Sheena Stone was trekking in the Nepalese Himalaya when she had what she calls her moment of career clarity. “Nepal is one of the five poorest countries in the world,” she says. “I saw an advertising billboard for one of the big detergent brands which looked so out of place. It struck me that keeping their clothes clean was perhaps not one of their biggest worries in life, and I realised how inappropriate a lot of commercial marketing is.”
Six years on, having left behind a 16-year career in that field, she has just taken up a new role managing a Heritage Lottery Fund project focusing on environment, conservation, restoration and community engagement with Clackmannanshire council in Scotland. Until last week she led a community engagement project promoting the reduction of carbon emissions on the Isle of Bute off the west coast of Scotland.
It’s a change of career direction that would be the envy of many, but Stone is just one of a growing number of professionals who, midway through their working lives, are finding ways to reinvent themselves in environmentally focused occupations.
Public sector restructuring coupled with continued economic pressures on many industries mean career change is high on the agenda for a large proportion of United Kingdom workers. A recent ICM survey for the Guardian and financial insurance provider Unum suggested that 40% of the workforce would pursue a completely different career if they could start again, while one in five was planning to change career in the next five years.
It’s easy to see the long-term potential of the environmental sector, but how easy is it to move into a “green-collar” job? A member survey by the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA) last week painted a revealing picture: more than a third of respondents said they had entered the environmental field having previously worked in unrelated sectors, including engineering, construction, manufacturing, IT and telecoms, bringing with them a range of different business skills.
In spite of the gloomy economic situation, more businesses see advantages in following the environmental agenda. A report commissioned by the American Solar Energy Society in 2009 predicted that one in five US workers could be employed in the renewable energy and energy-efficiency industries by 2030, and the UK’s green economy is also maturing quickly. In 2009 it represented more than 5% of GDP and accounted for around 900,000 jobs nationally, according to a report by what is now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Claire Lea, IEMA’s director of membership services, highlights the increasing demand from employers for people who can translate the complexities of the green agenda. “Businesses have a lot of environmental issues to deal with, from climate change and availability of resources to operational compliance issues and resource efficiency,” she points out.
Part of the trick is picking a career route broadly appropriate to your skills background. “You’ve got to define which area you want to go into,” says Jonathan Kyle, director of strategy with recruiter GreenJobs.co.uk.
“Environment is one, ecology is another, then you have solar, wind, smart metering… all these need specific skill sets. If you want to do something like, say, carbon management, you’re probably going to have to go back and do a whole new qualification, whereas if you’re happy to carry on in an existing role like marketing, you could probably get into a similar role within one of those organisations.”
In a bid to untangle the web, the IEMA has devised an environmental skills map for those looking at careers in the sector. “We’re trying to guide a professional from an early stage of entering the profession right up to management,” Lea says. “It sets out what knowledge and skills you require, and that’s a first.”
The green sector suffered its share of pain during the recession, the downturn in the construction industry having a particularly bad knock-on effect. But it has also nurtured more innovative approaches to environmental production, with small-scale solar energy a particular boom area. Recent government cuts to the UK’s renewable energy strategy dismayed many, but 39% of respondents to a recent Ernst & Young survey still felt investment would increase this year.
One employer who agrees with that view is Gary Summers, managing director of Warwickshire-based solar photovoltaic panel manufacturer EOS Energy. Such is the demand for his company’s products that he now urgently needs 30 to 50 more staff in various roles including electrical design engineers, installers, estimators, quantity surveyors, general managers and construction managers.
“I would like to pick up skill sets of what I need for the business of renewables that we’re in, but we would also certainly consider career changers,” says Summers. “As a company, we have invested a lot in education and training. What we always look for is enthusiastic people, regardless of age, who still have a hunger for work.”
But where does one start to acquire the skills and experience to be an environmental practitioner? For those already in a suitable role with a larger employer, the best route may well be to spot a gap within your existing setup, says Andrew Tew, an environmental recruiter with Acre Resources.
“It’s quite rare that someone would be a project manager or a surveyor and leave that job with one company to join another as an environmental or sustainability manager,” he says. “People who come into these roles tend to be in an organisation that won’t have a team in place.
“They might have put themselves forward as an environmental champion or suggested to the directors that they need to put something in place around energy conservation, waste reduction, water usage and so on. Then the company has seen the benefits and said: ‘Actually, do you want to take the role full-time?’”
After her Nepalese epiphany, Stone, then working as a commercial marketer with an Edinburgh housing association, identified a similar path.
“We had a large number of disabled tenants, who were more likely to be in fuel poverty, who were less likely to be moving about and so more likely to need the heating on for longer at a higher temperature to keep warm. I could see there was funding to upgrade these people’s properties and I had a personal interest in trying to reduce the impact on the environment anyway. So I started trying to persuade the housing association.”
