This is our second of three guides on jobs in sustainable energy, food and water. Please see the others in our series:
If you are looking for a ‘Green Job’ in energy, we’ve got good news: energy is a vital part of the American economy and clean energy continues to grow nationwide. If you are into powering the future while reducing pollution, perhaps a career in clean energy or sustainability is a good fit for you. Sure, engineering or solar panel installation jobs are a couple of literal choices, but there are many fun, fascinating paths you can pursue to be a sustainable energy professional.
If you’re a hands-on type, like to work outside or are a heights-loving daredevil who craves a hint of danger in your day-to-day activities, consider clean energy installation work. Great news here: These jobs can’t be outsourced and as clean energy industries continue to grow, clean energy installation jobs are going to continue to be in demand. There are definitely some specialized skills involved and many positions do (and should, please see below) require training and certification. Getting trained and certified will help you land that job installing solar panels on a roof, expanding wind power to soaring heights or helping people to weatherize their homes to save energy. Check out apprenticeship opportunities, trade schools and community colleges to help you get that training, your foot in the door and step up the ladder to a generally decent-paying career.
Noting the importance of training, Jane Weissman, executive director of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, said, “we take certification and credentialing very seriously and feel that there’s a very important role to ensure that we have quality installations on not only renewables, but quality practitioner practices for energy efficiency.”
Energy engineers or architects with bachelor’s degrees (or higher) can hit the ground running after their training – if you’ve heard of “LEED-certified” buildings, these are among the folks who come up with and make those green buildings happen. Check out the Association of Energy Engineers.
Media and Marketing
If we’re talking energy and the media, solar energy’s popularity is reflected in the media’s growing coverage of it. You can pursue a path in environmental journalism with a focus on clean energy or write for a host of trade publications (see Renewable Energy World for starters). With increased interest in energy, environmental and sustainability issues, there are online outlets where you can cover energy issues, too. (See ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Inside Climate News or Triple Pundit, for example.) Or you could be a blogger (check out Grist) or a contributor to a more generally focused outlet sharing tips for switching to solar or other clean energy.
You can also use your marketing skills to help promote clean energy technologies and businesses in the for-profit sector. Tor “Solar Fred” Valenza started his marketing firm to help customers “UnThink Solar.” Using a unique approach and his love of solar power, he helps launch his clients’ solar products into the mainstream. Or consider Raina Russo’s work: using #SolarChat, she holds monthly Twitter chats to connect industry pros, consumers, solar enthusiasts and developed the “industry’s think tank” while doing so.
Law and Policy
The energy industry in the United States is subject to a myriad of laws and regulations. Some of the rules favor clean energy, while others can act as red tape. Getting a law degree or a graduate degree in public policy can be a good first step in a sustainable energy law and policy career. There are also continuing education opportunities to become more informed about specific regulations and/or the regulatory process (for example, see New Mexico State University’s The Basics programs). With the right training and background, there are employment opportunities at a number of government agencies, electric utilities, non-profits and businesses. It’s now fairly common for businesses and cities to employ a Chief Sustainability Officer or some other type of sustainability professional to work on corporate social responsibility issues and introduce new company or city-wide initiatives.
Law and policy careers in energy exist in a number of government agencies at the municipal, state and federal levels. States have regulatory commissioners and staff (where you may fit in) to regulate electric utilities (the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners represents these commissions) and municipalities, like the City of Austin, may operate a utility and be interested in clean energy. At the federal level, you can look into agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Many of the federal jobs are headquartered in Washington DC, as well as in regional offices across the country.
Technology and Entrepreneurship
If you’re like many people in the clean energy field, you could also be inspired by the nifty technology you’ll get to play with. Clean energy is synonymous with clean tech. Solar energy has been a darling of venture capital for a dozen years, regardless of occasional doom-and-gloom predictions. Start-ups like SolarCity and Sungevity are now major players in the solar industry. Energy efficiency companies, like Johns Manville, offer a number of opportunities to work on creating energy efficient environments. It’s a great time to get involved with the rapidly growing clean tech market. Echoing Green also has fellowships available to aspiring entrepreneurs in this area.
So what if you’ve got two left feet and aren’t an engineer, a mediaphile or the entrepreneurial type, but you’re passionate about helping wean us from our fossil fuels and carbon habit? No worries! You can add your voice to the champions of clean energy as an advocate. There are many non-profit and for profit jobs that let you communicate with the public and policymakers about the benefits of clean, sustainable energy. Non-profits like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council offer opportunities to be an advocate for the environment and for a cleaner energy future. Trade associations like the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association have positions that advocate for specific clean technologies. And many clean energy businesses have government affairs pros who advocate on behalf of the companies’ positions with federal, state and local governments and the public.
