"What advice would you give to a young person who wants a career with a green or sustainability focus?"  Recently, I posed that question to wide range of experts in architecture, construction, energy, engineering, finance, government, law and other fields.

The response was so overwhelming that I decided to write a series of blog postings on the subject.  In this, the first of the series, we will look at the basic knowledge, skills and experience that a college student or recent grad should develop on the path to building a career with a green and sustainable focus.

What Do You Bring to the Party?

Being "green" and having a passion for sustainability are great starting points.  But you must seriously ask yourself what value will you bring to the party.  What will you contribute to a team of people trying to help a company, organization, community, or government agency achieve its green and sustainable objectives?

Fortunately, this is a very eclectic party that is open to people with a wide range of talents and levels of experience.  The invitations, however, tend to be concentrated around three broad areas of subject matter expertise.  You should develop a basic understanding of important concepts in all three, with the objective of becoming an expert eventually in at least one.

1.  Science and Technology.

Some of the experts responded to my question with a very hard line.  One wrote that you should "get an engineering degree."  Another wrote that you should get a degree in either engineering, chemistry or physics.  Almost everyone mentioned the need to have some understanding of the principles and science behind sustainability.

I agree that we need more engineers and scientists.  If that is your passion, by all means go for it.  Almost every solution to help us become more energy efficient, reduce waste, and abate pollution requires the expertise of engineers and scientists.  Especially for a younger person, walking into the room with an engineering or science degree will give you an instant level of credibility.

If engineering and the sciences are not your passions, do not worry.  There are plenty of other green career options.  Still, a basic literacy in science and math is highly recommended even for those who choose other fields.  If you want to be an investment banker who decides which green and sustainable technologies will get financed, that's great.  Just remember Warren Buffet's advice that he never invests in anything that he doesn't understand.  Understanding renewable energy, water conservation, waste management, and just about anything else that might be considered green or sustainable requires a basic understanding of science and math.

The same advice holds true for government officials who make policy, lawyers who advise clients, salespeople who promote products, and anyone else involved in anything green and sustainable.  You do not have to become an expert in every scientific field.  But you must have sufficient proficiency in science and math to understand what the experts are talking about and to ask intelligent questions.

If you shied away from the sciences in college, do not be intimidated!!  I have a little secret for those of you who memorized the second law of thermodynamics to pass high school physics and then quickly put the subject out of your mind.  The sciences are a lot easier -- and a lot more fun -- when you re-learn them in real-world applications.

2.  Finance and Economics. 

Here is where I will introduce you to Howley's First Rule of Sustainability.  Repeat after me.  Losing money is not sustainable. 

The most amazing technology will fail unless you can figure out a way to make it not just affordable but profitable.  To do this, you need some basic financial and economic knowledge and skills. 

Can you calculate the net present value (NPV) of an investment?  How about the internal rate of return (IRR) or the return on investment (ROI)?  Do you know what an investment hurdle rate is?  These are the basic criteria used by companies when deciding whether or not to make investments.  Mediocre technologies get adopted all the time because someone figured out how to make them good financial investments.  On the other hand, a brilliant technical presentation on a groundbreaking new technology will be for naught if you look like a deer in the headlights when the CFO starts asking about the NPV, IRR and ROI.

3.  Laws, Regulations and Government Policies.

Tristan Knowles, an economist in Australia, responded that when he asked someone for advice on green careers a year ago, they told him to "go to China."  In case you haven't heard, China invested $34.6 billion in clean energy last year, compared to $18.6 billion in the US.

China, Brazil, Germany and Spain, among other countries, have promoted growing investments in clean energy by adopting renewable energy and energy efficiency standards, feed-in tariffs, carbon reduction targets and/or caps on carbon emissions.  Laws, regulations and government policies have had a similar impact on green and sustainable investments within the US.

Consider, for example, why New Jersey has more solar power installed than almost any other state.  It isn't because the mid-Atlantic region is the sunniest part of the country.  It is because New Jersey has required that its utilities get at least 22.5% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2021.  New Jersey also has one of the best net metering programs in the country and, until recently, it offered a rebate of $3.50 per watt for solar installations over and above the tax credits available from the federal government.

