The sustainability job market is booming. What does that mean for hiring?

Defining “sustainability” work is difficult. It is a new profession in a period of intense growth. Expanding company budgets, ambitious net-zero commitments, and an increase in investor focus create a sense of confusion among sustainability professionals and hiring candidates about standard pay packages, defined titles , responsibilities and green skills needed to do the job right.

“The sustainability job market is booming. There’s never been a better time to pursue a career in sustainability,” said Katie Kross, sustainability educator at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, who has been watching the market for nearly two decades.

But the uncomfortable truth is that the path to sustainability as a profession is a bewildering one. Historic business transformation comes without a standard playbook; there is little salary benchmarking and a prevailing confusion between employees and employers due to a lack of defined employee key performance indicators (KPIs) or the roles and responsibilities of an individual. And as the industry evolves, the answers to what is the ideal job title, description or pay evolve with it.

And like many jobs in corporate America, despite an increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, the sector continues to be dominated by people who identify as white, adding to the challenges faced by historically disadvantaged sectors. of the community.

Some trends are beginning to merge. GreenBiz’s most recent benchmarking study, State of the Profession 2022, looked at trends in the US sustainability job market. According to the report, the average total compensation for sustainability managers is $146,900, $227,158 for directors and vice presidents, an impressive $404,972. These salaries reflect economic turmoil and the historic business transition the private sector is going through. as we move towards a greener economic system.

“Just as the internet completely transformed business in the early 2000s, sustainability is poised to transform the way we do business like never before,” said Matthew Sekol, industry advocate for sustainability at Microsoft. “But we are at an early stage.”

However, it is important to note that these average salaries are only focused on a specific geography and this development does not show any significant change in gender pay parity or an average for early and mid-career professionals.

There is a high demand for sustainability workers and an increase in the supply of sustainability jobs, but there is still a sense of randomness in how sustainability jobs are filled.

In just a few years, the economy will need to overhaul the way it does business to avoid a climate catastrophe and stay in business. Climate commitments and government policies will help increase new job opportunities. Countries like the US, UK and Australia offer sophisticated markets and many green job opportunities, with India and Brazil showing high potential. LinkedIn’s first Global Green Skills Report highlighted agriculture, corporate services, design, energy and mining, manufacturing, and public administration as sectors with high potential for an accelerated transition to jobs in sustainability.

This evolution is already happening with corporate sustainability teams moving from hiring broad generalist roles to specialists. Many of the most interesting jobs in sustainability don’t have that word in the job title. As the profession rapidly evolves, “just saying you want a job in sustainability can’t be a starting point,” said Joel Makower, co-founder of GreenBiz Group. “You have to be more specific and do more.”

Competition for sustainability jobs is fierce

Despite increased resources, opportunities, and more job openings in sustainability, students graduating with degrees in sustainable development, climate science, and environmental policy still struggle to find suitable job opportunities.

Lupe Cornejo, a sustainability management graduate student, found this out the hard way. She had checked all the boxes for sustainability education, but she was still struggling.

“After more than half a dozen applications, I began to question my approach and the hiring process,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong – I had the right title, the references were available, but I couldn’t get a call in for an interview.”

Both internal and external business applicants are eager to be part of the global green transformation. And according to GreenBiz’s 2020 State of the Profession, while two-thirds of new hires on sustainability teams are from outside the organization, the majority of sustainability professionals report that they got their position because someone they knew in the company or someone from the company contacted them.

“You can’t neglect your network; this is the most important part of the search. Most job seekers are successful in their sustainability searches because of the relationships they’ve developed and the conversations they’ve had, rather than relying solely on of online publications. Kross said.

So while there is a high demand for sustainability workers and an increase in the supply of sustainability jobs, there is still a sense of randomness in how sustainability jobs are filled.

“I see it as a matching issue on dating apps,” said Aashna Aggarwal, a graduate of Columbia University in Sustainability Management. “There are people willing to hire and students looking for work, but the gap between supply and demand prevails.”

But that matchmaking is also difficult for the companies that hire.

“We’re not at a stage where there are people with a lot of experience in brands and sustainability,” said Carol Stickler, North America sustainability practice leader at Ogilvy Consulting in New York. “It’s going to be hard to find people with experience in both because sustainability is such a new and emerging area. So you have to make decisions and ask yourself if applicants have the potential to grow in the role and be successful in the long term.”

Beware of corporations jumping on the sustainability bandwagon

With sustainability entering a new era and hiring sustainability teams all the rage, corporations are riding the momentum.

“It’s inspiring to be in this space, but there’s a lot of noise out there that could be getting in the way of those who are qualified,” Sekol said.

According to experts, business leaders are restructuring and expanding budgets to create sustainability teams that are well placed and trained to address stakeholder expectations and capture new business opportunities.

However, Alison Taylor, Senior Advisor at Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and Executive Director of Ethical Systems, a research collaboration on ethical culture based at New York University’s (NYU) Stern School of Business, has a caveat. for those looking to pursue a career in sustainability at this time of unprecedented growth in the sector.

“Anyone who wants to work in sustainability needs to be careful about work that is called ‘sustainability’ work,” he said. “It’s clear to us what skills qualify as sustainable. It can mean different things across different sectors, industries and geographies. For example, it could mean working in marketing, program management, risk consulting, or being an environmental engineer, human rights lawyer or expert in weather”.

When evaluating suitable career paths, it is essential to understand the main materiality issues and sustainability priorities of a company and the industry. Traditionally, sustainability teams have been located under a company’s corporate responsibility, communications and marketing or investor relations function. Putting sustainability under these umbrellas has drawn greenwashing criticism, so pursuing a sustainability role in a company’s core business function or operations department can help identify high-impact opportunities.

Ask questions like: Where does the sustainability department sit? What is the seniority of the director of sustainability? How does the department work with the rest of the organization?

“It’s important to be critical. Look for clout, budget and power,” Taylor said.

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