Environmental Concerns Opening Up New Career Opportunities

As a sales analyst at the solar energy company SunEdison in the Washington, D.C. area, Rachel McLaughlin manages the company’s photovoltaic projects (which convert solar radiation to electrical power) at various stages. Commercial companies using SunEdison’s systems include Kohl’s, Staples and Anheuser-Busch.

“The universal appeal is that [people] view the sector as a high-growth industry that contributes to global green infrastructure helping the environment,” McLaughlin said. “That’s exciting.”

“I also like that the business produces something of lasting value,” she added. “I know that every hour I spend at work could potentially lead to another solar power plant.”

A public policy major, McLaughlin applied the broad skills she learned, like critical thinking, understanding of economic principles and communication, to her job with SunEdison. But as green start-ups increase and companies nationwide add sustainability directors to their payrolls, more and more people are actually pursuing environmental concentrations or degrees in college.

Mateo Bueno, a first-year MBA candidate at Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley, is the vice president of marketing for the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BER C), a network of students, alumni, industry professionals and faculty who work together on sustainability projects.

Although the students involved with BERC aren’t earning degrees in their chosen fields, they’re getting a significant amount of hands-on experience, like business classes in partnership with BERC that let them build a business plan for a clean tech startup or working on a project a company has pitched to BERC itself—helping the student get a foot in the door at that company.

“Broad green experience is no longer enough,” Bueno said. “Environment was something that people were interested in 10 years ago, but now it’s very specific. Pick what you care about—deforestation, water, energy—and think about how that problem will best be solved.”

One of his peers, Ran Haimoff—also a first-year MBA student at Berkeley—is co-chair of BERC Innovative Solutions, a consulting arm that focuses on energy and resources. An engineer who transitioned into management and consulting, Haimoff says his field wasn’t entirely fulfilling.

“I felt that I was doing interesting and important work, but felt that there was something missing in terms of addressing my values,” he said. “I looked for a way to combine my passion for business with my values and passion for the environment.”

Haimoff looked for business schools that would provide opportunities in environmental fields, and noted that California is “one of the most progressive states in terms of environmental awareness.”

Another program at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania actually offers an undergraduate concentration in environmental policy and management and a university-wide minor in sustainability. In its graduate program, it offers students to earn a joint MBA and master of environmental science.

“Sustainability is good business,” said Joanne Spigonardo, associate director for Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. “If you look at the industry, five years ago there weren’t as many jobs as there are now. The more students we educate, the more jobs will be created.”

It’s not (always) easy being green

Like all career fields, green jobs have their challenges.

One roadblock to actually finding a job that is consistently cited: legwork falls almost entirely on the job seeker’s end. “Organizations are still not as large as your traditional corporations that have structured hiring processes and show up on campuses,” Bueno said. “It falls more on the [person]. You have to reach out to companies and introduce yourself.”

McLaughlin may be one of few these days who didn’t rely on Web sites and job boards for submitting applications and said finding a green job requires a strong network.

“Do a lot of informational interviews with people in the field and maintain those contacts,” she said. “Green companies rarely do on-campus recruiting or cyclical hiring. When there’s an opening, we hire. You have to be plugged in to know when there is an opening, and you need someone who can advocate for you inside the organization.”

Additionally, these fields rely heavily on new technology that’s evolving at breakneck speed. “Six months in the solar energy industry feels like one to two years in other industries,” McLaughlin said, adding that she’s thankful to work with “brilliant, high-energy people” at SunEdison.

And luckily there’s that whole saving the Earth thing to help keep these green professionals going.

This special advertising section was written by Kristyn Schiavone, a freelance writer, in conjunction with the advertising department of The Washington Post and did not involve the news or editorial departments of this newspaper.