools you’d like to focus on.  Something as simple as just writing down your best guess for these four categories can really help you focus.  Here are some examples:

  • Sector: Private
  • Industry: Retail/fashion
  • Role or team: Corporate sustainability
  • Issues/tools: Circular economy & water
  • Sector: Public
  • Level: City or state government
  • Role or team: Policy analyst
  • Issues/tools: Climate & energy
  • Sector: Nonprofit
  • Role or team: Corporate partnerships
  • Issues/tools: Plastic waste

So, how do you figure out what you want to do?  Hopefully your undergrad degree gave you a hint, but if not, here are some great places to start your research:

  • Take a look at the interviews with sustainability professionals on the Sustainable Career Pathways website and see which jobs resonate with you
  • Talk to your professors or visit your school’s career services team and ask about what kind of work alumni with your degree have gone on to do.  Bonus: they often have connections and resources that can help you talk with alumni and uncover job opportunities too
  • Check out the GreenBiz 2020 State of the Profession Report for a great overview of trends in sustainability careers
  • Network your way to conversations with people that can help you better understand if a career track is a good fit for you (more on this later)

Step 2: Start (or clean up) your online presence

You may not have been paying too much attention to your online presence up until now.  If you haven’t already, make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date and includes a professional looking headshot.  This is the kind of thing your career services team at school should be able to help with, but if not, there are tons of great resources for how to do create a killer profile from LinkedIn and other career influencers on social media. 

But what about your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok content?  These days employers are checking you out wherever they can in order to get a complete picture of you.  Go through your posts and profiles and make sure they all follow the 3M rule, which means you should make sure you’d be comfortable having anything you’ve posted read by your Mother, your Manager, or the Media. 

Pro tip: consider taking down photos like this or making them private

Even if you’re applying to a company that has the same political views as you do, no one wants to hire a troll.  It’s fine to express your political views online, but make sure you’re presenting your arguments respectfully and maybe not writing in all caps all the time?  I’ve definitely had conversations with recruiters where they’ve said they really liked a candidate, and actually agreed with the things they were posting, but just weren’t comfortable with the extreme tone and aggression they saw.  Don’t be that guy. 

Step 3: Network, network, and then network some more

I’ve written and presented extensively about networking (some examples are herehere, and here) so I won’t go into much detail in this article, but the fact of the matter is, you need to network.  It’s the only way you’ll be able to connect with real people who can share real world examples with you and help you figure out if that dream job is a realistic fit. 

Someday we’ll be able to invite people out to coffee again

A great place to start if you’re new to networking is to join your school’s undergraduate chapter of Net Impact.  Get as involved as you can and be sure to attend their annual conference as well as any local events.  You might even keep an eye on your area graduate or professional chapters to see if they have any events undergraduates could participate in. 

Networking is also an essential skill for anyone in sustainability as it’s both a big part of how we get work done, and how many of us found our jobs, so get started!

Step 4: Start building (any) experience

Regardless of what career you’re targeting, you’ve got to get started building some work experience.  So, how do you decide what entry level jobs to pursue? 

Want to work in impact investing?  Look for entry level finance jobs that build general investment analysis or advisory skills.  Want to do sustainability consulting?  Look for entry level analyst roles.  Want to work in sustainable fashion?  Look for an entry level job in the corporate office of a retailer to start learning the industry.  You get the idea, just find something and take that first step! 

Still not sure?  Then look for a job that will help you build any of the skills in the core sustainability skillset:

  • Communication, including storytelling & presentation
  • Coalition building, stakeholder & community engagement
  • Problem solving
  • Change management
  • Program or project management
  • Building business cases for change
  • Data analysis
  • Policy analysis
  • Reporting

Once you start building skills on the job, you can look for ways to bring the sustainability lens to your role by reaching out to (or starting!) the green team or corporate sustainability group; or you can develop real world sustainability experience through volunteering, advocacy, or even your own side hustle after work. 

If it makes sense for your goals you can also consider getting a professional certification or two, but be sure you need that certification BEFORE signing up and paying for it (this is a great question to ask during all those informational interviews you’ll be doing!) 

