Environmental Career Information
Across the globe, there is a growing focus on responsible and sustainable development. With that focus comes a movement toward a "green economy," which involves low-carbon production, efficient use of resources, overall social responsibility, and, of course, a variety of "green jobs."
Definition of "Green Jobs"
At the most basic level, green jobs are those that contribute in some way to sustaining or restoring environmental quality.
Under this definition, they can involve:
- Developing alternative energy sources
- Promoting energy efficiency
- Generating environmentally responsible products and services
- Conserving natural resources and/or mitigating pollution
Additionally, they are not confined to any specific sector. They exist in a variety of industries that you might not typically consider green fields. That's because they play a role in promoting sustainability both directly and indirectly. From business to manufacturing to regulatory enforcement, these jobs encompass a full range of skills and settings in many different economic sectors.
Plus, a common misconception is that environmental jobs are always new positions being created from scratch. However, the reality is that they are often more environmentally friendly versions of existing occupations. For example, green construction jobs are those that require general construction skills in addition to sustainable practice abilities. An environmental lawyer has a background in environmental law and regulation and focuses his or her practice in this specialized area.
Industries Offering Environmental Career Options
Environmental occupations are present in a broad range of sectors and include opportunities for people who want a career in wind energy, green manufacturing, recycling, or one of many other areas.
This field encompasses the discovery, development, and use of sustainable energy sources such as biofuels, hydropower, and geothermal, wind, and solar energy. Further to this, renewable energy generation tends to refer to the greening of traditional energy sources.
A renewable energy career can provide opportunities in research and development, building and maintenance, and production and manufacturing.
The transportation sector is home to a number of green jobs, including those that involve transitioning to more sustainable modes of transportation, from mass transit systems to alternative-fuel-driven vehicles.
Careers in sustainable transportation can include research, design, policy-making, retrofitting, and more.
This broad sector overlaps with some of the other areas listed. But energy efficiency can be explained as a field that involves any product or service that promotes reduced energy consumption.
Careers related to energy efficiency can include designing, building, retrofitting, and manufacturing everything from consumer products to energy systems to building structures.
This field encompasses the designing, building, renovating, and maintaining of commercial, industrial, and residential structures and landscapes using a variety of technologies as well as sustainable processes and materials.
The job often involves ensuring that a building site is free of contamination and accounts for any environmental sensitivities. Additional practices include installing low-energy climate-control systems and plumbing fixtures, sourcing sustainable, non-toxic materials, and much more.
Environmental protection includes preventing, monitoring, mitigating, and remediating pollution and its associated effects. Specifically, this field tends to focus on protecting biodiversity and wildlife as well as soil, water, air, and climate quality in order to ensure that these natural settings and resources are not compromised or eliminated altogether.
Careers in environmental protection can include a range of responsibilities—from researching conservation science to coordinating oil spill cleanups to planning for fisheries development.
Although forestry doesn't seem like an environmental career field, it certainly can be. Sustainable forestry is an important aspect of the field. From planning responsible forestry projects to monitoring reforestation efforts, sustainability is becoming a larger and larger part of this sector.
Forestry careers with an environmental slant can involve assessing risks to the environment, analyzing geographic data, promoting forestry stewardship practices, and more.
Small-scale and organic farming is a vital \career field and can involve a wide variety of jobs, including the development of natural pesticides, responsible land use and management, and more.
Other careers in sustainable agriculture can involve hands-on farming or food production as well as farm operation, land use coordination, and agricultural education.
Sustainability plays a role in many areas of the manufacturing field, from implementing various technologies to using environmentally responsible materials to marketing green products.
Careers in this field exist throughout the planning, production, and sales phases, from product development to retailing.
Waste Reduction and Recycling
Recycling, water treatment, and solid waste facilities help to minimize and divert waste that enters landfills and water sources. Additionally, recycling helps to reduce the amount of new materials required to manufacture products.
Careers in waste reduction and recycling can include recycling coordination, hazardous material handling, and more.
Government and Regulation
From developing new policies and lobbying for funding to enforcing existing regulations and raising public awareness, the role of these professionals in the public sector is important and continually growing.
Careers in this area can involve federal, state, and local government agencies, non-profit groups, corporate organizations, regulatory bodies, and more.
Examples of Environmental Careers
Green jobs can be found in an array of industries and require a diverse range of skill sets. There are entry-level jobs that don't involve any post-secondary training as well as advanced jobs that necessitate a master's or even doctoral degree.