Stone soon realised the way to an employer’s heart: “I learned early on that you can’t sell much to organisations based on climate change itself, but the fuel poverty aspect was my selling point, because they were more interested in their customers’ welfare.”
Sharon Lashley is another who found a path into green-collar work through an existing employer. She was working in sales at a plastic packaging company and got involved with the company’s ISO 14001 certification, an internationally recognised environmental management standard, after it fell behind with the auditing.
“I’m very interested in environmental issues in my personal life,” she says. “Environmental management systems are brilliant if you can keep them going, but you can’t relax once you’ve got them. So I volunteered in an admin role to help them back on track.
“My employer then went through a restructuring process and I liked what I was doing so much that I decided not to stay in sales but progress into the environmental area.”
During that time Lashley was contacted by the Environmental Academy, a local training organisation running courses through a free funding stream to help small and medium-sized enterprises. Through it, she completed an NVQ level 4 environmental management qualification at the same time as working on the audit.
The qualification also helped Lashley become eligible for IEMA membership, a well-regarded qualification for many green employers. Thanks to her experience and contacts, she is now a project manager for Community Energy Solutions, a Newcastle-based company providing sustainable energy and renewable technology solutions.
Rita Callender, managing director of the Environmental Academy, says the long-term appeal of the environmental sector is drawing professionals from all sorts of backgrounds to the company’s courses. “The low-carbon economy will be a big part of our future and green professions and agendas will continue to be very relevant,” she says.
The Environmental Academy runs a range of online courses as well as classroom-based ones, though Callender says the ideal scenario is to train on the job. “A lot of environmental issues are quite hard to pick up in the classroom, and it’s one of the challenges people have in trying to get into the discipline,” she says.
While working for the housing association, Stone convinced her employer to let her study for a part-time master’s degree, which helped to open up her new career path. But she points out that, in many ways, her previous experience proved just as handy.
“I hadn’t thought at all that my marketing skills would come in useful,” she admits. “But some of it is about selling to customers the idea of what you want to achieve.
“Now I’m trying to encourage behaviour change, which is what you do in commercial marketing. There’s a whole field called social marketing, encouraging people’s behaviour to change by reducing energy bills, for example.”
Perhaps the quality most environmental career changers are likely to share and benefit from though is a personal passion for green issues, as with Ian Hill, chief sustainability officer at Openreach, the local communications network arm of the BT Group.
“Environmental issues are something I’d always had an interest in at a personal level,” says Hill, who began his career in BT’s finance division before moving across to its network construction arm.
“At Openreach I could see the importance to our customers of treating the environment considerately when we are putting up telegraph poles, running cable underground, and so on,” he says. “I also could see the importance to the business and I got the importance of the environment, and I realised I could connect it all up in a business context.”
The IEMA members’ survey found that, when asked why they had switched careers, nearly 45% said they changed either because they wanted to make a difference, or they had a personal interest in the environment. Of those who had switched career, 88% said they had experienced high levels of satisfaction since doing so.
With that comes a passion for the subject which makes many practitioners surprisingly easy to connect with, says Stone, who initially attended all the free climate-related events she could to get up to speed with the issues and key players involved.
“I kept contact details for them all,” she says. “The environmental field, in Scotland anyway, is still quite small. You come across the same people a lot. It’s a vocation as much as a job.”
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Small businesses in particular see opportunities in the green economy, according to Simon North, co-founder of career-change specialists Position Ignition. “Almost half of small business owners say they see green growth as an opportunity over the next five years,” he says.
Assess your skills and experience. Can you set up a system or a team? Are you capable of getting results with limited resources? Can you demonstrate how to make a practical difference quickly? “Something as simple as your ability to move a business from a garage to an office could be useful,” says North.
All organisations need project management skills. Some will also need programme management skills. These skill types are easily transferable into any sector. The Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment’s skills map is a good starting point.
Get trained. You may need to update your skills or qualifications. Look for courses that meet your needs not only in terms of content but also delivery — online, distance learning, classroom-based or blended learning. IEMA, for example, has a list of UK approved training providers on its website.
Apply your expertise. This could be around purchasing, procurement, planning, engineering, testing analysis, business development, sales and so on. “Look harder at yourself and what it is you’ve experienced in your career,” says North. “Drill down into your specific skills to identify specific expertise that can be transferred.”
Look committed. Show how dedicated and determined you are to enter this sector. Get to know the sector, and be confident talking about it. Read the green press, such as environmentguardian.co.uk or the Environmentalist magazine. Know the players and find the segment that interests you. Identify specific companies in your area to approach for work.
Get involved. Look for local volunteer opportunities that involve environmental, conservation, consultation or research activities. It will all help on your CV.
Expand your network. Look out for free “green” events near you and network with other attendees. Keep your LinkedIn profile up to date with relevant extracurricular activities — employers often look there for background information when they receive job applications.
This article was originally published on guardian.co.uk on Friday 24 June.
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