Getting Paid to Save the Planet: Your Guide to Green Jobs

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With the 2020 elections upon us, you’ve probably heard a lot about how the candidates plan to launch green new deals and work on sustainable growth within the economy. Many of those include opening up thousands of green jobs to workers who want to power the economy without, you know, contributing to the corporate decisions that are making the climate crisis worse.

But we don’t blame you having a lot of questions about the vague notion that is “green jobs.” What industries are they part of? Am I smart enough to even get one of those? What are green jobs in the first place? Do they pay good money? Do I need to go to an expensive school to get a green job? Do I have to start composting and drinking kombucha if I get one?

The short answers: All of them, yes, any job that supports environmental sustainability, yep, no and...not unless you want to!

The longer answer to one of those questions? A green job is a job that provides a good or a service that contributes to preserving or restoring environmental quality, or contributes to reducing the environmental impact of other jobs and processes. Still kind of vague, right? That’s because it’s a definition that needs to include a whole lot of types of jobs, work and skills.

Green jobs come in a variety of industries, though they often overlap, especially with technology. They’re jobs that can take you to faraway locales or allow you to help people live more sustainable lives right in (sometimes literally) your own backyard. And remember that every company needs top-notch administrators and communicators, so if you’ve got a head for finance and accounting, are a master at organization and efficiency or know how to use social media to spread messages, consider putting your skills to work at a sustainable company rather than a massive corporation that’s contributing to the destruction of the planet.

Here are some of the examples of industries that need green workers and the types of jobs you can find within them:

Agriculture & Food Production

This is one of the industries that stands to gain the most from green workers. Pastures and croplands take up about half of Earth’s habitable land and are responsible for feeding us all, and is a significant contributor to dangerous emissions and an industry that will have to adapt to another 2.5 billion people inhabiting urban cities by 2050. In short, it’s an industry that needs sustainable solutions now.

A sprawling farm in the middle of nowhere might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of agriculture. There is plenty of possibility in those areas, with biotech researchers developing crops resistant to climate change, organizations helping distribute local produce to nearby schools or underserved communities or companies using methods like aquaculture to provide protein that is responsibly farmed, free from drugs and hormones and loaded with nutrients.

But there are also loads of opportunities for green agriculture areas in urban settings. Many companies are looking for creative urban farmers to set up gardens and farms in nontraditional areas like rooftops or vertical greenhouses, using innovative methods like aquaponics. If you’ve got a knack for teaching, you could become an environmental educator.

Cleaner agricultural practices can also start behind a desk. For instance, if you’re into tech and platform-building, you could work on a blockchain application that tracks sustainably farmed protein.

Forestry

Sustainable forestry practices are important for responsibly producing paper products, harvesting water and other natural resources that come from forests, as well as preventing deforestation to protect the wildlife, plants and carbon dioxide we need from our forests.

Green jobs in forestry include working for companies and organizations dedicated to recycling and reusing wood, or becoming a researcher that collects or studies samples of plants, soil and bark to help the ecosystem thrive. If you’ve got a head for management, design and efficiency, you might also consider becoming a forest engineer. They’re able to design plans for logging companies to help them maintain biodiversity, protect natural resources and keep forests growing even as some trees get cut down to meet demands for wood and paper products.

It’s also another area where a knack for education and being outdoors can come in handy. Parks and forests are often looking for environmental educators and park rangers who can help to educate park visitors, keep people safe in the great outdoors.

Energy

There are so many different ways to join the clean energy revolution. One of the fastest-growing areas is installation, since so many people are beginning to use clean energy sources like wind and sun for the first time. You can work as an installer or technician for solar panels or wind installations.

Or, if the more technical stuff isn’t for you, you can work as a salesperson for companies working to convert businesses to clean power (and this wouldn’t be a snake-oil salesman type of gig – renewable energy sources give real and practical benefits including lowered energy costs, better public health and greater reliability).

