To Curb Climate Change, Young People Are Growing the Green Jobs Market

To Curb Climate Change, Young People Are Growing the Green Jobs Market

To Curb Climate Change, Young People Are Growing the Green Jobs Market

As environmental concern extends beyonds traditional conservation work, recent graduates are seeking sustainable careers—with more options than ever before.

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When Kristy Drutman graduated from the University of California–Berkeley in 2017, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in environmental communications, but she didn’t know where to start. Years later, after an initial struggle to identify all the options available to her, Drutman became a climate influencer, using her platform as “Brown Girl Green” to share information about green job opportunities with young people finding themselves in a similar position. Now, she runs an entire Green Jobs Board dedicated to this mission.

Pursuing a green career can take many paths—particularly compared to past decades. As concern around climate change increases, the green jobs market now ranges from environmental communications to innovating climate tech and grassroots campaigning.

Around the country, young people are taking advantage of new resources and opportunities to pursue careers that align with our commitment to accelerating a just renewable energy transition. According to Climate Power, between August 2022, when President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, and January 2023, clean energy companies created more than 100,000 new jobs. Polls find that the majority of young people want to have environmentally sustainable careers.

Today, the definition of a “green job” is amorphous and contested. Employers and employees’ understanding of sustainability can differ, and career advisers and job boards can play a key role in shaping young people’s conceptions of the options available to them. For Anthony Arcieri, university career advisers are meant to play a neutral role and help students find work that aligns with the kind of impact they want to make. Arcieri is the director of undergraduate career advising and programming, architecture, engineering, environment advising at Harvard University’s Migone Center for Career Success. “The environment kind of covers and touches so many different areas,” said Arcieri, who helps students think about green careers through the lens of their desired sector of work—nonprofit, public, or private.

Many environmental activists, however, have argued for a narrower definition of green jobs, which excludes much of the private sector. Campaigners with the Fossil Free Careers movement, for instance, maintain that career services offices act irresponsibly in allowing heavily polluting companies—specifically, oil and gas majors, none of which are aligned with the Paris Agreement and which continue to undermine climate action—to participate in university recruitment events. Already, four UK universities have committed to barring such recruitment on their campuses. Last spring, student divestment and Fossil Free Research activists at Harvard and MIT disrupted and shut down an ExxonMobil recruitment event.

Like Arcieri, Drutman sees green jobs as extending beyond more traditional conservation work. Still, she has grappled with questions of what really counts as “green” when filtering requests for Green Jobs Board postings. While her team does not have any explicit framework by which they determine the eligibility of jobs for posting, Drutman said that they have a policy of rejecting postings from fossil fuel companies. But the board remains open to private-sector corporate postings. Drutman acknowledges that these may not count as green—and indeed, may even be perceived as greenwashing—in the eyes of some climate activists.

Whether they have a narrower or broader view of green careers, young people have many choices available to them in entering the green jobs market. “With the environment career, there’s no linear path. You can approach it from many difficult angles,” said Arcieri. While that openness can prove exciting, however, the lack of a prescribed path can also become a barrier to entry.

The timeline for university seniors pursuing green jobs, particularly in the public and nonprofit sector, often contrasts sharply with the fast-paced and early-onset recruitment process of the consulting and finance industries. These industries recruit heavily from elite universities, where the combination of a ready-made hiring pipeline and the security such jobs offer may divert students from alternative career pathways. The Harvard Class of 2023, for instance, saw 41 percent of graduates starting their careers in these two industries alone.

Salary disparities between private and public or nonprofit sector environmental work can also disincentive youth from pursuing the latter, noted Drutman. This barrier is especially salient for those from marginalized communities, who already face systemic pay inequities. Nonetheless, young people are finding ways to overcome the obstacles and transform their passions for environmental and climate action into vocations, as well as help shape expectations for the green jobs market in the process.

Lana Weidgenant never questioned whether she would work in climate advocacy full-time—only how she would do it. When she earned a degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University in 2021, Weidgenant was already an experienced grassroots advocate who had held numerous volunteer roles in environmental initiatives, including helping organize the historic youth climate strikes of September 2019 with the youth-led climate justice coalition Zero Hour.

“It was hard for me to see how I would then do this similar work but have it be paid and have it be full-time,” said Weidgenant. “I had always accepted these part-time, project-specific unpaid roles. The transition proved difficult, as Weidgenant struggled to find a job that felt both exciting and like a good fit after assuming a time-intensive volunteer position with the UN Food Systems Summit post-graduation. “I feel like if you’re already engaging in this area, then you get into a specific niche.”

