Seeking a Career in the Environmental Field? Expand Your Search into These Options
Growing up in the 1990s, I was definitely Captain Planet’s biggest fan and wanted nothing more than to be a planeteer. My career journey, however, took me in a slightly different direction and today I’m thrilled to help others, including sustainably-minded individuals, explore their environmental career options.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has identified the environment and natural resource security among its initiatives to address today’s most pressing challenges. With sustainability becoming the norm, career opportunities in the environmental field are expected to grow. Although increased awareness of environmental concerns is the impetus for an interest in the environmental field, actual opportunities are varied and depend on your preferences and skills, so you have options to work indoors or outdoors; in the private sector, government or universities; and as a contractor or full-time employee.
Check out five of the possible options below and find out what it takes to pursue them.
1. Environmental Engineer
One often sought-after option in the environmental field is that of an environmental engineer. (This may have something to do with its high earning potential.) The primary role of environmental engineers is to establish systems that monitor and manage waste produced by municipalities or private industries. The three areas they may focus on are land, water and air. When working for an institution like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental engineers act as investigators, evaluating a contaminated region, finding out what happened and offering solutions for cleanup and prevention from further damage.
Although they may have an office, an environmental engineer's workplace is in the field, spending time taking samples of soil or water and monitoring proper waste disposal. Depending on the project, they may travel locally or across states. Some environmental engineers research and study the effects of big-picture issues such as climate change, acid rain, emissions and water conservation, which may bring them to teaching positions at universities. For credibility, environmental engineers may pursue a professional license and they also need to register with the state where they work.
Suggested undergraduate majors: Environmental engineering, chemical engineering.
Helpful resource: American Academy of Environmental Engineers & Scientists (AAEES).
2. Energy Consultant
Consultants help organizations solve problems, and energy consultants tackle energy-related issues. Specifically, energy consultants may help control energy costs, address the feasibility of new energy projects or ensure compliance with existing energy laws, among other responsibilities. Most energy consultants work for large management consulting firms such as Deloitte or Booz Allen Hamilton, but some work as salaried employees within an organization and provide services directly to their employers. Regardless of the work environment, an analytical mindset and flexibility are must-have characteristics.
Increased demand for clean and renewable energy and a focus on modernizing the delivery of electricity have made energy consultants a solid career choice with really good future prospects. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for management consultants (including energy consultants) is expected to grow by 14 percent from 2016 to 2026, or much faster than the average for all careers. Increased demand and the potential for high earnings make this opportunity quite competitive.
Suggested undergraduate majors: Business, economics, finance, environmental science.
3. Green Builders
Listed as one of the 11 fastest-growing green jobs by National Geographic, the role of green builders is to construct buildings that have less impact on humans and the environment. Expanding urban populations increase demand for structures that allow for more efficient use of water and energy and can help reduce waste, pollution and environmental degradation. Construction managers, project engineers and project managers could all fall under the umbrella of green builders. As the EPA points out, depending on the exact role, a green builder can be involved “throughout a building's life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.”
Green builders need to be familiar with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designation. LEED is a universal rating system created by the US Green Building Council for sustainable standards through the lifecycle of a building, from design and construction to maintenance. Opportunities in this field may also take green builders overseas, and they play an integral role in helping developing nations build sustainably.
Suggested undergraduate majors: Construction management, civil engineering.
Helpful resource: US Green Building Council.
4. Environmental Lobbyist
Through both direct and indirect lobbying, environmental lobbyists strive to convince legislators to support measures that will protect the environment. Direct lobbying includes speaking to government officials about the impact of certain measures and persuading them to become cosponsors on bills. Indirect lobbying involves engaging the general public, educating them on environmental concerns and motivating them to contact their representatives and urge them to support relevant bills. To perform their roles successfully, environmental lobbyists need effective communication skills, specifically negotiating and presenting complex information in an easy to understand manner.
Although opportunities are available across the US, they are easier to find in Washington, DC or state capitals. Organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth are some of the places to consider working as they are actively involved in protecting the environment. To enter the field, you may want to volunteer with an environmental organization or complete an internship with a government agency. You may also work on a political campaign to gain a better understanding of how political candidates make decisions.
Suggested undergraduate majors: Government, political science, law, communications, environmental science.
Helpful resource: The National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics (NILE).
5. Marine Biologist
Is Jacques Cousteau your inspiration and is undersea exploration your dream? Are you interested in studying extreme sea creatures? Then marine biology may be the field for you. Marine biologists study plants and animals living in salt water environments, their interaction with each other and the impact the environment and humans have on them. Although much time is spend outdoors in the field, marine biologists also spend time inside, evaluating results in laboratories. They play a vital role in investigating the impact of rising ocean temperatures and warning against human interference into the ocean ecosystem.
Considering that two-thirds of our planet is covered by water, marine biology is a field of high importance. To start out, you may want to volunteer at an aquarium or attend relevant events and conferences to connect with experts in the field. You may also join -- or start your own -- science club as an opportunity to learn more about the field. Depending on your exact responsibilities, you may need certification in CPR, first aid or scientific diving.
Suggested undergraduate majors: Biology, chemistry, environmental science.
If none of the above options seem appealing, you may want to check out the following organizations for information on career paths, networking opportunities and industries.