Maggie Berry, managing director of Women in Technology.

Careers in sustainability

Maggie Berry, Women in Technology’s managing director, talks about job opportunities within the sustainability space: what roles are out there and where to find them.

Despite the harsh economic climate spelling difficulties for job seekers - and in particular the graduate employment market making it tough for students to get a first foot on the career ladder - the good news is that for those wishing to work within a truly sustainable business there are perhaps more opportunities than ever before.

And, as more organisations choose to take sustainability seriously, a wider range of jobs within this space are becoming available.

But in an age where many businesses are perhaps engaging in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives as no more than a PR exercise, how can you ensure you find a truly sustainable one, and are you confined to one specialism?

Sustainability: camp one

There are generally two camps of businesses when we talk about sustainability. The first includes companies that are actively engaging in sustainable business practices because it positively impacts the bottom line whilst also maintaining and protecting the environment. And one where roles do not necessarily relate to sustainability but rather encompass all disciplines – whether this be in engineering, IT, or marketing, for example.

A case in point is BASF – a global chemical company – which whilst operating within an industry that is renowned for being less than environmentally friendly, has taken steps to be just the opposite. And the reason for this is its belief that in business there should never be a conflict between CSR and the demands of the market.  

Furthermore, by developing systems to ensure that what it produces does not destroy the planet, the company has been able to protect the environment whilst also increasing its profitability.

There are businesses the world over which are increasingly realising this, and it is perhaps these that will draw in both employees and clients by protecting the world in which they operate in. So if there are businesses out there that operate very successfully in this manner – how do you go about finding them?

How to find the right businesses

Perhaps the most important way is by doing your own research – the Internet is full of case studies of businesses like BASF which are making their mark in this way.

Local careers services will also be able to guide you in the right direction. And the good news for engineering and technology students is that businesses like this will continually call for the skills and expertise of professionals who can evolve their existing sustainable practices in the coming years.

And if you are still studying, now might be a good time to explore whether companies like this are offering work experience placements or a “year in industry” as part of a degree course. If so, this will give you a perfect opportunity to not only increase your skills and experiences, but also see how a business can operate sustainably while also maximising profits.

Sustainability: camp two

The second camp - and perhaps the most obvious - includes companies who are not only sustainable by nature but also where positions are geared towards implementing and working on sustainable practices.  

Sectors such as clean energy and technologies, sustainable agriculture and ecosystem infrastructures are good examples. They are also areas where the creation of new jobs is currently intensifying, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Other examples in this camp include companies operating in the socially responsible space – such as non government organisations (NGOs) and not for profit companies. The opportunities are vast and students from the technology and engineering sectors could see themselves working on a whole host of different initiatives and on a global basis.

Competition in this area can, however, be rife, so it is wise to start engaging with such businesses early on. Placements, for example, within NGOs can be tough to secure so getting in early is key. Your careers service will almost certainly have contacts in this space so it is well worth liaising with them initially.

You don’t have to work for a multinational to be within the sustainable sector

Clearly working within the sustainable sector, or indeed for a company genuinely interested in protecting its operating environment, is a great option for engineering and technology professionals. But there is a common misconception that in order to do so you must work at a huge multinational. However this isn’t the case and many people – academics included –maintain the belief that it is the smaller, and perhaps less established companies who are perhaps the best option and those which are driving the truly sustainable agenda.

Michel Coster, director of the World Entrepreneurship Forum and EMLYON’s small business incubator, appears to agree with this sentiment: “Whilst the corporate world is trying to grapple with the realities of operating in a sustainable fashion, there is one group that can really make a lasting impact – entrepreneurs. Big companies are finding it difficult to match the demands of shifting to a sustainable business model with the demands of meeting shareholder and investor expectations – which largely focus on the maximising of profits,” he says.

“If entrepreneurs and small business owners can build sustainable practices into their business model from the start, rather than tacking it on further down the line, we can begin to look forward to a future where sustainability is not just a buzz word, but becomes a movement that makes a real difference.”

Whatever path you take, the most important thing to remember is to do your research. Not all businesses which are committed to this goal have the word sustainability in their job titles and are, as such, not always easy to find. What is clear, however, is by choosing this route now you will be one step ahead. In the future, sustainability will almost certainly be part of everyone’s job and every businesses strategy in some way. Good luck.

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