Career Spotlight: Renewable Energy and Sustainability

Sustainability is a concept that's been gaining ground in certain circles for years, but some would say the corporate world has been slow to catch up. Recently, however, accounting and professional services firm Ernst & Young collaborated with GreenBiz group to survey nearly 300 executives in 24 business sectors about sustainability programs at their companies, and the results were somewhat surprising. More than 75 percent of respondents anticipated that the next three to five years will bring natural resource shortages that threaten their business objectives.


On top of that, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produced a report in 2012 that suggested a coming rise in sustainability jobs across multiple career fields in both the public and private sector. According to the report, a wide range of professions could see their traditional job duties augmented to include some degree of sustainability focus, while others are expected to concentrate entirely on creating and maintaining sustainable policy. Here are a few of the careers that place a heavy emphasis on sustainability:

  • Environmental scientists focus on the interaction between human activities and environment, which can help them design resource extraction or waste disposal practices that cause as little harm as possible to nearby ecosystems.
  • Conservation scientists use their expertise in the realm of natural resources and environmental processes to develop programs to improve or maintain the productivity of cultivated land or the overall health of wild space.
  • Atmospheric scientists focus their sustainability efforts on air pollution, and might be called upon to determine the ways in which a company's gas or particulate emissions interact with air quality in the immediate region as well as the overall atmospheric system.
  • Natural science managers are typically trained scientists with many years of working experience and solid management skills who supervise and orchestrate teams of natural scientists working toward the same goal.

Entry-level positions in the occupations listed above often require just a bachelor's degree, although advancement to roles of greater responsibility may require a master's or Ph.D. Here are a few jobs with duties other than an organization's ecological balance, but whose descriptions might change to reflect the growing emphasis on sustainability:

  • Chief Financial Officers or CFOs have long been associated with the upper levels of risk management in an organization, and implementing sustainable practices can hardly be questioned as a method of managing risk. Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the Ernst & Young study reported that their CFO had become involved in activities related to sustainability.
  • Industrial production managers coordinate production activities and administer systems for managing them. Those working on sustainability initiatives may also experiment with ways to reduce waste, improve efficiency and get more done with fewer resources.
  • Compliance officers work to ensure that corporate or organizational policy remains in line with health, safety and environmental regulations. As new ecological legislation is passed at the state or federal level, companies will need professionals trained in compliance to help them keep their proprietary policy up to date.

Amid the growing demand for sustainable enterprise practices, universities are beginning to offer degree programs that focus on developing the skills and perspectives employed in sustainability professions. Numerous institutions have put together undergraduate and master's programs that speak to this new gap in the career market, including the following:

  • Penn State University offers an Intercollege Master of Professional Studies in Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems (iMPS-RESS) degree designed to prepare graduates for the changing energy economy. The fully online program unites concepts from Earth science, agricultural science, various engineering disciplines and the liberal arts, and allows students to choose among specializations in solar energy, wind energy, bioenergy or sustainability management and policy.
  • Harvard University offers a flexible master's degree plan in sustainability and environmental management that aims to help students prepare for careers in environmental law, corporate sustainability, sustainable architecture and green consultancy, among other ecologically oriented careers. Those in the program typically enroll part-time and, although students are required to take at least one in-person class at the campus in Cambridge, most coursework can be completed online.

If the current trend toward ecological responsibility continues, a time may come when the skills and perspectives of sustainability careers are no different from those of ordinary enterprise policy and practice. Until that day, though, specialized green jobs will be necessary to help organizations operate in accordance with available resources and with respect to the vital systems around them.

"Sustainability," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/sustainability/
"Six growing trends in corporate sustainability," Ernst & Young, 2011, http://www.ey.com/US/en/Services/Specialty-Services/Climate-Change-and-Sustainability-Services/Six-growing-trends-in-corporate-sustainability_overview
"Is a Sustainability Career on Your Green Horizon?," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 31, 2012, James Hamilton, http://www.bls.gov/green/sustainability/sustainability.htm
"Penn State World Campus to offer online master's in renewable energy and sustainability systems," The Degree360, September 9, 2013, Holly Johnson, http://www.onlinedegrees.com/degree360/e-learning-news/penn-state-online-masters-in-renewable-energy.html
"Sustainability and Environmental Management Graduate Program," Harvard University, 2013, http://www.extension.harvard.edu/degrees-certificates/sustainability-environmental-management
"Six-Figure Green Jobs," Forbes, October 16, 2008, Anna Vander Broek, http://www.mainstreet.com/slideshow/career/employment/green-jobs-pay-big-bucks

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