Actually finding entry level jobs

OMG! I found one!

All that said, when there ARE entry level career-starting sustainability related positions, fellowships, or internships, where are they? (Editor's Note: Apart from here on Reconsidered Jobs, of course!)

  • LinkedIn searches can be a bit wonky and produce unpredictable results sometimes.  If you use this link, it will give you a fairly clean list of job postings that are actually focused on sustainability.  Bonus: you can search specifically for entry level jobs or internships, by location, industry, remote capability, and more
  • Sustainability consulting and services companies like EcoVadisEngie ImpactERM, and Schneider Electric all frequently offer great entry level positions, most even have a special page just for entry level jobs
  • Some clean energy companies like Southern California Edison have amazing early career programs or you could try an entry level sales or analyst position at Vestas (wind), Vivint (solar), Lime Energy (ESCO), or CLEAResult (ESCO), Bright Power (ESCO) and get started learning about the energy industry
  • Ed’s Clean Energy and Sustainability Jobs List comes out weekly on Sundays and always includes a section with entry level positions
  • CALSTART has ongoing short-term internships in clean transportation technology available across the country throughout the calendar year with dream employers such as Tesla Motors, UPS, Peterbilt, and GM
  • The Center for EcoTechnology is a nonprofit in western Massachusetts an offers a one year paid EcoFellowship Program that develops skills in energy and waste programs
  • California Carbon provides business intelligence and analytics in carbon markets and frequently has internships and entry level positions in carbon and climate finance markets in California
  • IDEAS For Us is a nonprofit based in Orlando, FL that offers both environmental and sustainability focused internships and other career opportunities for youth in the Orlando area
  • GreenLight Solutions is a nonprofit that trains student teams and connects them with businesses to improve the sustainable operations of their organization.  They’re growing the program all the time, check to see if there’s an opportunity for students at your school.
  • cKinetics is a mission driven sustainability insight, innovation & capital advisory firm that offers a Young International Professionals Program (YIPP) for young professionals in India looking to build experience in sustainable products, resource efficiency, renewable energy, energy efficiency, cleantech and policy
  • Youth Climate Leaders is an organization dedicated to providing career opportunities for youth in climate.  They’re having their annual Day of the Climate Professional event on November 24th.  The event will focus on youth from the Global South but will include participants and organizations from the US hub and around the world as well
  • I’m a huge proponent of networking over resume dropping, but if you MUST spend time on the job boards, we’ve got dozens of good ones on the Job Resources page

But what about corporate sustainability?  That’s a bit trickier.  Large traditional corporations are more likely to have internships in sustainability than entry level positions although you do see the occasional entry level analyst position.  Sometimes corporate internships can turn into full time positions though, so don’t ignore internships even if you’ve already graduated.  

If you know what industry you want to work in, you might try to find an entry level position in whatever function your degree qualifies you for at a corporate office in the industry and just start building that industry expertise.  Almost every industry has a trade association with a working group focused on sustainability or a nonprofit dedicated to sustainability in the industry.  See if you can start joining those meetings or listening to those webinars and get started learning about sustainability in your industry and bring what you learn to your team. 

And if you’ve got some time on your hands over winter break, take a look at my previous article on sustainability training you can do from home, and keep an eye out for the 2020 training update article coming in December. 

I hope I’ve given you a few new resources and some good ideas on what direction to take your job search.  Feel free to sign up for our newsletter or connect with me on LinkedIn for more tips!  As always, whenever you want to connect to someone on LinkedIn, remember to include a personalized note; even something as simple as “I read your undergraduate article and would love to connect!” significantly increases your chances of your request being accepted.  Good luck with your search!

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Sustainable Career Pathways is an invaluable resource for professionals and students interested in starting or advancing their careers in sustainability. The site features inspiring, engaging interviews with sustainability practitioners who share their stories of what they really do on the job and how they got there. There's also an incredible collection of curated resources to keep you up-to-date with podcasts you’ll love, networks you’ll be excited to join, dozens of targeted job boards, and conferences you won’t want to miss. 

You can view this article on the SCP site here.