How to get started in a career in sustainability

Traffic light green for career in sustainability

As part of the University of Bristol’s first ever Environment and Sustainability Careers Week, we spoke to Head of Sustainability Martin Wiles and Faculty Employability Advisor Gareth Hughes. Fresh from the panel event ‘Careers in Sustainability’, they gave us their top 5 tips on how to kick-start your career in sustainability.

1) Learn about the issues

Careers in sustainability are very diverse. You need to be able to present yourself as an authority on one or more topics, from plastic waste and pollution to energy efficiency and sustainable travel. Showing a passion for sustainability is key in job applications. You need to demonstrate that you have done something beyond your studies to evidence that you are committed. Saying that you recycle is not enough – everyone recycles!

If you are not sure where to start, get involved in Bristol’s sustainability scene. The city has loads of green events, which will open you mind to the issues and connect you to relevant organisations and people. The monthly Bristol Green Mingle, hosted by the Bristol Green Capital Partnership on the first Thursday of each month, is a great place to begin networking in the field of sustainability. 

2) Volunteer and show initiative

Volunteering equals experience, and most recruiters in sustainability – or any sector for that matter – want experience. The University of Bristol and its students’ union have many voluntary opportunities for current students. Also keep an eye on Ecojam Bristol’s jobs board for interesting volunteer posts.   

An alternative approach is to turn non-sustainability jobs into opportunities to gain relevant skills and demonstrate your initiative. For example, one panellist started out by pressurising his manager at a fast-food outlet, Subway, to organise waste by recyclable materials. Try building a sustainability role into your current job.

3) Get transferable skills

Technical or academic knowledge is good to have, but most jobs require key skills in project planning and management, financial management, relationship building and so on. You can build these skills by volunteering and through work in non-sustainability sectors. Most jobs can nurture such transferable skills.

In particular, develop communication and organisational skills. A lot of sustainability work is about communicating the importance of issues. Building good relationships at work, developing successful partnerships and winning colleagues over to your cause are key talents to possess. Unless you work in an organisation that specialises in sustainability (e.g. a consultancy), you are likely to be part of a very small team or even working alone to try to influence an entire organisation. You need to be able to connect with people and understand their perspectives to influence their behaviour and ultimately an organisation.

4) Get technical or academic knowledge

Despite living in a post-truth age, knowing your subject is still crucial. Combine this with practical experience and you are well on the way to getting the sustainability role you want. Yes, a degree, Masters or PhD is great to have, but other recognised qualifications can also give you an edge over rival job applicants. Don't have the time or money? Try low cost and free courses available from colleges and organisations, such as the four-week Sustainable Future course delivered by FutureLearn in association with the University of Bristol.  

Even without a related degree or Masters you can still get started. Most sustainability teams are made up of people from various academic backgrounds. The sustainability challenge requires knowledge and skills from across disciplines. A demonstrable passion for sustainability through extra-curricular activities can be enough to break into the sector and apply your education.

5) Don't give up

Look for entry-level opportunities and internships to get into large organisations (e.g. Environment Agency) and work your way up. Alternatively, speculative applications were highlighted by Greenhouse PR as the way they do most recruitment. The same goes for many other small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This involves proactively approaching employers with a well-crafted cover letter and CV to seek out current and future opportunities that have not been advertised.

It’s not the easiest sector to get into and you will get rejected along the way, but with a bit of grit you can get the sustainability job you desire.  

Article by Max Thrower

Photo credit: Nick Arebi