These types of government policies have a tremendous impact on decisions to invest in green and sustainable technologies.  Every team needs an expert who understands what these policies are, how they work, who you need to contact at the government agencies, and what changes are in the works.  And everyone on the team needs to know enough about government to understand what that person is saying.

Making Your Career Sustainable

Developing basic competencies in these three areas will help you get started and will also do wonders for your career down the line.  I can tell you from personal experience that the most fun you will have is when you get together with a group of engineers, scientists, investment bankers, lawyers and other experts and you can actually understand what everyone is saying.  You will start to impress people, and you will have a great sense of accomplishment.

Most importantly, developing these basic competencies is essential to building a career that will last a lifetime.  No one can predict where the green and sustainable trends will go next.  We may get a carbon tax or we may not.  We may see a technological breakthrough in hydrogen fuel cells or not.  You must develop a foundation of knowledge, skills and experience that will make you valuable no matter what happens next.

Next Steps

There is so much more to share with you from the experts' responses.  Where do you go to get the education and training you need?  What are your options both inside and outside the classroom?  Where can you get entry level experience?  What if you are already on a career path and want to change direction?  What types of networking are most effective?  How do you find a mentor and why is that important?  What types of professional certifications are worthwhile pursuing?  What types of internships and volunteer opportunities should you consider?

These questions and more will be addressed in future blog postings.  To make sure you get them, join our Facebook fan page by clicking here.

John Howley
Orlando, Florida

4/1/2010 12:27:39 am

I'd also strongly urge that those in the environmental field learn something about organizational development and how to effectively manage people and projects.

From my experience working in environmental organzations, there are FAR too many people in the NP sector who are given responsibility to oversee the work of others because they are subject matter experts (SMEs) -- but who know nothing about Best Management Practices and how to develop and support the talents of their colleagues and get projects done collaboratively and efficiently.

I'm sure there are some reading this who know exactly what I'm talking about: who have been frustrated being at the effect of and hamstrung by bad managers, or witnessed it, while trying their best in this vital work.

This has been a major downfall in the green movement, or we would have been further along by now. Having seen so many self-defeating management practices around me in our organizations is what prompted me to study and go into organizational development. The work is too important for us not to learn to be more effective at it.

There are plenty of examples out there in progressive businesses to learn from. The bottom line in business is generally easier to measure, and so the results of Best Practices are, as well.

So, I concur with John's wise counsel -- But please, please don't leave this skill development out of your professional development.

4/1/2010 01:21:10 am

Excellent post. I especially like your statement "Losing money is not sustainable."

Sustainability is proving to be one of the major issues (if not THE major issue) of our time. My gut feeling is that a basic working knowledge of sustainability principles ought to prove invaluable to nearly anyone wishing to build a successful career in the 21st century.

There is a common tendency to equate sustainability with technology. However, the most powerful force for sustainability we have at our disposal is the human mind. And that's something that can be put to work in any field, technical or not.

4/2/2010 08:10:10 am

Anne, I completely agree that a basic working knowledge of sustainability in general is a critical component of preparing for a green/clean/sustainable career. Understanding how sustainability principles apply to one's target green industry is essential preparation as well.

John, I think your three categories are right on the money.

I'd also like to offer up another topic people should understand in a general way at the very least: the Smart Grid from generating electricity to distributing and managing it. Given the impact the smart grid is likely to have on our economy and the careers of the future, it's important that everyone have a general sense of what the electricity supply chain looks like now and how it will transform as we move toward the smart grid.

Great post! I look forward to reading the rest of your series.

4/3/2010 10:49:47 am

A global industry leader since 1952, Hy-bon Engineering specializes in the identification, quantification and capture of low pressure gas streams, with successful projects currently operating in over 25 countries ranging from desert to offshore service improving customer profits and reducing major greenhouse gas emissions.

