A Major Talent Hunt Is Underway As The “Green Collar” Job Market Explodes

New regulations, tech advancements and discerning customers have enterprises growing their sustainability budgets to compete for skilled talent.
Tamara Mathias
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Coldplay (yes, the band) recently released a sustainability report detailing how they reduced the carbon footprint from their World Tour, which sold over 7 million tickets. From plant-based LED wristbands for concertgoers to kinetic dance floors to generate energy, they were able to cut CO2 emissions by 47% compared to their previous tour.

The endeavor is just the latest example of incredible innovation in sustainability. With businesses – and even rockstars – recognizing the importance of improving operations to minimize damage to the planet, it is unsurprising that the sustainability job market is booming.

“The degree to which this space is rapidly evolving cannot be underestimated,” says Steven Cohen, Senior Vice Dean at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies.

“Young people coming out of school are basically defining sustainable business practices at their firms. And they understand that sustainability principles are, in fact, business principles.”

Cohen, who teaches a graduate course on Sustainability Management at Columbia, describes the field as ‘exploding’. “Ten years ago only a few S&P 500 companies produced ESG reports,” he says. “Today over 90% of them do. To meet demand and stay current, we’ve expanded our curriculum and just this year we’re offering three new courses on new SEC rules that will govern carbon disclosure reporting."

Between 2022 and 2023, the share of “green talent” in the workforce grew by a median of 12%, while the share of job postings requiring green skills grew 22.7%, according to data from LinkedIn.

This is in part due to new legislation across the United States, European Union and other major economies. Employers are growing their budgets for sustainability and making ambitious net-zero pledges to signal to customers and investors that they have sturdy compliance systems in place.

According to Steve Gaines, Dean of UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, placement numbers for students graduating from the program are exceptionally high.

“On average, roughly 90% of our students are hired within six months of graduating, in positions that nearly all of them consider ‘dream jobs’.  New graduates are seeing offers paying an average of nearly $75,000 a year across our two Master’s programs.”

To keep up with industry demand for job-ready talent, the school has structured its graduate program to offer candidates a collaborative and extremely hands-on experience.

“We invite sustainability project submissions from industry and other organizations and then assign teams of students to deliver innovative solutions for real clients,” Gaines explains. “The program is very popular, because exposing students to real-world projects allows them to build industry-relevant skills and actually envision a clear path forward for their careers."

But despite the lofty demand, hiring managers are exacting when it comes to recruiting professionals with the right skills. According to Fahmida Bangert, Head of Sustainability at robotic surgery firm Intuitive and alumna of UCSB’s Bren School, being mission-driven about the field simply isn’t enough, when it comes to being employable.

“What students need to understand is that corporate sustainability jobs are business jobs,” she says.

“You need to be able to communicate, analyze, work with data and interpret regulations. Passion for sustainability is a good start, but to be successful you have to connect to STEM and communication skills.”

Jennifer DuBuisson, Senior Director of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co agrees.

“To have a successful career in sustainability, you need to hone great people skills, beyond technical competency. When hiring, I look for talent that can work cross-functionally, substantiate strategy based on numbers and communicate succinctly. You need to be able to make a great slide deck, but you also need to know how to craft an impactful email that leaders will respond to, even if they’re reading it on their phones during a flight.”

As jobs requiring “green skills” expand far beyond the realm of “technical”, candidates that bring interdisciplinary skills to the table are highly sought after. Demand is high not just for corporate sustainability roles, but also for jobs in NGOs, government and environmental consulting.

Gaines points to Environmental Data Science as a key example. “There’s been an explosion of new tools to analyze complex data sets that has led us to offer a dedicated sustainability program in this area at UCSB. These new competencies have vastly accelerated the development of innovative solutions that just weren't possible before.”

DuBuisson concurs on the sheer number of pathways available to mission-driven young people considering a career switch to sustainability.

“Don’t be afraid if you come from a different field like accounting or journalism,” she advises. “From where I’m sitting, those skills can actually be very, very useful."

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