Wednesday, April 11, 2012

4 green job trends sustainability professionals need to know about

As a sustainability recruiter, I have a unique vantage point to observe the evolution of sustainability across industries -- as a practice as well as a profession.

While Talent Show articles focus on the intersection of sustainability and human resources, today I want to take a different tack by highlighting some job trends.

Simply by reading job descriptions, one can obtain information about a company's plans for expanding their sustainability programs. When a chief sustainability officer gets approval to increase his or her budget, one of the first things to follow is a job posting.

Here are the current job trends I've gleaned from talking to countless hiring managers, even a greater number of candidates, and reading job descriptions every day, year after year:

1. The age of consumer-demanded sustainability is past its prime.
Sure, consumers who bought a Prius believing in its "better for the environment" promise still love their Prius, but the days of adding a green tag to every product possible are gone.

Rather, the drivers for businesses to develop a sustainability program are shifting. Results are driven by bottom line considerations and triple bottom line accounting is becoming more acceptable. As a result, jobs are driven less by consumer communications and tend to focus more on stakeholders like investors and public policy.

Now, sustainability professionals are being hired for specific skill sets such as carbon accounting or lifecycle analysis (LCA) as well as more generalists' positions to move the dial within companies and set the wheels in motion on innovation through collaboration.

I have had ongoing discussions on this topic with Aman Singh, CSR journalist and editorial director at CSRwire.

"As opposed to a growing sector of CSR professionals, sustainability is showing better signs of growing into an established and standardized profession," she says. "It is encouraging that companies are opening their doors, slowly but surely, to eager and skilled graduates who want to use their careers to make a difference. It will now be up to them to find their place in this niche field and push sustainability into the mainstream."

2. Large companies demand sustainability from suppliers
In the initial phase of supply chain responsibility, the global behemoths -- Walmart and Costco to name a couple -- implemented stringent sustainability requirements for their suppliers. Today, medium-size business and suppliers are getting on board.

I believed for the last few years that these newly created positions would be at the C-level. My research in CSO Back Story supported that. But the reality is that the majority of these heads of sustainability positions are created at the Director level, a telling sign that sustainability still has a ways to go before becoming an established part of most companies.

However, for professionals looking to work in sustainability, this is a significant opportunity. If you know a company without a designated sustainability executive working on educating and empowering their suppliers, get your foot in the door.

3. Public policy drives the creation of sustainability jobs
About 15 years ago, I wrote an article tracing the source of the rise of corporate social responsibility. I had recently found out that the U.S Government (under President Bill Clinton and Secretary of Labor Robert Reich) had created incentives, collaboration, and even shaming techniques that spearheaded a media frenzy and therefore, the rapid rise of CSR.

Despite all the public sector intervention and catalyzing of 1997, however, it is now, almost 15 years later that the public sector is doing what they do best: setting policy. Here are two current legislation initiatives that will create sustainability jobs:

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): In 2006, one state had EPR legislation, an incentivized program to encourage companies to develop products with take-back plans at the product's end-of-life. Today there are 26 states with EPR legislation. The incentive: companies developing end-of-life programs for their products get money back from the state. Thus companies are hiring more professionals to develop this aspect of their products.

Human trafficking: In 2010, California passed SB657, the "Transparency in Supply Chains Act." Retailers with over $100 million in annual worldwide gross receipts are required to disclose their efforts to eliminate slavery and human trafficking from their direct supply chains. Other legislation is following. And so will the jobs.

4. Creation of Deputy Sustainability positions
During our worst economic downturn since the depression, many companies laid off their senior-most sustainability leaders only to follow up by hiring back new vice presidents for half the salary and double the responsibility. The positive development however is that these vice presidents have [finally] budgets to hire deputies.

So my advice to jobseekers: make a good impression on these vice presidents.

Each of these trends indicates opportunities for sustainability professionals across industries. These jobs will require specific skills, experiences and education. It is up to you as the candidate to find the context and weave your way in. As companies and governments make structural changes to promote sustainability, sustainability is likely to become a permanent part of most institutions.


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