Are Green Jobs Looking Even Greener?

David Robertson

By: David Robertson

Recent reports by GreenBiz, the National Association of Environmental Management (NAEM), Acre, and others suggest that career opportunities for global sustainability professionals are numerous and lucrative. Let’s take a look at some of those findings and what they mean for graduate students seeking career advancement or change.

There are more jobs in the sustainability field, and they are more accessible to newcomers and outsiders. This may be especially true in the business sector. According to GreenBiz’s State of the Profession 2018 report: “Ten to 15 years ago, companies exploring the opportunity to leverage sustainability as a strategic business initiative typically placed someone from inside the organization, preferably an individual with connections and respect across the firm. Since then, we have witnessed the mainstreaming or ‘professionalization’ of the sustainability role. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the dramatic increase in hiring from outside the company.”

Salaries: How much do these jobs pay?  Not only do global sustainability professionals have more job opportunities and more influence in the workplace, but they are also making more money. According to the NAEM’s 2019 EHS&S Salary Survey, the average annual salary of employees in this field is approximately $100,000 (EHS&S stands for Environmental, Health, Safety, and Sustainability.) And, salaries have increased in recent years.

GreenBiz reports that, on the high end, directors and vice presidents in corporate sustainability have gained increased status and influence within their organizations and now make an average of $150,000 and $225,000 per year, respectively: “This year’s survey results show a significant increase in the number of large-company sustainability programs being led by a vice president or senior vice president. After years of consistently hovering between 36 and 38 percent, the number increased to 44 percent. That number is even higher in sectors such as consumer goods (54 percent), basic materials (52 percent) and financial services (50 percent).”

And in yet a third report, the CR and Sustainability Salary Survey 2018, Vic Taylor, Managing Director at Flag, points out that “those working in North America continue to enjoy the highest average salaries.” Salaries in Europe and elsewhere lag in comparison.

Why are global sustainability professionals of such value?  The CR and Sustainability Salary Survey 2018 claims that the top competencies needed to do the job are:

  • Engage with stakeholders
  • Plan and develop strategy
  • Influence and persuade
  • Research and analysis
  • Project management
  • Measure and report impact

According to Paul Burke, Senior Partner at Carnstone and one of the 2018 CR and Sustainability Salary Survey authors, “[O]ne of the key requirements for anyone working in the sector is the ability to understand how different social, economic and environmental factors interrelate and what the impacts of these connections will be over the medium to longer term.”

Do you have these skills? If not, the report suggests you might want to consider graduate school since 70% of their respondents have master’s degrees.  

What is the value of a master’s degree?  The NAEM study found that 40% of their respondents had master’s degrees and that a master’s degree boosted their salaries. The salary boost amounted to approximately $5,000 per year for employees with less than fifteen years of work experience and roughly $15,000 per year for employees with more than twenty years of experience. A 2017 NAEM report found that employees with master’s degrees earn approximately 10% more than those without. The value of a master’s degree accrues over time, becoming increasingly valuable with age, easily exceeding $300,000 over the course of a thirty-year career.

Investing in global sustainability  In terms of career trends and prospects for the future, Andrew Cartland, Founder & Director at Acre, suggests looking at investors and the impact they are having on global sustainability jobs and salaries. He sees signs of a greener future: “With greater pressure/interest from investors and members of the board on ESG issues, we’re also seeing an increasing crossover between senior CRS leaders and investor relations teams. Indeed, with every new senior hire, we’re looking for an ability to engage with or speak the language of investors. … Let’s see how remuneration is affected by this in the coming two years.”

Val Smith, Managing Director and Global Head Corporate Sustainability at Citi, offers the following advice regarding the profession: “I think that the field of sustainability is no longer one-size-fits-all. I would encourage graduates to really look at all of the options and think about where their skillset naturally can add the most value. The other thing to think about is the type of organization where you want to work; in the private sector it might be a pure-play company whose mission is completely focused on sustainability like an EV charging company or a sustainable foods company, or it could be a company that has sustainability as a piece of their business, and you can be an internal change agent. Either way, the field is growing, and it’s great to see the range of emerging opportunities available to graduates who are interested in working in sustainability.”

Now, I may be biased in my excitement about these lucrative career opportunities that GSPs enjoy, but it’s hard not to feel good about the fact that people who improve the world are in high demand!

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Dr. David Robertson directs Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources program, advises students, and teaches courses in sustainable development and urban ecology. Also, he conducts research on green infrastructure systems and sustainable development strategies and has published research in journals such as Society & Natural Resources, Conservation Biology, Ecology & Society, Environmental Management, and Environmental Science & Policy.