Potential career paths include:
Renewable Energy Careers:
- Wind energy engineer/turbine technician
- Solar photovoltaic (solar panel) installer
- Energy engineer/planner
- Water resource engineer
Waste Reduction, Recycling and Transportation Careers:
- Public transit driver/employee
- Water treatment plant operator
- Recycling coordinator
Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Building Careers:
- Energy auditor
- Construction manager/worker
- Sustainable-design interior designer/architect
- Landscaper/landscape architect
- Environmental/urban planner
- Civil engineer
- Building systems engineer
- Weatherization technician
- HVAC technician/installer
Sustainable Business Careers:
- Green marketing manager
- Chief sustainability officer
Environmental Protection and Regulation Careers:
- Environmental scientist/technician
- Environmental engineer/engineering technician
- Environmental compliance manager
- Conservation officer
- Conservation scientist
- Environmental lawyer/lobbyist
- Remediation project manager
- Environmental lab technician
Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry Careers:
- Organic food producer
- Organic/sustainable farmer
- Agricultural inspector
In addition, since this sector is still in the developmental phase, many opportunities exist. So if you don't see any options that align with your passion, consider taking on an entrepreneurial role.
"Greening" Your Current Career
If you want to pursue a future that involves a green angle but don't want to make a career change, then consider:
- Obtaining environmentally focused training to supplement your existing skills
- Looking for opportunities that are similar to your current job in a greener setting
- Approaching your employer with ideas for greening your workplace
How to Avoid "Greenwashing" and Find a Meaningful Career
This term is commonly heard within the sector. It is an expression coined to describe the process of making things appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. Obviously, when considering a career in this area, it makes sense that you'd want to one that will actually make a positive difference.
While it's true that every little bit counts, you may want a career that effect change in a direct manner. Consider asking yourself the following questions about any potential career choice:
- Does this position involve taking a reactive or proactive role in environmental issues?
- Would I be contributing to providing a service or product that is actually making a real difference or one that's simply less harmful to the environment?
- What does the reputation of a specific industry or company suggest about its commitment to the environment?
- Are there any recognized organizations that I can turn to for specific information on this job/organization?
Posing these questions may help you avoid making a well-intentioned wrong turn.
Education and Training
Not all careers in this sector require a post-secondary education, but, as in most fields, getting one can provide you with better opportunities.
Entry-level positions in manufacturing, recycling, and other similar fields often have little or no educational requirements. On the other hand, pursuing a career in renewable energy or energy efficiency might necessitate earning an associate's degree. Further to this, becoming a conservation scientist or environmental engineer may require a bachelor's degree—or even a master's degree (depending on your specific goals).
That being said, many worthwhile careers in the environmental arena do not require a long-term commitment to post-secondary education. Vocational and technical schools often have career-focused programs that are short but provide the necessary skills to get into the field.
If you're unsure of exactly which discipline you want to pursue, then an environmental science program (resulting in a bachelor's degree) can offer a solid foundation in related technologies, issues, and fundamental scientific knowledge. It's often a great platform for exploring potential career paths.
The need for certification can depend on what you want do within the field. Some jobs will require it; some will not. For those professions that do involve certification, the requirements may vary from state to state.
While not necessarily required, certification from a recognized organization can provide a number of benefits such as:
- Verification of industry-current skills and knowledge in a particular area
- A personal commitment to professional excellence
Some of the certifying bodies in the U.S. that are well-known within the environmental sector include:
- U.S. Green Building Council (which offers Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—more commonly known as LEED—credentials to professionals in the green construction industry)
- North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (which offers a variety of solar- and wind-related professional certifications)
- National Registry of Environmental Professionals (which offers dozens of certifications in a variety of environmental areas)
Industries With a High Demand
According to national estimates, three-quarters of all businesses utilize at least one green practice or technology. *
Further to this, each industry has its own projections. For example, the U.S. Green Building Council predicts that sustainable construction will account for more than half of all construction within the near future. **
It's important to note that the outlook for each of these occupations varies from state to state and reflects what's going on in a particular region's economy. For example, a state with a strong manufacturing sector might be a good place to seek a green manufacturing role, whereas a state with a growing energy industry might be better if you have career aspirations in renewable energy.
Before taking steps to pursue a specific career, you should check into state- or county-specific data for the occupation or occupations that you're interested in.
Trends Currently Affecting the Career Outlook
The outlook for environmental careers is currently influenced by several issues, many of which are fueled by acknowledgements from governments, industries, and consumers that global and domestic economies must move away from heavy reliance on fossil fuels and high-consumption and move toward a more efficient and sustainable future instead.
