How to land your dream environmental job
Whether you are an engineer, a community organizer, or a policy wonk, it’s likely that there is a job that’s a fit for you in the environmental sector. It is one of the fastest growing areas of employment, with many jobs at nonprofits, government agencies, NGOs, and even progressive corporations or consulting firms.
If you are passionate about sustainability, climate change, clean air and water, or any other environmental issue, read on for tips about how to narrow and focus your job search.
The first step in finding your dream environmental job is to narrow your focus, says Lisa Lee-Yitzenburg, a career coach and founder of Green Career Advisor, an organization working with students and graduates looking for environmental jobs.
“So many people know they are passionate and know they want to make a difference,” she says. “Think about what you really want to focus on, based on what you are passionate about and the skills that you have. From there you can narrow it down.”
Yitzenburg, along with fellow environmental career coach Kevin Doyle, have both been advising students, graduates, and universities about jobs in the environmental industry for years. They recently put together a list of some of the top trends they expect to see in eco jobs this year. Here are some of the skills most sought after right now:
- Community organizers: If you want to make a difference in a local community, whether it is educating people about air pollution or cleaning up a local lake or stream, community organizing could be for you. These jobs are typically with nonprofits.
- Lawyers and policy analysts: Local, state, and federal government agencies, nonprofits, NGOs, academic institutions, and progressive energy companies are often hiring policy advisors and attorneys. There is also an emerging field of conflict mediators who help people make decisions about environmental problems, like people who work at the Meridian Institute.
- Scientists: Jobs in environmental science and environmental engineering are both growing at a faster than average rate, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Look for jobs with federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and local and state governments, as well as nonprofits and academic institutions.
- Urban planners: Folks with a background in city planning might have good luck getting hired by cities that are developing plans for addressing climate change.
- Fundraisers: As nonprofits face more and more funding cuts, the need for development professionals is increasing. If you have experience with grant writing or seeking corporate sponsorship for capital projects, you could be in high demand.
- Business leaders: If you are transitioning from the corporate world, try looking for a job with an NGO that works with companies on sustainability issues. Organizations like the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund are taking on this kind of work.
- Activists: Lobbyists, campaign managers, and social media experts are all in demand at nonprofit organizations nationwide.
Once you’ve pinpointed the skills that you have to offer, your next step is to determine what area you are most passionate about. There are jobs working to improve the environment in many ways, from climate change to clean air to land conservation.
According to Yitzenburg and Doyle, the areas of clean water and sustainability currently have a ton of potential for career growth:
Jobs working on water conservation, building better infrastructure for waste water, and access to clean and safe drinking water are some of the most prevalent right now, Doyle says. Those jobs can be found at nonprofit organizations, international NGOs, and government agencies.
Anna Azarjew, Community Manager at charity: water, uses her skills in volunteer management to contribute to the cause. Charity: water works to provide access to clean and safe drinking water in developing countries by raising awareness and funds. Though Anna says charity: water considers itself to be more humanitarian than environmental, there is no denying the impact that clean drinking water has on land use, public health, and addressing climate change.
The organization employs more than 70 people in its New York City office, and the skills the employees have are incredibly diverse. There are folks with experience in engineering, finance, data science, public health, emergency response management, information technology, and web design. There are people like Anna, who work with volunteers or donors. And there are people who help tell the charity: water story: from videographers to photographers to writers to social media experts.
“Students ask me what they should study [if they want to do this kind of work],” Anna says. “And I tell them they should study what they want, because there are so many jobs out there.”
Jobs working toward both sustainable food and sustainable energy are growing, Doyle and Yitzenburg say.
There are 2.5 million jobs working toward clean energy and energy efficiency, and Doyle and Yitzenburg expect that number to grow. Nonprofit organizations, progressive energy companies, and government agencies are hiring policy analysts, community organizers, lawyers, business leaders, and scientists to help address the need for more sustainable energy practices like solar, wind, and bio-fuel.
When it comes to sustainable food, there are jobs with local and national nonprofits as well as government agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Whether you have a background in cooking, education, community organizing, farming, or policy, there are jobs available.
Molly Costigan is a program manager at the Sustainable Food Center in Austin, TX. She runs the organization’s Happy Kitchen program, which teaches people how to cook healthy meals using local food. Anyone can take a community cooking class, but free classes are offered in low income neighborhoods and communities with a high risk of diet-related diseases.
Molly studied Spanish in college and found her job because she was looking to use Spanish while working with a local community. She started as an AmeriCorps Vista and was then hired by the organization.
Her advice for thosewho want to work for the environment at a nonprofit is to look into AmeriCorps Vista. If you have the means, she says, it is a great way to get your foot in the door.
If you’re still in school, Yitzenburg and Doyle say, one of the most important things you can do is get real world experience through internships or class projects. When looking at graduate schools, make sure the program you are interested in has a project component where you can work with an outside organization to solve an environmental problem.
They also suggest looking at dual degree programs to make yourself more marketable. A great strategy, they say, is to combine an environmental sciences, engineering, or other technical degree with something that focuses on the human side, such as business, psychology, sociology, or public administration.
Like any other field, networking will help you get where you want to be. Try to meet people who work at organizations you are interested in, or use social media to learn more about potential organizations. Check out Idealist’s job postings on environmental openings to see the diversity of jobs available. And for a wider look that includes other sectors, Yitzenburg has put together a list of the top green job sites.
If you want to work for a federal government agency, look into some of the preferential hiring programs. There’s a special track for recent graduates and if you’ve served in the military or Peace Corps you may have a better chance of getting hired.
Invite Yitzenburg and Doyle to come to your campus for workshops on environmental careers.
“Environmental people focus on the outcome of the work, but the actual work is a verb,” Doyle says. “Do you want to write, organize, research, do scientific data gathering, or something else? Think in terms of verbs and you’ll know a lot about whether you’ll be competitive for a job.”
Do you work for the environment? What helped you get your foot in the door? Share in the comments below.
About the author: Samantha Fredrickson has spent the last decade working for nonprofit organizations in NY, TX, and NV. She has experience in nearly every niche of nonprofit work and received her journalism degree from the University of Nevada, Reno and her law degree from New York Law School. Follow her on Twitter @sfredrickson.