Sustainability departments are shrinking — what that means for the job hunt

by John Stapel

In some ways it is the best time to be in the sustainability field. The climate focus is higher than ever, customers are asking more about their sustainability impacts and there is an increasing focus on climate investments and progress.

I’ve personally been in the industry for only about five years, but someone once compared me joining sustainability at Dell Technologies in 2018 to getting into tech in the 1980s. It’s growing with no signs of stopping — in fact, it will continue to accelerate, much as tech has over the last four decades. If you’ve just graduated with a degree in sustainability, you might think you’ve got it made. You’re on the precipice of entering one of the fastest growing markets, but, in reality, it can be a double-edged sword. 

We’re experiencing an interesting shift — businesses are making sustainability a part of everything they do. As most companies embrace sustainability goals and initiatives, every job has become a sustainability job or has some aspect of sustainability embedded in the role. There are fewer job titles such as ESG analyst, director of carbon management or sustainability program manager. Instead, sustainability has become embedded into the job descriptions of operations managers, vice presidents, facilities management and other traditional roles.   

Gone are the days of environmental programs only being driven by a small corporate sustainability team. (While we’re at it, we can retire calling these people the company’s tree huggers).

In 2017, when I first joined Dell as an intern, pockets of teams were working full time on sustainability-related projects. Today, we have at least triple the number of roles devoted to sustainability at the company, and instead of being siloed in the sustainability department or on a green team, they are spread across engineering, operations, sales, marketing, corporate affairs, procurement, quality, legal and more. Many people working in sustainability at Dell may not even have searchable sustainability key words in their job title, but they spend a good portion of their time on projects and initiatives that support the achievement of ESG goals.

With sustainability being a part of everyone’s jobs these days, how do environmental science or sustainability graduates launch a job search when formal sustainability departments are shrinking?

Dig into companies’ sustainability priorities

The term "sustainability" is broad, but it means something different to each company. Figure out what topics within the sustainability umbrella are top priorities for companies you are targeting for potential employment.

For a restaurant chain, it might be eliminating food waste, while for an electronics company such as Dell, it’s circularity. Reading a company’s ESG reports and marketing materials can help you determine where their sustainability focus lies. And if you have skills that apply to a particular area, be sure to identify the department most involved in that space, regardless of whether the open positions list sustainability in job postings.  

The concept of a generalized sustainability role is being phased out for more specialized positions.

For example, if you specialize in renewable energy, you can focus on the facilities department. Once you get your foot in the door of the right department, and if the organization is committed to a more sustainable future, you will find people and resources to help navigate your role in the larger sustainability approach of the company and identify opportunities to make an impact.

Your background and passion are the secret weapons, not a sustainability degree

Formal sustainability departments are shrinking, and those sought-after sustainability roles are being interwoven in every part of the business. The concept of a generalized sustainability role is being phased out for more specialized positions.

The upside is, your previous background and time spent in a non-sustainability function is actually your secret weapon. It’s what allows you to bring a different perspective to solving tough problems and finding new solutions. And you just earned a fresh sustainability degree, so you are on the cutting edge of a quickly shifting subject.

Say you’re coming from an automotive purchasing background and want to get into carbon management for the technology industry. The fundamental skills and knowledge you gained through negotiations and building supplier relationships, combined with your academic sustainability experience and passion for environmental stewardship will be incredibly powerful.

Even if you’re crossing industries, the transferable skills and lessons learned will lend to your new sustainability role. That’s one of the best things about the sustainability field — we’re all inter-connected, working on the same goal to protect our planet for future generations.

The specific role doesn’t matter if you land at a sustainable company

At the end of the day, having a formal sustainability role doesn’t matter if you’re at a company where sustainability is embedded across the business. Today at Dell, and other like-minded companies, every job is a sustainability job. So, instead of looking for a job with sustainability in the title, get a job with a company you admire that is fully committed to sustainability. Once you’re in, stay engaged with the organization’s sustainability goals and projects. Use its internal career development tools and update your HR profiles to make it known that sustainability is an area of interest. High performance and internal networking will keep the door open for future career opportunities within the business. 

Don’t be discouraged

Finally, don’t be discouraged if your first job isn’t a perfect fit. Companies are at different points on their sustainability journey, and sometimes getting your foot in the door is the hardest part. Companies are investing to grow sustainability teams. Do your research, build your network and learn if their future plans align with your career goals. Try to be open to different organizations or industries that may not fit your original vision. Find opportunities to gain sustainability experience that can transfer to a future career opportunity. Environment-focused Employee Resource Groups, involvement in your local community, or even lending your expertise and passion to support local non-profits are great ways to get started.