Strategies for Breaking into Clean Tech

cleantechFM.jpgGiven the economic downturn, job seekers are smart to look at areas of opportunity likely to grow even in an ongoing downturn. Naturally, many have turned their attention to clean tech, where investment should only continue thanks to the stimulus package and global efforts to address climate change.
The dicey economic outlook and competition from the rising number of unemployed complicate the challenge of breaking into clean tech, however. If you’re among the growing number of job seekers who recognize the opportunity and want to break in, you’ll want to think strategically, prepare carefully, and practice persistence and patience. Realize that many people are competing for jobs, but by working all the angles to break into this industry, you’ll position yourself to grow with it, reducing the likelihood of economic uncertainty those in other industries are likely to continue to face. Here are six quick tips for getting started.

1. Determine a Focus
When starting your job search in clean tech, the first thing is to start learning what part of the industry you want to break into. Saying you want a job in clean tech is a lot like saying you want a job in software, which could mean anything from video game developing to enterprise solutions. Are you looking for a job in alternative fuel vehicles, wind energy, efficient building materials, or something else?
Even within a seemingly focused area, like solar, you’ll want to have a clear idea what part of the industry you want to work in. Do you want to work on the construction side of the business, as an installer? Do you want to design systems – and if so, are you more interested in the residential, commercial, or utility market? Would you rather be involved in financing projects, such as part of a Power Purchase Provider (PPA)? Do you want to develop technologies and, if so, are you interested in thin-film or silicon-based panels or utility-scale? If thin-film, do you want to work with cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide, or something else? Or do you want to work at a utility?
“The people we end up hiring, they’re the ones out there doing the research, doing the homework,” says Brian van Moose, Director of Business Development at Borrego Solar. Research the types of technologies, the various customer markets, the opportunities outside technology, such as working with policy, to get a feeling for the industry and where you might fit. And read The Clean Tech Revolution for a great overview of the various clean tech sectors, as well as a list of promising employers.
Obviously your skills and background will influence your focus. Those at an early stage of their careers, such as students, can take classes and internships that offer a virtually unlimited number of directions in various clean tech industries. Those midstream, with a few years or more of work experience, will need to decide if they need more education for the job they want in solar, or if their skills transfer over.
2. Develop a Strategy
Whatever stage you’re at, it’s worthwhile to think through your strategy to achieve your goal. (This is why having a focus is so important – you can’t have a strategy to get to your goal until you know what your goal is.) If you’re an engineering student and want a job as a design engineer at a solar company, your strategy might be to get an internship at a startup, where you can start making contacts and building your industry experience. If you’re a marketing professional undergoing a transition from the financial services industry, and can’t afford an internship, you might decide to volunteer through a local nonprofit organization working on solar issues in your free time as a way to build your network and position yourself for an opening down the road.
3. Execute Your Plan
Once you have a goal and a strategy, develop a daily list of things you plan to do to move your job search forward, with targeted dates for completing these tasks. If you’re job searching full time, create a set of activities equivalent to a full-time job. If you’re job searching part-time, while working a full-time job, you can break your activities into smaller, more achievable tasks.
Share your job search plan with friends, a mentor, a teacher, and/or a former manager or other person you trust, and get their input. In particular, you want to make sure the things you are doing are the things that can lead you toward the goal of getting hired at a company within a clean tech industry of choice – so your list should include networking, attending relevant events, and researching the industry. Having others review your plan can help you target your activities, while also providing some accountability and support to your job search.
4. Prospect for Potential Employers
In many mature industries, like energy, computer software, and consumer products, there are easy-to-identify companies with strong recruiting programs, well-known brands, and well-defined annual hiring needs. Most companies in the various segments of the clean industry are still largely in startup mode, but you can find information by checking out lists such as the GoingGreen East 50 or the Power 10 ranking. Keep an eye on your local newspaper for articles about regional clean tech startups. Most public libraries have databases that let you search many different newspaper and magazine databases, and these can provide leads as well.
A number of companies in the various segments of clean tech are more mature, such as SunPower in solar, or Vestas in the wind. And there are many established companies with clean tech groups at utility companies and multinationals like BP, General Electric, or Dow. Be aware that at both startups and multinationals, where clean tech is a small piece of what the company does, you’re unlikely to find many well-coordinated recruiting efforts or big-budget human resource programs.
This can be both a challenge and an opportunity. It puts the onus on you, the job seeker, to identify which companies your skills can best help, and provides a competitive advantage to those willing to make the phone calls and build the networks to reach the less visible, but highly promising, startup hiring managers.
5. Articulate Your Passion
While not everybody in clean tech is there to change the world, feeling passion for the industry’s potential to address issues like climate change and energy independence won’t hurt your chances of breaking in. If you’re legitimately interested in some of the macro-issues that clean tech can help solve – and spend part of your job search trying to understand them better – you’ll have an element to your story that other candidates may not have, which can help you stand out in an interview and connect with people at networking events.
6. Be Realistic
Not everybody can work in clean tech. If you’re trying to switch from another industry, you may have to take a pay cut – or even start with an internship; don’t necessarily expect to make what you were making in the role you were in before. Those just coming into the workforce may have to volunteer to get the experience that will be attractive to a company that’s hiring.
Also be aware that the cultures of clean tech companies can vary dramatically, from a work-hard, play-hard, resource-constrained startup to a more sedate and bureaucratic utility. And opportunities vary widely, from construction roles to those working directly with technology to those financing clean energy projects. Some of these companies might work for you, and some might not. By doing the work to figure out where you can add the most value, given your skills, and where you’ll be the most engaged, give your interests, you’re helping yourself to get a role you’ll enjoy while helping the hiring manager find somebody who truly fits. This may take some time, a lot of networking, reading, and interviewing – even some low-paid internships or no-paid volunteering – but over the course of your career, it will very likely be worth it.
Frank Marquardt is the author of Green Careers.

Frank Marquardt is the author of The Solar Job Guide and Green Careers, and a contributor to How Green Is Your City? He has contributed to 100s of career guides over the past 10 years. Frank is also director of content strategy at Native Instinct, an interactive agency.

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