Creating a cleaner, more efficient energy grid also needs the best and the brightest minds (particularly in the U.S., where infrastructure lags behind countries who have rebuilt their systems more recently). This creates jobs like reading smart meters, working for companies looking to create off-the-grid, pay-as-you-go energy solutions or becoming a sustainable energy broker that helps consumers find a personalized, cost-effective energy source that minimizes waste.

Urban Planning, Construction & Architecture

You may not be aware of all the ways that living and building contributes to climate change and environmental destruction – getting supplies contributes to deforestation, shipping supplies across the world contributes adds to harmful emissions, wasting supplies clogs landfills and adhering to unsustainable building practices leads to inefficient, expensive buildings with huge carbon footprints.

You can help rethink those practices by being a sustainable urban planner who helps to repurpose old buildings and materials and create ecosystems that most efficiently use a city’s resources.

If you have an interest in architecture, consider studying green or sustainable building. You’ll be forced to completely rethink traditional buildings and instead come up with innovative new ways to build, heat and cool all kinds of buildings from houses to skyscrapers.

Will a Green Job be Good for My Future?

Yes! There might be people in your life who think that “I want a green job!” translates to “I’m an idealist who will never get a paycheck!” Those people are wrong.

A 2019 study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that many occupations related to environmental protection were “well above” the $38,640 median annual U.S. wage, with many, such as soil scientists, environmental engineers and hydrologists, earning well over $60,000 per year. Energy is another rapidly growing space for green jobs – currently, 3.2 million Americans are employed in clean energy, which is 2.5 times the number of people employed in fossil fuels. Jobs in solar are growing at rates 17 times faster than the rest of the economy.

Those rates are only expected to increase in a future where the effects of the climate crisis and a rising urban population put even more resources and lives in jeopardy. Jobs that support environmental stability aren’t just going to be cool; they’re going to be a necessity.

I’m Sold, But ... How do I Get a Green Job?

Getting any job is daunting enough, and it only gets more intimidating and overwhelming to think of the process of finding a fun and rewarding one that is great for your career and the planet. But it’s possible! Here are some tips to landing one:

  • Look Into Educational Programs: This might mean a four-year program at universities that have departments dedicated to sustainability, conservation and green agriculture or building. These don’t have to be from fancy, expensive schools – in fact, many community colleges are more plugged into their local communities and can better point you in the direction of local leaders who can educate you and point you in the direction of regional hiring managers or opportunities. And remember that many of these jobs don’t require a four-year bachelor’s degree, especially technical jobs like installing solar panels. Google local apprenticeships, internships, certifications programs, or combination job/training programs like AmeriCorps that can help give you the experience you need to get a green job. 
  • Volunteer: We know, one of the biggest points of having a job is actually earning money. And we’re not suggesting you work for free! But try volunteering with some of the organizations in your area that are contributing to local sustainability – anything from a bike-powered compost service to a green building council to a clean energy campaign to cleaning up the coastline. You can find organizations that need someone with your unique skillset, whether that’s getting out and doing manual labor, writing emails to recruit new volunteers or designing posters for future protests. In addition to looking great on resumes and giving you experience that could help land a job, volunteering can also help connect you to sustainability leaders who can introduce you to similar organizations looking for full-time workers. Googling terms like “[city] sustainable volunteer opportunities” or checking in with your guidance counselor can help you find ones in your area. 
  • Put Yourself Out There: In addition to actively volunteering, there are other ways to put feelers out to find the right green job for you. Join groups on social media like LinkedIn group Leaders in Energy, and talk to everyone you know about your desire to forge a sustainable career. You might be surprised by how many people will come out of the woodwork to help point you in the right direction. Or, if you find a local nonprofit or cool organization that says they’re not hiring at the moment, you might want to fire off a quick email anyway. You can introduce yourself, say you love the work they’re doing, briefly describe your hopes for a green career and ask them to keep you posted if any volunteer or job opportunities come along. 

About the Author

Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn with extensive experience covering the latest innovation and development in the world of science. Her pieces on topics including DNA sequencing, tissue engineering and stem cell advances have been featured in publications including BioTechniques: the International Journal of Life Science Methods, Popular Mechanics, Futurism and Gizmodo.