It wasn't long ago when people thought "green jobs" and came up with a bunch of clichés. Think park ranger, ecologist, or activist for an environmental group like Greenpeace. Now there's a new green economy that's stretching its fingertips in all sorts of directions and touching just about any industry you can think of.
Unique opportunities abound for environmentally friendly jobs, from carbon fund manager and sustainability consultant to solar installation supervisor and wind energy project manager. At the same time, people whose careers are in industries not exactly known for being environmentally friendly are rethinking how they work and whom they work for.
Job listings website Monster.com launched last fall its Green Careers specialty site, which targets recent college grads and those with only a few years of job experience. Its listings include green jobs in research and development, emerging careers such as social responsibility officer, plus a host of everyday jobs—sales, marketing, accounting—at companies that consider themselves green, such as Whole Foods or Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.
And for those currently working, an increasing number of employees are finding that they need to incorporate green knowledge into their existing positions. "We're seeing a higher priority on skills synthesis" as corporations seek new expertise and try to tack environmental responsibilities onto jobs, says Rafael Reyes, program director for the not-for-profit EcoAmerica. "We'll need investment analysts who understand sustainability and carbon neutrality issues, or maybe environmental scientists who can look at the financial dimensions of these issues within a corporation."
Robert Pollin, codirector of the Political Economy Research Institute in Amherst, Mass., sees existing jobs transitioning from established to emerging industries. Examples include construction workers installing solar panels or metalworkers building wind farms and laying commuter rail tracks. In addition, white-collar professionals like accountants, lawyers, and investment bankers might segue their expertise away from graying industries like utilities and fossil fuels to the clean-energy sectors where they see more growth, Pollin says.
Pollin points out that the United States won't necessarily see an uptick in all emerging green-collar jobs. For example, a lot of new manufacturing might occur overseas. "Solar voltaic technology was developed in the U.S., but the Germans are ahead in manufacturing commercial products from it. The Spanish are producing the most and best of the very large turbines. And the Chinese are trying to compete in solar panels," he explains. "So manufacturing is up for grabs."
The number of green jobs out there is a matter of how liberally one interprets them. "If a truck driver is hauling oil pipeline material one day and solar panels the next, is that a green job?" Pollin asks. (He would say it is.)
As the environmental sector evolves, those who want to be a part of it will have to examine "green" job opportunities as carefully as eco-aware consumers consider products and services that claim to be organic, sustainable, or energy efficient. (Find out why it matters if your employer is green.) All but the most recalcitrant companies want to be viewed as moving toward sustainability, energy efficiency, and carbon reduction to some degree, especially when it comes to wooing top talent. But while many employers are doing all that they appear to be able to do, others are doing far less.
Reyes points out that although some businesses have well-established green credentials, others aren't quite there yet. Some companies have stated goals they're working toward, while still others haven't yet made any significant efforts in this new direction. "It's a differentiation we make that we encourage job seekers to make, too." It seems that hey'll have more and more of an opportunity to do just that.