In the role of an advocate, John Rogers at the Union of Concerned Scientists said of his career: “UCS’s energy-water work has been incredibly enlightening, and has exposed me to whole new worlds of people trying really hard to make a difference, from an angle different from the one I’ve been using.” And Gordian Raacke of Renewable Energy Long Island said he got started in advocacy, “[w]hen the Exxon Valdez spill happened in March of 1989, I was very upset, and like everybody else, I was saying ‘how can something like this happen?’ and blaming Exxon and the oil industry. Then somebody said to me, ‘You should be pointing the finger at yourself because you ordered that oil.’ That insight is what ultimately turned me into an advocate for clean energy. Within a few years I got a job in the field. I realized that the only way to prevent the myriad disasters associated with fossil fuels is to switch to benign energy sources. You don’t hear about too many “solar spills.”
Prior to joining GRACE, our own Kyle Rabin has done advocacy work pertaining to three nuclear plants on Lake Ontario, and worked at Riverkeeper during their campaign to close the Indian Point nuclear plant just 38 miles north of New York City. His first professional job in the environmental arena was about increasing awareness about the environmental and public health problems associated with both fossil fuel and nuclear energy. Now, you’ll mainly see him promoting greater awareness about cleaner alternatives such as solar and wind, including here on Ecocentric.
Teaching and Research
There’s a lot to learn when it comes to clean energy. Whether you prefer to be the student or the teacher, the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are very important to future growth in sustainable energy.
As a K-12 educator, you can help inspire young minds by teaching STEM classes and discussing the benefits of clean energy (the US Department of Energy offers some lesson plans). Following the path of a Ph.D. could allow you to contribute research into new technologies while learning, teaching and training the clean energy innovators of the future. You could also do clean energy research for non-profit organizations, think tanks, consulting groups and government agencies.
Finding a Job
We’ve all heard it said: job-hunting is a full-time job itself. Overall, as with jobs in sustainable food or any issue-oriented field, you need to know and understand the mission, culture and focus of prospective organizations that you might like to join.
If you are a student, become familiar with your career services and alumni affairs offices and take advantage of the programs, events, coaching and advice that they offer. Most schools, colleges and universities have student groups that tackle environmental or energy issues. Join them in activities and learn who and what is going on in your specific areas of interest.
If you haven’t already done so, create a LinkedIn profile and get involved with various clean energy, environmental, or sustainability groups. LinkedIn provides a way to connect with like-minded individuals about your interests. One easy way to start: contact someone whose work interests you to see if they’re game for an informational interview, a fancy way of saying “a 20 minute conversation about how awesome their job is.” Info interviews aren’t job requests, but you’ll be excited to know that if you ask good questions during these meetings and build a good rapport, they might just give you a call when it does come time for them to hire. We know networking is scary for some, but it is a must! (TheMuse.com has some great tips on networking and other career resources.)
Look for ways to meet the people who are doing work you find interesting or are employed where you want to work. Check out local meet-ups like Green Drinks, energy clubs or chapters, as well as more formal local and national conferences. These are another great way to meet people who are looking for employees or who can introduce you to the ones who are hiring. If that’s an intimidating prospect – introverts or shy types, we’re looking at you affectionately – your goal can be as simple as speaking with three people you don’t yet know. That’s it. (And we promise you, people who are passionate about their work will appreciate your enthusiasm for it!)
There are other interesting routes to getting these jobs as well. Adam Browning at the Vote Solar Initiative told me there are benefits to joining the Peace Corps: “one of the minor perks that you have is that you can be hired as if you are an internal candidate for federal jobs. So I decided to take use of that. The EPA was really the only federal agency I was interested in, and I just got an organizational chart and started calling away until I was able to land an interview and a job from there.” Even if you’re not a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, you can explore jobs at: Triple Pundit, greenjobs.com, Renewable Energy World, the Energy Vortex and USAjobs.
Internships and Volunteering Count!
Internships are a great way to get your feet wet. (If you’re not a student, think “volunteering.”) It not only helps organizations and groups get their work done, but also helps you gain experience and helps you get your name out there. Check out Catchafire for some interesting volunteer opportunities and any of the above job sites, or especially your school’s career center, for available internships.
Here’s one more thought to ponder: organizations of all kinds always need good human resources managers, accountants, office managers, sales people, marketers, writers, IT people, social media whizzes, etc. So, no matter your skillset, you can get involved in the clean energy economy.
Get inspired and learn more about careers in energy and sustainability by reading about Our Heroes on Ecocentric!