The hottest green jobs and how to get them

Setting out on a sustainable career path

American employment is going green. Sustainability jobs are one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. economy, providing new employment opportunities at multiple entry points.

A recent study by the University College London found the nation’s green economy grew 20 percent from 2013 to 2016 and that growth is expected to continue as the U.S. and the world battle climate change. The green economy generates $1.3 trillion in annual sales revenue in the United States. That is 16 percent of the global green economy and the largest share for any country.

Additionally, it has created 9.5 million full-time jobs representing about 4 percent of the working-age population, and roughly 10 times more than the number of workers employed by the fossil fuel industry.

Renewable energy accounts for 15 percent of the nation’s total electricity generated, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. And that number is expected to grow as more solutions are implemented.

More and more businesses are looking for ways to go green, increasing the demand for jobs in the field. Diverse companies as PepsiCo, Microsoft, Eastman Chemical, and Walgreens have sustainability managers, many of whom are gathered this week at the GreenBiz 20 Conference in Phoenix to exchange ideas and explore emerging trends.

WorkingNation is also there and we’ll be sharing what we’ve overheard at the conference via our social media this week. @WorkingNation on Twitter #workingnationoverheard  #futureofwork #greenjobs #GreenBiz20

Which jobs are hot and how do you get them

Sustainability jobs cover a wide range of disciplines including science, architecture and design, business, public policy, and technology. Training for these jobs is as varied as the jobs themselves.

Some green employment requires an advanced degree while others require only an associate’s degree or a minimum of post-secondary education. Training is offered by community organizations, government programs, community colleges, and four-year universities.

Water, water everywhere

Water quality technician is one of the green jobs expected to increase in demand over the coming years. The technician tests for microbes and chemical contaminants in water to determine if it meets EPA standards. Increased public interest in the environment and the increasing demands put upon it by population growth are expected to lead to a jump in technician opportunities.

A four-year degree is generally preferred by employers, but some will hire if a two-year program teaches the knowledge and lab skills needed for the position. A science background is vital, and students should take classes in chemistry and biology. Students also should take classes in mathematics, statistics and computer science as technicians perform data analysis and modeling.

Florida’s St. Petersburg College offers a 12-credit certificate as a water quality technician that transfers to its Associate in Science Environmental Science Technology Degree. The A.S. degree transfers to the school’s Bachelor of Applied Science in Sustainability Management. Core courses are an Introduction to Environmental Science, Urban Pollution, Wetland Resources and Environmental Sampling and Analysis.

Soft skills also are important for water quality technicians. The position requires the analysis of a great deal of data, critical thinking, and the ability to work with others including scientists, other technicians, and sometimes even the public.

Starting wage for a water quality technician averages $40,000-$50,000 per year with an opportunity to make up to $60,000 per year depending upon the area of the country. Employment is expected to grow 9 percent by 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), faster than the average for all occupations.

Solar-powered job creation

Solar photovoltaic installer is another green job expected to see substantial growth as the use of solar panels expands and the cost of PV panels and shingles continues to fall. Popular solar leasing plans, in which homeowners lease rather than buy solar power systems, should also contribute to the increase in demand.

This sector is estimated to grow by 63 percent between 2018 and 2028, according to the BLS.

The long-term outlook is expected to be affected by government incentives and the cost of PV panels. States and localities that provide incentives to lower the cost of solar photovoltaic systems should experience a greater demand for workers.

There are multiple paths to becoming what is often called a PV installer. Most employers require a high school diploma or its equivalent, and training is often done through trade schools or community colleges. Apprenticeships also are a popular route, with PV installers spending between 1 month and 1 year working with trained installers.

Some enter the field by taking online courses that are a good fit for those who already have a construction or electrician background. Workers with experience in the construction field such as laborers, roofer, and carpenters will have better job opportunities than those without construction experience.

Military veterans may be eligible for the Solar Ready Vets program which is a joint effort by the defense and energy departments to connect vets with training and jobs in the solar industry. The 12-week work-based program focuses on management and professional aspects of the industry in addition to installation. The program is aimed at transitioning and former service members from military bases in regions with high demand for solar workers.

Communication is an important soft skill for PV installers as they have to effectively interact with clients and other installers. They also need to be detail-oriented to ensure proper functioning and safety of installed solar panels.

The median annual income for PV installers was $42,680 as of May 2018, according to the BLS.

Engineering a greener future

An environmental engineer is one of the best-paying green jobs available with a median annual income of $87,620, according to the BLS. But it’s also one of the jobs that require the greatest amount of education.

Environmental engineers are charged with developing solutions to environmental problems and increasing sustainability. That can entail everything from improving recycling and pollution control to addressing global issues like unsafe drinking water and climate change.

Entry-level jobs require a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or a related field. Employers also like their workers to have practical experience, so a program in which there is a work/study component is valuable. Some universities and colleges offer a 5-year program that can lead to both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Students should have a strong background in science and advanced mathematics.

Purdue University has one of the nation’s leading environmental engineering programs according to U.S. News & World Report. Its program focuses on both classical environmental engineering, like air and water quality, and industrial sustainability issues such as greening the built environment and reducing the impact of chemicals and materials.  It’s also one of the most affordable with annual in-state tuition running about $10,000.

Soft skills are hugely important for those seeking to become an environmental engineer. A good imagination is key as they must foresee how new designs will interact with existing systems. Problem-solving skills and the ability to forge strong interpersonal relationships are also vital as engineers work with others to create sustainable solutions.

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