So you just graduated with a bright new shiny degree in sustainability. You understand concepts like the triple bottom line and the 3P’s, and have a passion for saving the planet. You are ready to capitalize on the emerging green economy and feel perfectly equipped to put your creative, systems thinking, treehugging self to work for one of the world’s greenest businesses. But I am here to tell you that your degree in sustainability will not get you the job in sustainability you have always wanted.
Let me start by saying that the green dream as I lay out above is not dead. However, the reality is that too many graduates are coming out of school trying to sell the way they think, the education they have received, or the internship that didn’t teach them all that much. What sells, however, is the work you have done, the results you have achieved, the impact you had and the challenges you have faced. So if you’re a sustainability-minded student, recent graduate or career transplant, let me share three tips on how you can make yourself more competitive in the sustainability job market.
1. Too many graduates, not enough jobs
Competition is increasing which means more students and more professionals fighting for your job. According to Newsweek, universities launched at least 27 sustainability-themed programs, degrees, or certificates in 2007, up from just three in 2005. According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, there are 131 bachelor's, master's and doctorate programs in sustainability in the US.
Net Impact highlighted 95 universities in its 2010 Business as Unusual Report that focus on corporate social responsibility and sustainability at various levels. The writing on the wall: These programs are expanding every year churning out record numbers of graduates with the same degree competing for the same jobs.
2. Build on your technical skills
Sustainability is in need of specific skills, so find them and learn them. For example, there is a professional development model developed by Microsoft called 70/20/10: 70 percent of your learning and professional development comes from on-the-job training, 20 percent by “learning from others”, and the final 10 percent from the classroom. Graduates with degrees in sustainability have lately seemed to develop an expectation that the degree equals a job, when really it’s all about the experience.
Business school graduates don’t graduate with the expectation that they will be hired as a CEO so sustainability graduates shouldn’t graduate with the expectation to be a chief sustainability officer. What you should be thinking about is how you can get a job where you can develop that 80% of on-the-job training because this is where you will find the specific skills you need to develop and learn.
3. Systems thinking vs. systems doing
Systems thinking is not a job, but systems doing might be. They key word in that phrase is 'doing.' Sustainability is about action and change. I am constantly amazed at conferences when a sustainability director stands on a stage and talks only about the amazing “greening” that has taken place within their company. There is no mention of major challenges, significant sacrifice, or making those really hard decisions.
Anyone involved in making sustainability happen, i.e., 'doing' sustainability will tell you this is not the case. And that blood, sweat and tears went into making these big changes. Tell us about the legal challenges of admitting environmental impacts, the PR push backs and how that five year payback required us to rewrite our capital expenditures policies. Sustainability is hard and you learn it by doing it. As a professional in any setting, being able to show your wins and talk about how you made it happen is critical to success. Doing is way more important than thinking.
In short, sustainability is getting too big to just be a card-carrying degree holder. You need to be able to show experience, practice, failure and competencies that were developed from multiple sources. You need to know if you’re a renewable energy person, if you’re interested in sustainable food systems, or perhaps green building.
Once you know who you are, you can begin to invest in the skills you need to be effective in your job. The only way to get there is by learning through doing or failing, not thinking. Your degree says you’re a sustainability professional, so prove it!
--By William Paddock
William Paddock is the Founder and Director of WAP Sustainability Consulting, Adjunct Instructor of Sustainability at the Institute for Sustainable Practice at Lipscomb University, and Instructor for The Climate Solutions University.
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