Employment Opportnities:

4/4/2010 11:44:58 pm

I have had numerous people approach me with this same question. Many are young people starting out, but I also have many with 20 or 30 years of experience who are making a transition to 'green' careers. Much of the advice is applicable to both.
Thanks for taking the time to reach out and then post some very valuable perspectives. I will refer people to this blog.
Thanks Again,
Gary Sorin
CEO, Interra Consulting
[email protected]

Vijay Parekh
4/5/2010 06:10:33 pm

Thanks for 'to-the-point' write-up. It has the information a person like me (from clinical diagnostic field) needs to consider before deciding to proceed further in Green career.

Beginning with an academic curiosity, getting on to researching & investing in stocks of 'green' organizations; currently I am debating to myself if this would not only sustain but also grow my investment in it as a business venture. in India where I am located in Mumbai.

Thanks once again

jacques ruiter
4/11/2010 05:49:39 am

All is so true !!!
This is specially for organizations, I miss the individual.
It is the individual with dreams and passion that can empower to act green and sustainable.
It is the organisation that creates the body around it for realization of the dreams.
Wish you all a green/sustainable life.

6/2/2010 01:14:53 am

If you are planning on entering or working in a green green business or industry apply the MRC management system from my book, The Three-Dimensional Leader. For organizations to succeed they need managers who will keep a long range focus on mission, resources and context (MRC). The Mission is main thing to be accomplished. In a green industry, the mission is to provide goods and services related to carbon emissions reduction, efficient and renewable energy, solar power, water conservation and waste management that customers value and are willing to pay for at rates that sustain your operation.

Resources are what you must use or deploy to accomplish the mission. The greatest resources available for you to create and deliver green goods and services are the people who innovate them through science and technology. There of course are equipment costs associated with any research and development (R&D) venture. My book explains the five-factors-of-out-of-the-box thinking (OO-B Think), which breaks down the process steps to getting into uncharted territory and innovating what has not been accomplished before.

All businesses really are people businesses. This is why my MRC management principles are so important. Your green operation also needs the people who sell products and services, the people who repair products, and the people who handle the back office functions that support the people who do those other things. My book devotes a good deal of attention to how three-dimensional leaders (III-D’s) achieve the good processes that facilitate people achieving great outcomes!

The Context is the environment, the chess board or the playing field in and upon which you must deploy your resources to fulfill your mission. The context includes government regulations, which change from time to time, as well as new technologies and trends that may make current technologies obsolete. You want your company to be the one innovating the next generation of technologies. You also want to be strategically objective, so you know when to let go of what made you successful in the past, so you can devote resources to what will sustain your company by making you successful in the future. Three-dimensional leaders are ever alert, so they know how to negotiate the ever changing context to deploy resources appropriately to continue fulfilling the mission.

If you want to lead an inspired, disciplined and mission-focused dynamic, green company, be a three-dimensional leader who exemplifies and models the behaviors you want from your partners and employees. III-D’s are MRC driven and selflessly pursue what matters most to their organizations.

Earl C. Wallace, Author
The Three-Dimensional Leader: Negotiating Your Mission, Resources and Context

Saray Cruz, Microgeneration BDM
10/21/2010 10:48:08 pm

Thank you very much for the post, I look forward very much to the ones to come.

As someone who has only recently moved to the renewable energy industry from an ICT Project Management background, I found that the opportunities in this sector do not seem as readily available as in my previous industry. I have had to give up a higher salary and position in order to get a foot into the industry. However, my passion for sustainability makes it worth the investment and I now look forward to progress to a managerial position in the near future.
As part of this I am planning to apply to an MBA to get a more rounded and global sense of sustainability and to establish key contacts.

I agree that an understanding of the technologies and concepts in a technical and in a business sense is a key stepping stone without which it is really difficult to progress in the industry.

It is a relatively new industry and no doubt and exciting one so I can't blame anyone to want to be part of it!

11/8/2010 05:48:47 pm

I enjoyed your write up. I too have recently moved into the renewable market after doing my degree in IT. I think I am achieving most of the things suggested.

I would be interested to have some feedback from my site to see where you think I might improve or change directions...

Thanks for the advice!
Renewable Savings


Your comment will be posted after it is approved.

Leave a Reply.