It is possible to earn a paycheck and protect the planet at the same time.
By Jodi Helmer
As director of environmental enterprises for Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont, Patrick Darrow has what many people covet—a job in the burgeoning environmental sector.
“It’s rewarding to be changing lives and also acting as a good steward of the environment,” says Darrow, 36, who is responsible for ensuring that donated computers and electronics equipment are picked up from donation drop-offs in North and South Carolina and shipped to recycling centers. “I know that when I go into work in the morning, I’m making a difference.”
That desire to add an altruistic component to their paychecks—and to work in an industry that is showing promise and growth even in a challenging economy—has led a growing number of workers to seek out jobs that allow them to make a living and have an impact on the environment. The result: A new crop of careers that support the planet.
“We’re connecting the dots: Our well-being is connected to the well-being of the environment and we’re figuring out that we need to do something about it,” notes Jim Cassio, workforce development consultant and co-author of Green Careers: Choosing Work for a Sustainable Future (New Society Publishers).
Green Jobs Defined
It’s not just solar installers, wind turbine technicians and environmental engineers who have green jobs. Being an architect, janitor or florist can also have an ecological impact. Architects can design LEED-certified buildings, florists can offer organic and Fair Trade blooms or specialize in flowers that were grown on local farms and janitors can switch to green cleaning products and use recycled paper towels.
Cassio believes that when it comes to finding a green job—also called a green career or green-collar job—the focus shouldn’t just be on job titles but responsibilities and organizational goals. Job seekers should focus on the impact the job has on reducing waste or pollution, safeguarding natural resources, researching sustainable technologies or repairing environmental damage. “Virtually every industry has green jobs or companies that are doing things in environmentally friendly ways,” he says.
Small But Growing Sector
While it’s true that green jobs can be found in all industries and at all skill levels across the nation, the actual number of green jobs available is quite low. “Green jobs are growing at a faster rate than others but still account for just 1% to 3% of all of our jobs,” explains Cassio.
According to Scott M. Deitche, author of Green Collar Jobs: Environmental Careers for the 21st Century (Praeger), two industries show the most promise when it comes to job openings in the environmental business—alternative energy and sustainability consulting.
“Alternative energy is the most high-profile green career and encompasses traditional HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) workers installing the latest energy-saving technologies to engineers working on developing solar panels and wind turbines,” Deitche notes. “While alternative energy might never be a dominant source of energy production in our lifetimes, it will be an important piece of the puzzle and it’s creating a lot of jobs.” Deitche also believes that consultants who are well-versed in sustainability are in high demand to help businesses, government agencies and non-profits become more eco-friendly.
When it comes to finding a green job, however, the manufacturing sector is not a great place to work. “Manufacturing of [compact fluorescent light bulbs] and solar panels is going overseas,” he explains. “I don’t know that green jobs are going to be the savior of manufacturing jobs in the United States.”
The Secrets of Success
Finding a green job isn’t as simple as scouring the want ads. Most green jobs are part of the hidden, or unadvertised, job market and need to be found through networking.
People who volunteer for a favorite cause, interns in environmental organizations and students who are enrolled in green training programs are often the first to hear about green jobs. With a small number of jobs and a lot of competition, connections count. It’s also crucial to think outside the box when it comes to searching for companies that might have openings.
“There’s a misconception that a lot of these jobs are driven by the government and stimulus funds,” notes Deitche. “There are some green government jobs but a lot of entrepreneurs and startups are also finding niches in the green economy and hiring workers for green jobs.”
Cassio believes that even when opportunities are identified, the right qualifications are not enough to land a dream green job.
“It’s important to have the environmental values and a passion for the cause to make you a good fit for the position,” he explains. “Don’t look for a green job because you think it’ll give you an economic advantage in a tough economy. You should look for a green job because it satisfies your need to give back to the environment.”
Darrow says he left his job with a local land development firm for the chance to take a green job with the Charlotte-based Goodwill center because he wanted to add meaning to his career. Last month, he hired an environmental services manager and he’s working toward expanding the non-profit’s eco-initiatives.
“There is a clear movement happening as people are becoming more aware of how our actions impact the planet,” he says. “Now that green jobs are making front page news, it means we’re making progress. I’m excited to have a job that lets me be part of that.”