Feb 162011
Well, yesterday’s post about CSR academics got a few people talking (or rather, Tweeting). I don’t expect the same level of discourse about today’s musings. But I hope they may help the people who write to me for advice on how to get a job in sustainability. Times have changed since I fell into the environment movement. Indeed, until about ten years ago there was barely a career structure in place for young people hoping to work in NGOs or corporate sustainability. Most environmentalists got there by accident not design, often from other professions. Contacts helped (they always do), and given the explosion of new social and environmental initiatives, organisations and publications in the late 1990s, there seemed plenty of jobs to go round. Today, the world is very different, not helped by the state of the economy. There are degrees aplenty in sustainable development, and more candidates than there are jobs. So here are some tips for 20-somethings struggling to turn their passion for sustainability into a job:

1. Do think about a Masters or similar grounding. Not because it will necessarily teach you all you need to know (the best learning is, I’m afraid, on the job). But because your competition will probably have one, and given the choice, employers will always go for the more ‘qualified’ person. This didn’t matter when I started out. It does now.

2.Pick an emerging issue. I was lucky in that when this all began for me the crisis in the world’s fisheries was just starting to gain prominence. We arguably don’t need too many more carbon auditors. The climate change field is very crowded. Think about areas that will be front page news in years to come. Water scarcity and sustainable tourism might be areas to consider

3.If you can possibly afford to, use your spare time to volunteer on a campaign (the current forests campaign in the UK for instance) or with a global NGO like Greenpeace. I never had to do this, but I remember long summers working unpaid for the BBC as a student, which helped me greatly later on. Only the fortunate have the time and resources to do this, but do as much as you can

4.Don’t target obvious companies (who doesn’t want to work for Innocent Drinks?)– the chances are they have this in hand. Think about businesses that will need your help most in tackling sustainability the coming years. Consider sectors barely out of the starting gate on sustainability. That’s where you could make your mark

5. Write a good letter and CV. You CANNOT afford to make a single mistake – it’s amazing how many people trip up at this stage. Years ago, I hired a young man called Rob Bailes who was completing his Masters. I got countless letters from people like him – his letter was well crafted, concise, typo free and made me want to meet him. He’d also actually researched my background and the company where I worked. He worked for me for 4 years and is now working in sustainability in Costa Rica. Lucky sod.

Environmentalism has never been more fashionable, and that’s good news for the planet, but sometimes dispiriting for the growing number of graduates who want to make it their career as well as their hobby. I spoke to one guy last year who wanted advice as he’d been told ‘CSR’ was ‘something he should get into’. I bet he never does! Because as you know, this isn’t just about a career path. It’s a vocation, a passion and a way of life. If you can get paid for it as well, what could be more rewarding that that? Good luck! 

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