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6 Ways for Students to Get Sustainability Job Experience That Looks Good on Resumes

By 3p Contributor

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on the University of Wisconsin Sustainable Management blog

By Missy Katner

Getting your first sustainable management job isn’t easy. As Oliver Balch wrote in the Guardian, “Only the best and brightest — and most bloody-minded — need apply.”

Why is it so difficult?

The answer: Companies and governments have started to recognize that sustainability is good for business. But positions such as sustainability coordinator or corporate sustainability officer are still few and far between — and competition is steep. Also, most professionals who lead sustainable business projects do not have the word “sustainability” in their title or job description, so finding these positions isn’t easy.

There is no road map for a sustainability career, and that makes it tough to know where to start. But don’t panic. With a little planning and initiative, you can discover new opportunities and get sustainability job experience that boosts your resume.

Here are six ways to do just that. (Bonus: with real-life success stories from UW Sustainable Management students!)

1. Get an internship at a company you admire

There’s no getting around it — internships are an effective way to get practical experience, make connections, and test the waters before leaping into a sustainable business career. And it could lead to a full-time job.

A 2015 study found that 72 percent of students who completed paid internships with private, for-profit companies received job offers prior to graduation. Just over 50 percent of students who had paid internships at non-profits were offered jobs.

So, how do you choose the right internship for you?

Pick your dream organization and check the job boards. Or look for an opportunity that gives you the chance to wear multiple hats — perhaps at a smaller organization, startup, or nonprofit—so you can explore two or three different functional roles.

That’s what UW Sustainable Management graduate Stacie Reece did. For the degree program’s capstone course, Stacie chose to complete a business internship at the non-profit Sustain Dane. When the director of sustainable business initiative resigned, Stacie was asked to fill the role.

“I gained a ton of connections to sustainable businesses,” Stacie said. “Even if I hadn’t gotten the job I have now, I am confident those connections would have led to other career opportunities.”

2. Work on your people and business skills

Employers will be more likely to hire you for a sustainable management job if they think you have strong people skills. Directors at major corporations were asked which qualities they look for in sustainability applicants:

"Many … are generic for good managers everywhere: good people skills, the ability to drive change, and strong networking skills."

How can you improve your interpersonal skills? Two steps: read and practice.

Eric Barker has written some helpful, research-backed posts about improving interactions at work and in life, like how to read people,become a great conversationalist, and improve your body language and be more influential.

Ok, your people skills are locked down. Anything else? More advice from a corporate director:

"People who want to save the world but can’t understand a corporate balance sheet won’t cut it, he says. Business folk in mainstream functions are inherently suspicious of the soft world of sustainability. To make inroads, you need to be able to speak their language and understand their priorities."

Understanding the business world takes education and experience. To brush up on your business knowledge, try listening to top podcasts such as HBR Ideacast, The $100 MBA, or How to Start a Startup.

If you’re looking for an in-depth, specialized sustainable business education, consider a bachelor’s or master’s degree in Sustainable Management.

As for experience, see No. 1 on this list.

3. Volunteer

The ultimate test of your passion and commitment? (No, not marriage.) Volunteering.

Take Ken Holdorf — while job hunting, this UW Sustainable Management graduate volunteered at the Eco Justice Center, a farm operated solely on renewable energy. Now, he has a position at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Ken’s volunteer work served a triple purpose: It helped him gain valuable sustainability job experience, explore different roles that interested him, and confirm his passion for the work.

4. Start a green project at your current workplace

Want to transition to a full-time sustainability job? From Shannon Houde, sustainability careers adviser:

"A key interim step … is to gain experience in your current role. Joining the company’s volunteering scheme or championing a green initiative in the office all help you earn your sustainability spurs and prove your interest in the subject."

Opportunities for sustainable development are found even in the unlikeliest places. UW Sustainable Management grad Matt Vanderloop is an auditor for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. He started a paperless initiative there—and since his department involves medical records, going paperless is huge.

There are countless stories like this from students in the UW Sustainable Management program: One led a $1.7 million project to convert his Air Force base’s airfield lighting system to LED. Another works at Goodwill and has drastically improved the recycling program for scrap glass.

Employers are more willing to hire sustainability professionals if they think they’re getting an innovator who can help them do business better. And, in developing sustainability projects at your current workplace, you could convince upper management to carve out a new position for you. A 2013 survey by Greenbiz showed that 55 percent of corporate responsibility and sustainability professionals were internal hires.

5. Get LEED certified

Passion and credentials go a long way. If you have a sustainable management degree and are interested in specializing in green building or environmental design, look into LEED certification. To employers, a LEED credential signifies that you’re a leader in the green building movement—and that you’re committed to professional growth.

The U.S. Green Building Council offers five different LEED certification specialties: building design and construction, operations and maintenance, interior design and construction, neighborhood development, and homes. Each specialty has its own exam, which costs anywhere from $250 to $550 to take.

6. Join a sustainability association.

Just like volunteering, joining a sustainability association is all about making connections and showing your commitment.

Choose an organization that fits your interests and goals. Here are just a few.

Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Sustainable Management 

Missy Katner writes and manages the blog for the online University of Wisconsin Sustainable Management bachelor's and master's degree programs. She is a biologist turned writer—online and previously for magazines such as Prevention, The American Gardener, and Delta Sky—but never lost her deep fascination for environmental science and sustainability. 

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