For Weidgenant, that niche became the intersection of climate change and food systems. The climate crisis poses a vast threat to global food security, while industrial food systems in turn exacerbate climate change. Eventually, Weidgenant’s volunteer work led her to her current job as a US-focused campaign and policy manager at ProVeg International, a nonprofit food awareness organization seeking to shift global food systems away from animal-based products. Had she relied on Internet searches to find work or decided to pursue graduate studies straight after college, Weidgenant said, she might never have realized this opportunity.

Weidgenant encouraged other young people interested in green policy work and advocacy to seek out experience in relevant initiatives prior to graduation. “If you’re going straight from your degree to a job, it matters a lot less what your grades were or what your major was [or] what classes you took, as compared to the fact that you know the field a little bit and that you’ve been involved outside of class,” she said. “That can really go such a long way.”

Jack Reicherts, a civil and environmental engineering major at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is a self-proclaimed film buff. Still, he never expected to work in television and media. “That was a happy coincidence.” Knowing only that he wanted a green job, Reicherts applied to diverse positions throughout his college career. He interned as a sustainability coordinator at Apple, which exposed him to what he called the entertainment industry’s quirks.

Now, Reicherts is becoming the first-ever sustainability adviser of a prominent entertainment company, which declined to be named. In this role, he will work to reduce the company’s environmental impact largely by seeking to slash Scope 3 emissions, such as travel and waste from production. In doing so, he will contribute to a growing focus on sustainability in the entertainment industry. Already, the film industry has made some strides with the development of the Green Production Guide and the production of blockbuster environmental films like Don’t Look Up.

Reicherts credits his experiences leading campus sustainability initiatives as equipping him for his current position. He also took advantage of campus advising and career services resources, but ultimately found his job through a Google search. The experience affirmed to Reicherts that when it comes to green jobs, “opportunities pop up in unexpected places,” as sectors not traditionally focused on the environment embrace new commitments to sustainability. According to Reicherts, one does not always need to have a direct match between their background expertise and the role in front of them; indeed, for him, having expertise from a different industry was an asset.

While Reicherts is unsure of his long-term career aspirations, he is certain that “this is an exciting time to be getting into this space,” as companies embrace a greater environmental consciousness. “Regardless of the motivation,” said Reicherts, “I do think that there’s going to be more and more interesting stuff for green-minded young people to do as a result.”

Unlike Weidgenant and Reicherts, college did not fit neatly into Roya Amini-Naieni’s green career path. Amini-Naieni is the cofounder and CEO of Trilobio, a company creating an end-to-end automated synthetic biology lab that could allow for crucial experiments to be conducted in resource-poor settings, for which she was awarded a $100,000 grant last year.

While Amini-Naieni emphasized the value of her partial college education and urged young people to take advantage of the resources universities have to offer, she ultimately decided not to finish her undergraduate degree at Harvey-Mudd. “I realized I couldn’t do both well at the same time.” Building Trilobio ultimately took priority over her education.

Today, Amini-Naieni is proud of her company’s accomplishments. Yet raising corporate capital remains one of the foremost challenges she faces as a young person and an underrepresented group in her field. As Amini-Naieni noted, less than 3 percent of all venture capital investments go to women-led companies, and women are still dramatically underrepresented as CEOs. She hopes to see this reality change as more trailblazing young people and especially, young women of color, break into the world of climate tech and start-ups. “Change the way things have been done by starting your own company, or contribute to an academic lab or budding startup that won’t take advantage of an individual’s strong desire to do good in the world.”

For young people navigating the green jobs market, Weidgenant, Reicherts, and Amini-Naieni’s experiences may prove inspiring and instructive. Arcieri and Drutman offered a few pieces of advice for those looking to work green. When searching for green jobs, Arcieri advises students to “prioritize people over postings.” More often than job boards or open job postings, he suggested, relationships provide a crucial entry point into the green jobs market. He further suggested that students seek to leverage university alumni networks to connect with people in their desired fields.

Drutman also emphasized the importance of forming human connections in obtaining a green job. She suggested that young people find mentors who work at organizations they aspire to join, and attend conferences or seek out other networking opportunities with people in their desired fields. Pursuing environmental certifications and training to sharpen their skill sets, she added, could also help boost young people’s résumés in the eyes of prospective employers.

In the process, Drutman said, young people should remember the value they bring to the green jobs market as the world awakens to the need for a rapid, global renewable energy transition that will transform all kinds of work. “If we’re really going to build our own form of a climate movement, even the green economy can’t look like the way it’s looked like in the past,” she said. “I think there’s a huge opportunity for young people to feel agency and power in that conversation.”

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