You may be entry level or mid-career — but you can still find your Ikigai.
While you might think that you may not be able to make a career in the environment sector without a formal degree — that’s not entirely true. I often spend time talking about this and hence decided to put together an Intro 101 for folks who found their calling to work in the sector, but may or may not have specialized environment degrees.
What kind of roles can I expect if I want to work in the environment sector? Do I need to have a specific degree or technical training? Am I too old/too young/too technical/too generalist to work in this sector?
These are some of the questions I get asked very frequently on LinkedIn (by second/third degree professional network connections) as well as through friends and family. While some of the folks asking these questions are early career professionals, many of them are mid career as well and are looking to transition into the sector.
Firstly, to give you a sense — I would consider myself a generalist sustainability practitioner. Over the last 12 years, I have worn many hats right from project delivery to stakeholder engagement and institutional building. I have also worked across diverse types of organizations (consulting firms, international nonprofits and an incubator) and collaborated with stakeholders from government, corporates, bilateral organizations and social enterprises.
So when I get asked those questions, I usually end up sharing my two cents based on my personal journey as well as observations from colleagues and partners in the sector.
Finding Your Ikigai While Saving The Planet
Working towards resource efficiency, climate action and environment conservation is definitely the need of the planet today and now (fortunately) being paid for by the market as well.
It’s great if you had figured out much early in life that your passion was to work in this sector! Then in most likelihood, you would have explored specialization options and completed a formal Bachelors or Masters degree in the discipline. However, increasingly professionals are making sectoral/ functional switches to move from traditional industries, or even taking up sustainability focused roles within their organizations.
These ‘lateral’ movers into the sector, most often, end up leveraging their technical or functional skillsets to find their ‘Ikigai’ environmental discipline.
For familiarizing themselves with the fundamentals of environment, ecology and climate change, most of them either self-learn or take up short term/part time/bridging courses and then learn the rest on-the-job.
So What Exactly Can you Do in this Sector?
If you are a new entrant into the environment sector — with or without prior experience — here are 5 potential Roles you can find for yourself, based on the type of work and skillsets.
This is by no means an empirical study on green careers, but rather my own observations.
The Research Guru — aka Environment Researchers
This is most suited for professionals who are inquisitive and question the ‘why, what and how’. They work on research questions on environment, sustainability and climate change across multiple disciplines. With their rigor and analysis, they bring out deep insights that are used by government, civil society, industry and communities.
Within research too, this is actually an extremely wide category with various subsets of roles. On one hand there are fairly technical roles such as environmental scientists which require specialized degrees. They could be engaged in field studies to generate evidence (in research organizations) and/or develop sustainable solutions (in industry/research labs). On the other hand, there are several other forms of researchers who focus on interdisciplinary environmental research. These (often) lateral movers bring in their skills of deep qualitative and quantitative analysis in unique disciplines.
There are market researchers who specialize in primary and secondary research to map the state of the sector (such as climate change/water/energy and so on!). There are behavioral researchers engaged in examining relationships between human behavior and natural/built environment. There are social scientists focused on interdisciplinary research and policy researchers who create insights and analysis to advise governments and civil society for effective environmental policymaking.
Typically, I have seen most of these roles in thinktanks, research organizations and academic institutions. Specifically the market and policy researcher roles are there in mega or boutique consulting firms as well. There are even a handful of super-specialized consulting firms such as those on systems thinking and circular economy.
The Data Detective — aka Environment Data Analysts, Environment Data Scientists, Environment Statisticians
While research also includes use of data, I would — intentionally — put this in a completely different category. This is most suited for professionals who like going through mountains of datasets to find trends and patterns that enable teams to drive meaning. They generate usable patters and datasets and help researchers drive deep insights. These data experts are able to use their technical skillsets across diverse sub-themes and domains to support diverse research teams. They tend to continually keep upgrading their technical skills such as on big data and dashboarding tools and that’s their USP.
Several environmental data experts I have engaged with used to previously work in traditional sectors (Business, IT, Manufacturing and others) and moved into this sector driven by their passion.
Most of them did introductory courses related to ecology and climate change and familiarized with the rest on-the-job. Now their work could include looking at emission data, air quality data, energy/water consumption data, waste generation data — you name it! — and creating effective analysis in the form of graphs, charts, dashboards etc .
The Multitasking Manager — AKA Program Lead, Field Manager
The environment sector also has need for strong project managers who are well organized and goal-oriented. They might be technical experts themselves or managing a team of experts. They could be working at-desk or on-field and basically lead the planning, execution, monitoring and closure of projects. The projects could be wide ranging – starting from environment education to forest/landscape conversation to sustainable agriculture to deployment of sustainable/renewable solutions. Typically you would see such program managers working in implementation organizations (such as nonprofits) or consulting firms and even government institutions.
You would come across another category of program managers in most of the domestic and international Foundations, Family Foundations, Bilateral organizations and DFIs. These Investment/Portfolio Managers typically source, disburse and manage funds for environmental projects. They typically have strong program management experience (sometimes from investment banking backgrounds) and the ability to work with senior stakeholders and government as well as with non-profit partners.
I would highlight that none of these program management roles are exclusive from each other.
In fact, very often non-profit program managers also move to funder organizations/corporates to be on the other side of the table, after gaining implementation experience.
The Storyteller — aka Communications Manager, Partnerships Manager
One increasingly important role in the sector is that of professionals who specialize in creating magic through words. Typically these roles require storytelling to build powerful narratives, content, campaigns and creatives to build partnerships and drive action. I have observed this to be one of the biggest disciplines for ‘lateral’ movement from industries such as advertising, communication, media, social media and digital marketing.
The communication focus could again be wide ranging — right from sharing an organization’s sustainability impact, or to build grassroots climate movements, or to build collaboration with partners to implement green projects.
They typically do not require in-depth technical knowledge and are able to build the necessary sectoral knowledge on-the-go.
These professionals work closely with program teams — and few of them often even start with part-time/freelance gigs to explore the sector before making the switch.
The Technologist — Sustainability Managers, Environment Engineers
Another type of role can be seen in corporates within the Sustainability teams. These corporate sustainability managers focus on measurement and reduction of emissions by managing resource efficiency measures. Depending on how mature the sustainability function for the organization is — most often, technical or business experts grow internally within the organization to lead these roles. Typically at an entry level, I have seen engineers taking up these roles however there are many lateral movers (from manufacturing, supply chain and similar departments) as well moving into such functions.
This list is in no way exhaustive and there is need for newer roles emerging especially in the light of growing need to conserve resources.
I would conclude by highlighting that I have seen many colleagues specialize in one of these roles to build their career paths and also many others who have straddled as well as migrated across them.
To each their own, I say — much like myself! So wishing you good luck for exploring your career in this sector.