So You Want to Work in Sustainability. Here’s How.

Experts from UC Berkeley share their tips

BY Sam Laird Bank of the West

Nov 18th 2020

“If you are in denial about climate change, come to California,” Governor Gavin Newsom said in August as wildfires torched his state.

He might just as easily have said: “If you want to work on climate change, come to California.”

For those who want to dedicate their life—or at least their work—to saving the planet, the Golden State does not lack for examples and inspiration. Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than at the flagship campus of California’s public university system.

While experts agree we can all make a positive impact on the climate through day-to-day activities, UC Berkeley offers concrete examples for those wondering how to make sustainability their career. On the Berkeley campus right now, sustainability professionals are taking action to fight climate change while students train to be the next generation of leaders in the space.

Means & Matters spoke to several recent graduates and campus leaders to illuminate ways people can better align their time and energy with helping to solve climate change. We learned about:

  • How sustainability leaders got their starts
  • First steps to a career in sustainability
  • What hiring managers look for in candidates
  • How the field has grown, and what opportunities that offers
  • Finding a match for your skills

The big takeaway was encouraging: There are more ways than ever to get involved.

“Nearly 20 percent of courses at Berkeley focus on or include sustainability-related material.

“Now you can really plug in your skills to support the environment in any capacity,” says Sharon Daraphonhdeth, director of the campus Student Environmental Resource Center, which helps students gain experience to prepare them for sustainability careers.

“There’s the policy route, the business route, engineering work, the research route, academia, the community organizing role, mainstream nonprofit organizations—there are so many different paths,” Daraphonhdeth says.

A Growing Field

Kira Stoll is seeing a surge in student interest.

“There’s just so much more interest from so many academic areas now, and students are coming at it from so many different directions,” says Stoll, UC Berkeley’s chief sustainability and carbon solutions officer. “It’s gotten much more interdisciplinary, and the numbers of students getting engaged have become much more substantial.”

Stoll has witnessed a nearly 20-year evolution since she began working on the Berkeley campus in 2001. She and others we spoke to attributed this increased interest in large part to heightened awareness among students about climate change—particularly as disasters like the California wildfires this summer and autumn become more common.

Now, nearly 20 percent of courses at Berkeley focus on or include sustainability-related material. Those courses are spread across 73 academic departments. The university estimates that three quarters of students who graduated in the 2016-17 school year received degrees from departments that include sustainability in their curricula.

Expansion of the field offers opportunity, say many already doing sustainability work. Gone are the days when science or policy wonks dominated jobs attacking climate change.

Worldwide, a greener economy could create 24 million new jobs by 2030, according to the United Nations. A possible Green New Deal in the US would further create opportunity across sectors, regions, and education levels.

“Green-collar” work today spans the white-collar and blue-collar realms. For example, photovoltaic installers and wind turbine service technicians, are the two occupations projected to see the most growth between 2016 and 2026. While these may not pay as well as some corporate jobs a newly-minted college grad has in mind, their growth does illustrate the larger trend in the emerging sustainable economy and opportunities for job seekers and entrepreneurs.

All that growth is a welcome thing to those already working in the sustainability field.

“We need everybody who has an interest and a passion for this to be working on it,” Stoll says.

Finding Your Fit

Growing up in the Bay Area city of Fremont, Pallavi Sherikar knew from an early age that she wanted to help the environment. But she also knew her natural inclination toward writing and public policy made a career in engineering or science unlikely. So she focused on her strengths as a writer and policy thinker.

“I figured that’s where my skillset would make the most sense,” she says. “Almost every skillset that exists would be beneficial to some aspect of climate solutions.”

Sherikar graduated from Berkeley in 2017 with a degree in environmental economics and public policy. She went on to earn her master’s degree in environmental management from Yale this spring, and was undergoing a background check for a job in the field when we spoke.

You don’t need to be a student to find a fit for your skills, though—or have a highly specialized degree. Take it from me, another Berkeley grad. There are even roles promoting sustainability in banks—at least, at the bank where I work.

I spent about 10 years as a journalist, covering sports, politics, technology and culture. When I moved back to the Bay Area after living abroad for a couple years, I wanted to try something different. I ended up in my current job, which includes writing about the intersection of finance and climate for a bank.

In some cases, finding sustainability work doesn’t have to involve changing careers or employers at all. It can start with simple actions.

Making Change from Within

For those already at bigger companies, networking and internal job boards can reveal opportunities to work on sustainability initiatives. Some people find ways to make an environmental impact without even changing job titles.