Some of the factors affecting this industry's career outlook include the following:
- Triple-bottom-line accounting (which focuses on profits, people, and the planet) is becoming more prevalent within both small businesses and large corporations.
- Regional and state governments are increasingly setting standards for clean and renewable energy production.
- Financial incentives are being implemented at all levels of government to encourage investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
- Federal and state governments have (and will continue to) adopt and tighten vehicle emission standards, which require automobile producers to develop relevant vehicle technologies.
- Consumer demand is putting increased pressure on manufacturers and retailers to offer environmentally-friendly products and services.
- The federal government is continually promoting the creation of environmental jobs through enhanced funding and legislation.
- Green technologies and practices are becoming more cost effective and accessible, which means businesses are implementing them more frequently.
High-Paying Careers in the Field
Altruism, by itself, doesn't pay the bills, so it's natural that you might be wondering how you could do your part for the planet while also earning a respectable salary. To get an idea of what you could earn, here is some data on popular high-paying environmental careers, including construction, law, conservation, and environmental science careers. Salary estimates are from May 2015. ***
- Natural sciences manager (directs projects related to environmental remediation)—Average annual wage of $136,750 or $65.66 per hour
- Physicist (helps to develop and improve technologies)—Average annual wage of $118,500 or $56.97 per hour
- Geoscientist (analyzes impact of potential development and site remediation)—Average annual wage of $105,720 or $50.83 per hour
- Construction manager (oversees all aspects of a building or retrofitting project)—Average annual wage of $97,510 or $46.88 per hour
- Environmental engineer (plays a role in designing waste treatment facilities, planning for pollution control, and more)—Average annual wage of $88,040 or $42.33 per hour
- Hydrologist (studies and analyzes the movement and distribution of water for geothermal projects and accessing water sources)—Average annual wage of $83,440 or $40.11 per hour
- Chemist (studies environmental contamination and develops greener products and processes)—Average annual wage of $77,860 or $37.43 per hour
- Environmental scientist (researches, identifies, and reports on sources of pollution)—Average annual wage of $73,930 or $35.55 per hour
- Conservation scientist (performs research and planning for the purpose of protecting and managing resources)—Average annual wage of $63,800 or $30.67 per hour
Benefits of the Career
- Environmental careers can set the stage for you to perform meaningful, satisfying work.
- Many of these professions are still in their infancy, which means that you could get in during an exciting stage of this sector.
- Because of numerous factors causing the growth of this job sector (such as increasing government funding and initiatives), you could look forward to continually expanding opportunities.
- You could have the chance to make an important impact in the movement toward a greener economy.
Choosing the Right Career
Once you've decided that this sector is where you belong, the next step is to choose which area is the best fit for your particular strengths and interests. To help determine the career path that's right for you, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I interested in a hands-on career within an outdoor or community setting?
- Do I have a passion for science, technology, advocacy, or business?
- Is there a specific area that I feel a calling to?
- What careers are in demand in my area?
- Do I already have a certain skill set or educational background that could help me in a particular career?
- Is environmental conservation the reason that I want to pursue a sustainable career, or am I more interested in a career centered on economic growth?
- Do my future goals involve entrepreneurship?
Sustainability is not confined to one particular career or industry. It spans every sector and can provide opportunities within a broad range of professions. Now that you have a better understanding of where these jobs exist and what it takes to get one, you might be ready to move forward with pursing the career you're interested in. Researching potential schools is a great way to start. Check out the programs above that offer a number of educational and training options to choose from.
* Economic Policy Institute (EPI), EPI Briefing Paper #349, October 9, 2012, website last accessed on March 20, 2013.
** U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), A Green Economy is a Growth Economy: How Green Building Supports Job Creation, Workforce Transformation and Economic Recovery, website last accessed on March 18, 2015.
*** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last accessed on May 19, 2016.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS Green Jobs Overview, January 2013, website last accessed on March 18, 2015.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, website accessed on March 3, 2016.
CareerOneStop, U.S. Department of Labor, website last accessed on April 10, 2013.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), website last accessed on March 18, 2015.
The Brookings Institute, Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment, July 13, 2011, website last accessed on March 18, 2015.
American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), website last accessed on March 18, 2015.
United National Environment Programme, Green Jobs: toward decent work in a sustainable, low-carbon world, September 2008, website last accessed on March 18, 2015.
Sustainability Education & Economic Development (SEED), website last accessed on April 10, 2013.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Clean Energy Economy, June 2009, website last accessed on March 18, 2015.