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Education for Success in the Sustainability Industry


By Martha Young

Education investment: Almost everyone does it through continuing education conferences, online courses or pursuing an advanced degree.  Expanding skill sets is instrumental in career advancement and career transitioning. How does skill-building play specific to the sustainability industry? Whether you’re a millennial trying to break into the industry or a seasoned professional seeking a career change, there are clear education choices that are better than others.

Independent analyst firm Verdantix released its Global Sustainability Survey 2014 report in mid-November. The annual report aims to benchmark brand perception, awareness and engagement across sustainability business consulting and service firms. In a nutshell, the report shows the Big Four audit firms as the top resource known and used by companies pursuing a sustainable business strategy.

The education implication of the Verdantix results is finance. Auditing firms provide the financial business case to clients for pursuing or setting aside a given green initiative. Auditing firms possess skills in identifying measurable metrics, establishing baselines and determining returns on investment. A financial background is clearly the way to go if one is seeking to pursue a career in sustainability through an audit company.

CLEAResult is one of America’s fastest growing private companies, according to INC 500. This Texas-based sustainability consulting firm has offices across the U.S. and Canada, directly employing 1500 people and contracting with thousands of other professionals.  In a conversation with Eric Stern, national operations director, he noted, “When looking for contractors, we primarily emphasize skill sets and specialties. For instance, we’ll look for certified HVAC specialists, electrical engineers or other licensed specialists depending on the specific project need in order to ensure customer satisfaction.”

Stern went on to explain why technical licensed specialists work best for CLEAResult’s business model and philosophy. “At CLEAResult, we look first to local workers to fill contracting and employment opportunities. These workers are vetted through trade associations, hold current technical licenses and have are rated with the local Better Business Bureau. The emphasis on local workers adheres to our philosophy of helping to build integrated communities. The benefits of this model ripple out to independent contractors, small businesses and home owners. More importantly, the fact that CLEAResult utilizes local labor means that we support one of the key drivers of community-specific economic viability.”

The education implication for CLEAResult contract workers is vocational training and licensing. The firm’s management team biographies point to educations in business, management and marketing. Additionally, the numerous job openings require 4-year technical degrees or comparable work experience.

The Sustainability Consortium is a global organization aiming to drive sustainability across the complete supply chain specifically for consumer products. It is administered by Arizona State University, University of Arkansas and universities in the Netherlands and China. TSC develops tool kits, by targeted industry (toys, electronics, food/beverage, clothing/textiles, etc.) to reduce environmental impacts and improve product sustainability.

The question of business degree versus certifications was put to Sheila Bonini, CEO of The Sustainability Consortium (Ms. Bonini was formerly with McKinsey & Co). Bonini responded with, “The question about sustainability education was touched on at a panel of Corporate CSOs (Chief Sustainability Officers) I recently led at Stanford University, where they discussed their jobs.  The main advice was not to start out in Sustainability in a company, and I agree. The CSOs learned about the business first, and developed credibility within the business that enabled them to drive a sustainability agenda. Some of the diverse backgrounds for CSOs include Marketing or Operations background, and often Supply Chain for consumer goods.  The Sustainability degree and certification programs are a way to build expertise, but this must be an add-on to the core knowledge of the overall business.”

The bottom line: the education required to break into the sustainability industry is most readily accomplished through one of two channels: either a 4-year business, engineering, environmental degree; or through a 2-year specialized vocational training program. Any organization trying to sell you on sustainability certifications as the quickest way into the sustainability employment market is selling snake oil.

Image credit: Flickr/carbonnyc

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Sustainability4SMEs: Graham Russell & Martha Young

Graham Russell brings 25 years of CEO experience in the environmental services industry to his current role as a sustainability professional. He currently teaches sustainable business in the University of Colorado, Denver MBA program and chair’s the School’s Managing for Sustainability Advisory Council. He provides sustainability and cleantech consulting services to SMEs through TrupointAdvisors and is on the board of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals.

Martha Young has been an industry analyst and writer for 20 years. Her expertise is in small and mid-sized businesses, information technology and energy. Young co-authored four books on virtual business processes (cloud computing), and project management for IT. She is on the board of two small Texas-based businesses, and acts in a technical advisory and business strategy capacity for an east coast venture capitalist.

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