“Just starting a recycling or composting program in an office can show leaders you’re passionate and knowledgeable about the topic,” says Samantha Lubow, who manages sustainability for housing and dining services on the Berkeley campus. “A lot of companies are starting to become more open to adding sustainability to someone’s job description, or even creating a whole new role.”

Part of Lubow’s role is reducing food waste at campus dining halls. For example, a food recovery program she leads donates some 30,000 pounds of food per year to a campus food pantry for Berkeley students and campus staff experiencing food insecurity.

“There’s a joke in my field that waste reduction is the gateway drug to sustainability,” she says.

Lubow’s path started when she took a part-time job working in campus dining halls as an undergrad at UC Davis. Stoll, meanwhile, originally started working at Berkeley as a campus transportation planner. Her jobs naturally began incorporating more and more sustainability elements, culminating in her role today as the campus’s chief sustainability and carbon solutions officer.

What can we learn from their stories? Building a career takes time and every journey starts with what might seem like small steps.

Following Your Values

Majoring in engineering physics, Steve Chan could have pursued a career with companies like Intel or IBM after graduating from Berkeley in 2018.

“But I just knew I wouldn’t be fulfilled in terms of the things I thought were important to society,” Chan says. He now works in the Washington, D.C., area as a program engineer for a solar company called New Energy Equity.

“These choices aren’t just good from a moral perspective but are also good for your wallet.

—Steve Chan, Berkeley alumni

People looking for a company that fits their values as well as their skills have several ways to manage their search. These include:

  • Sites such as B Work and Idealist list job openings with an environmental or social impact focus. GreenBiz has a jobs page, too. And bigger sites can also be useful—a search for “environmental careers,” for example, delivers more than 11,000 results.
  • If you are interested in a company, research their stances on social and environmental issues, as well as if they’ve articulated a philosophy on corporate social responsibility. Seeing whether or not they have third-party validation from environmental organizations can also be revealing.
  • Bring questions of your own to an interview. Is this company honest about their shortcomings? Do they have actual policies, or just talk? Interviewing your interviewers takes on more importance when looking for a role in a field you’re passionate about.

As clean energy continues to become cheaper and a larger market force, Chan sees more opportunity for like-minded people.

“We’re at a tipping point now where being sustainable is also economically profitable,” he says. “You can do a lot with the fact that we live in a capitalist society and now these choices aren’t just good from a moral perspective but are also good for your wallet.”

Volunteering as a First Step

Working toward a sustainable society does not have to immediately be an all-or-nothing proposition. If changing jobs or careers feels daunting, volunteerism is another way to get involved. Volunteering can help build your skills and experience, as well as provide vital support to important causes.

Directly or indirectly, volunteering can even help lead to full-time employment by starting to build a track record of sustainability work. Sherikar got her first experience in climate work through volunteering while in high school. Daraphonhdeth also got her start through volunteerism, as an activist working on problems surrounding food justice and environmental justice.

She believes the internet is a powerful tool for anyone looking to get their feet wet for the first time while building a track record in the field.

“If you are newer to activism or wanting to do environmental work, it’s more than likely you will find an organization you can connect with even just by doing a good search of your own community,” Daraphonhdeth says. “Social media is also a good resource for getting started finding organizations by using hashtags to look things up or connect with people for feedback and advice.”

Getting Hired: Gratitude and Dedication

Those working in the field consistently cite commitment to the cause as a top quality they look for in job applicants. In other words: They want to know your dedication to sustainability and climate solutions is true and not temporary.

“I think passion and humility are two of the most important qualifications for a sustainability role,” Lubow says. “As long as you’re willing to do the research and the work to build your knowledge and skills, it’s very doable.”

Fortunately, people already working in the field are often generous with sharing their expertise and advice, according to Pallavi.

“One of the best parts of working in climate is that we’re all on the same team in some sense and we want more people working on this,” she says. “Because everyone is working toward a similar goal, people tend to be very friendly and willing to figure out how to help others who are interested.”

For those who decide a career in sustainability is right for them and manage to land a job, the rewards can be big.

As Daraphonhdeth says: “I feel immense gratitude to be in a position and a work environment where I absolutely believe in what I’m doing.”

Author image

Sam Laird Bank of the West

Sam joined Bank of the West in 2019 after more than 10 years in journalism. He’s also worked as a teacher, a grant writer, and a janitor, and prefers to spend his free time in nature.

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