Where to Start If You Want a Career in the Climate Space
As a journalist who has been reporting on the environment since 2015, I have watched this space transform. Now one thing is very clear to me: The growing urgency to address climate change means there has never been a better time for a passionate person to carve out a career in the environmental sector.
After all, the monumental challenge of a warming planet will require many people with a variety of skills and experiences. Lisa Yee-Litzenberg, a climate careers advisor and president of Green Career Advisor, says she’s noticed a major increase in the number of professionals at all levels who are looking to enter the space. “This gives me hope for humanity to see so many people who recognize the need to take action on climate change and want to make it their life’s work.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we can expect to see significant growth across a range of climate-related occupations for almost a decade. But because the career options are expansive and, in many ways, new, figuring out if a job in the climate space is right for you will require a little bit of soul-searching and some thoughtful research.
First, how do you know a climate career is for you?
My love for the environment began at a young age. My memories involve a lot of trees, green grass, and fresh air. I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, just a stone's throw from the Pocono Mountains, where early school mornings sometimes consisted of trying to avoid a run-in with a black bear in the neighborhood.
But the impetus for doing this work is not always a passion for trees and green grass. Sometimes it’s the addition of an oil well to your community––something many marginalized groups are too familiar with. Or it could be a growing knowledge of what we have done to the planet that leaves you feeling like Rachel Larrivee, a sustainability consultant. “To me, there’s no point in pursuing a career—or life for that matter—in any other area,” she told The Guardian.
So there is no one way to know if a climate career is for you. And, honestly, you can do good things for the planet without making it your life’s work. But if your connection to environmental matters makes you feel like you really want to do this for a living, then trust that curiosity, says Moji Igun, founder of Blue Daisi Consulting, which helps small businesses reduce their waste. “I know that's kind of a cliché piece of advice, but whatever you're interested in, whatever you want to learn more about and could see yourself being excited about for a long time, just follow that and see where it takes you.”
Start by taking inventory of your skills.
Yes, some climate careers will require specific expertise, but many will not. So a number of your current skills are probably transferable. For example, you might love analytics but not the actual finance industry you’re in. That’s why you should think about what you enjoy most about the work you have done and make a list of core skills you’d like to build on.
If you’re just coming out of college or it’s early on in your career, this still applies. We all have soft skills, like adaptability, problem-solving, and working well with people. Marissa Ramirez, who has spent more than a decade in the climate space and is the director of community strategies at NRDC, says those skills and principles are valuable, possibly more than what’s on your resume. “There's a lot more space to carve out a niche for yourself and what you're passionate about,” she says.
Finally, consider how you align with what environmental employers are seeking in prospective employees. Yee-Litzenberg says that after reviewing hundreds of green job postings, she’s noticed that most hiring managers seem to want seven universal job skills, which run the gamut from problem-solving to showing initiative to being a team player.
Think about what problem you want to solve.
Now you’ll need to figure out how you’d like to apply these skills. What climate issue do you want to tackle? Is it specific, like clean energy? Maybe it’s more broad, like mobilizing young people concerned with climate change? Also ask yourself if you have a preference for a particular sector, which can include public, private, and nonprofit. When you have some idea—and it doesn’t have to be totally concrete—follow it with some good old-fashioned research. According to career advisors like Yee-Litzenberg, studying relevant green job postings and joining an issue-specific group on a platform like LinkedIn are two good places to start. The best part is that there are numerous resources that were practically nonexistent even a decade ago. Job boards like Climatebase or Green Jobs Network, membership groups, and, of course, green career advisors who can help you orient yourself.
Next, make a list of employers that are doing the kind of work you want to do and reach out to staffers focused on your area of interest. Ask if they might be open to an informational interview so you can learn more about their role, experience, and educational background.
After these chats, you might find that you are primed and ready for a given role. Or you might realize that the climate job you thought you wanted is not the right one, sending you down another path. “I think climate jobs, when people talk about them traditionally, are very limited––that it's only scientists or someone very technical,” Igun says. “But climate jobs can be so wide-reaching: They could be teaching, they could be art, they could be so many different things.”
Ask if you’re prepared to close gaps.
Once you know what kind of job you’re interested in, it’s gut-check time. Are you in need of certain skills you don’t yet possess? If so, are you willing to take classes, maybe seek out volunteer or freelance projects, or even gain new certifications to close the gaps? “It’s not enough to just care about climate change,” says Yee-Litzenberg. “It is a competitive field and you must take time to learn.” In some cases, it will just mean taking a class or picking up a new skill, but for some highly specialized roles, you may need a degree.
Find your people.
Once you know you’re moving forward with this next chapter, you may want to enlist some help. So find your allies. Outside of the office, consider a community-based organization that focuses on your environmental interests. (Birding, anyone?)
There are also professional environmental associations as well as issue-specific groups on LinkedIn. And, of course, there’s always your new place of employment. A lot of companies have internal groups to support employees.
Know you will have unique challenges if you’re BIPOC.
It’s no secret that, historically, and to this day, the environmental space is predominantly white. If you’re a BIPOC, existing in these spaces can be triggering. Remember to prioritize caring for yourself in moments of emotional activation. As someone who is fighting on behalf of the environment, you cannot pour from an empty cup. So make sure yours is filled. This could include finding support in BIPOC green groups and potentially your company’s DEI office.
Practice having boundaries.
It’s easy for practitioners to lose themselves in purpose-driven fields. So it’s important, especially for the young and/or marginalized, to maintain healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives. Yee-Litzenberg says there are a host of ways to prevent the sort of burnout that can come with working in climate-oriented fields, but the big one is really where you work. “Look for roles and employers that offer good work-life balance,” she says. “Talk to current staff and ask about the work culture and what a typical week on the job looks like in terms of tasks and hours before you decide to take on a role.”
In other words, take your time. Happy job hunting!
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