Illustration by Kali Ciesemier

For university graduates, there has never been a better time to work in sustainability. A growing body of research demonstrates that sustainability-related jobs have increased at a faster rate than total jobs in the overall economy, while at the same time weathering major market fluctuations.

These jobs are not only growing — they are also increasingly diverse, with multi-faceted roles that encompass everything from corporate strategy development to natural resource management and regulatory compliance.

Ironically, this recent job proliferation has created a unique challenge for job-seekers. New professionals are now faced with a daunting variety of sustainability careers. They know the jobs are out there, but they lack adequate information on in-demand careers or required skills. Without a clear map that links jobs with relevant education and training, these prospective workers have a tough time effectively planning for careers in sustainability.

Responding to this need, a number of new Canadian and American studies have started to bridge the knowledge gap. These reports explore the demand for sustainability careers, while also delving into required skills, typical salaries and common fields of study.

Most of this market research features strong themes of job growth and variety. In their research of the West Coast’s clean economy, GLOBE Advisors and the Center for Climate Strategies arrived at a conservative estimate of at least 508,000 full-time, direct production jobs. Similarly, Environmental Careers Organization (ECO) Canada found that over 50,650 Canadian professionals spend 50 per cent or more of their time on work activities related to environmental or social sustainability.

While sustainability jobs are widespread, they are especially concentrated in the American and Canadian west, with regions like California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alberta accounting for a high proportion.

Among these jobs, ECO Canada’s study identified seven top career paths: chief sustainability officers (CSOs), sustainability specialists, officers, researchers, educators, consultants and trainers. Sustainability specialists are particularly in high demand, with over 34,450 working in this role in Canada.

Many of these careers also pay decent salaries. In GreenBiz Group’s 2013 “State of the Profession” report, a panel of American sustainability managers earned median salaries of around $112,500, with higher salaries in health care and automotive industries, and lower ones for service providers and real estate firms. Their Canadian counterparts earned similar pay, with average starting salaries over $53,000 for four out of the seven top sustainability careers.

Sustainability careers often pay well because they require considerable education and experience. GreenBiz found a strong correlation between compensation and education in its report: only 12 per cent of sustainability managers with a bachelor’s degree earned more than $100,000 in the United States, compared to 39 per cent of managers who had a master’s degree. Similarly, 68 per cent of Canadian sustainability professionals held at least a bachelor’s degree, while 55 per cent also possessed at least eight years of professional experience.

In addition to this education, sustainability professionals also need extensive work experience. Many of the practitioners in ECO Canada’s report supported multiple departments and led vital company activities related to managing risk, increasing returns on capital, and stimulating business growth. These professionals needed skills in interpreting environmental regulations, implementing sustainable development programs and partnering with stakeholders.

American sustainability professionals have a similar work scenario. In the GreenBiz study, sustainability VPs, directors and managers carried essential responsibilities in strategy development, reporting environmental data, leading cross-functional teams and educating employees. These practitioners relied on solid business acumen, a willingness to learn about a wide range of issues, and an exceptional ability to serve as both sustainability “translators” and collaborators.

Sustainability practitioners clearly need diverse, well-developed skills to succeed, but how do they actually build these competencies?

For both American and Canadian practitioners, the most popular field of study is business or public administration, followed by physical or life sciences, engineering and social sciences. Sustainability consultants are one exception to this general rule – only 4 per cent held a business-related degree in ECO Canada’s report, while 41 per cent had studied biology, chemistry or environmental sciences.

Graduate degrees can also make a difference. According to Net Impact, recent MBA graduates felt this program increased both their employment options and the likelihood of finding a job that aligned with their values.

Armed with vital insights on sustainability careers, new professionals can look at the wealth of job options and feel empowered, not intimidated. Sustainability work will continue to expand into new and exciting areas, so there’s no better time to take the leap.

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