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So You Want a Career in Sustainability?

That’s wonderful! Everyone should be so lucky to have a career that contributes to the betterment of the planet, humanity and society. Here are a few things you should know before you get that undergraduate or graduate degree in sustainable studies:

Cross discipline yourself. autumn-194834_1280
You will be valuable only if you know something about something else – a tangible subject – so get the first degree and some experience in a traditional career first then start specializing in the sustainable aspects of that field. Having a degree in ‘sustainability’ is like getting a degree in surgery. Surgery of what? General surgery is indeed (or was) a traditional pathway. However nowadays most people when they need surgery will be referred to a specific discipline of surgeon. It is the same with sustainability. Find something else that interests you and then make a note on how it needs to be repackaged or rethought so that it is less wasteful. A combined degree or two degrees in fashion design and chemistry would be an interesting combination especially if you wanted to work on the sustainability aspects of fabric production which is notoriously not a green industry. Even organic cotton and bamboo fabric has to be processed with toxic chemicals to make it usable and soft. Current needs are in policy, high tech facility management, manufacturing, power generation and agriculture.

Be prepared to be frustrated with the humans.
Sustainability, i.e. resource conservation with purpose, is not on the top of everyone’s list as a goal. In fact there are quite a few people who still think that it is right there with climate change as a hoax, or a false pretense to make money doing nothing or a liberal agenda item. In fact it is often only accepted if it can show the intended client how it can save money. The altruistic client who believes that sustainability is a worthy pursuit is maybe one out of 100. Saving resources has many financial consequences that have to be thought out. Example: When auditing a commercial building for the purpose of saving energy, I won’t tell people what the purpose of my visit is if they ask, I will usually say that I am observing how the building uses energy and how they use the building. Tenants pay for the energy they use somehow in their lease agreement – if they sense that the landlord will be making more profit by saving energy dollars and not renegotiating the lease with them, then they may make a large fuss about it.

You must be curious and resourceful and not afraid of hard, messy work!
If you think that once your degree pursuits are done and that you can take your well-deserved, fancy degree out on the road and start to rake in the big bucks managing underlings, think again. The field of sustainable _____________ (fill in the blank) is changing by the nano-second, literally. To be viable and strategic, it is imperative that you keep up with the thousands of companies, individuals and the glut of ideas that are gaining momentum and recognition plus work at the “boots on the ground” level for as long as possible to optimize your understanding of the disciplines with which you are involved. Removing yourself from how the sustainable technology impacts the end users or end products is only gained by a hands-on approach.

Be patient and keep trying.
Finding the next disruptive technology is the dream of every venture capitalist and the failed pursuit of many, many very creative, intelligent people. I am thrilled to see the built environment which has been extremely slow to adapt to change and technology taking off like a rocket now. Any specialty building of moderate or greater size with a younger, techno savvy clientelle is outfitted with LEDs, automated controls, user friendly spaces, flexible policies and a green team approach to recycling, purchasing or operations. But is has taken many decades for that industry to get to this point. Change can be slow to come, but when the change is beneficial to all in each person’s own individual way, it happens quickly!

Be ready and good luck – having a career that in some small way is bettering the planet has been worth its weight in fair-trade coffee beans to me!

Post by Kristyn Clayton BSEE ’81, MSArch

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