Sustainability is a Squishy Word: Career Advice Across the Green Spectrum
By Pamela Berns
The turnout of jobseekers and professionals for the June GHNYC Green Careers meet-up at Facebook’s New York offices was as varied the sustainability field itself.
Said our generous Facebook host Sunil Chatlani, “I thoroughly enjoyed your unique insights to a very diverse and organic industry,” which was an apt description for the evening. Participants came from a wide array of fields that ranged from a green sports blogger to an aquaponic roof garden intern to a visual effects producer. There were students from schools as geographically dispersed as Indiana University, Davidson College, and Columbia University. And while, at times, our speakers for the evening offered similar advice for job hunters and career transitioners, their own career trajectories could not have been more varied.
From Greenpeace Rallies to Energy Retrofits
Yetsuh Frank, Managing Director of the Building Energy Exchange, who originally trained as an architect, now manages the the resource center for his organization, which provides education and hosts round table meetings for stakeholders and decision makers in the building industries, “basically serving as a living room for anybody working in energy efficiency.” They also work closely with the Mayor on the Retrofit Accelerator.
Yetsuh knew from an early age that he was destined for life in environmentally related work. He recalls sitting on his father’s shoulders at a Greenpeace rally where people were shouting slogans like “real people wear fake fur.” Yetsuh’s career has since included positions at the Urban Green Council, Quinault Consulting, and YR&G Design and Construction. He is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at NYU. His advice for people entering or transitioning into the sustainability field? For one thing, he warns about sustainability positions in general: “Be sure the people who put out the job description really mean it.” Sustainability is “a squishy term.” But once you’re sure you are on the right track, show that you are “really good at what you do. You’ve got to knock it out of the park to differentiate yourself.”
Pushing Bolders Uphill
Christopher Mahase also suggests paying close attention to the job description, noting that many sustainability jobs don’t even have the word sustainability in them. Yet he also says, “Sustainability touches everything,” so you should “layer sustainability on top of other skills.” Chris’s job title does in fact contain the word; he is the Director of Sustainability for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, where he focuses on affordable housing and implementation of 80 by 50, the Mayor’s program aimed at reducing New York City’s energy footprint through renewables over the next 35 years. Chris’s background includes accounting and finance, and a career switch to policy after going back to school for environmental systems management.
Chris’s advice to job seekers is to be good at salesmanship, and have the passion to “push agendas that may not be popular with your organization. It’s about changing embedded attitudes; you need to be comfortable being that guy who pushes the envelope.” Regarding work in government, Chris says,”Good people are needed for shaping a vision,” so persuasive skills here are a must as you’ll be “pushing boulders uphill to get them through the City’s bureaucracy.”
Polar Bears and Biophilia
Jonce Walker, whose academic background was in Urban Planning and Urban Design, shed light on yet another entry point for a career in sustainability. Previously an Urban Planner and Sustainability Manager in Arizona, Jonce is now a Senior Project Manager at Terrapin Bright Green in New York City, “a sustainability consulting firm that works to improve the built environment by taking cues from nature and natural systems.” His focus is on biophilic design, which aims to create “spaces that help humans feel good,” and is based on the assumption that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and natural systems.
Reflecting on his decision to enter the world of sustainability, Jonce recalls, “I wrongly assumed for a long time that Urban Planning had little to do with sustainability. Then as cliche as it sounds, APA Magazine, the journal for professional planners, had an image of a polar bear on a tiny ice sheet on one of their publication covers. This was
around 2006. I am not certain if that was the ‘tipping point’ for me, but it certainly left an impression that I had a responsibility.” Jonce, who is on on the Monthly Programs Committee for Urban Green Council and part of the NYC Living Building Challenge Collaborative, and who volunteers for his local urban garden in Brooklyn offers and takes his own advice: ” Go to as many events as possible, make friends, and volunteer.”
Crawling Through Buildings
Andy Padian, whose early career included a position with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, has had a long and varied career in the energy field, where he “spent 35 years crawling through mostly multi-family buildings.” And Andy may be the perfect example of the diversity of backgrounds and careers in sustainability. As an undergraduate, he studied radio and television production, but later went on to get a degree in energy and environmental science. After positions in such places as the Association for Energy Affordability, Steven Winters Associates, and the Community Preservation Corporation, Andy now spends his time between his consulting practice and the Clinton Community Garden.
Andy is also a man who practices what he preaches when he advises job seekers: Immerse yourself in the field and keep learning, gain hands-on experience, network, and “use all of your contacts.” Until recently a longtime board member at GreenHomeNYC (and still an active volunteer), he also serves on the board of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association and is on the steering committee at the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers.
Life is the Best Teacher
Michele Andry, currently a GreenHomeNYC board member and the Partnership Coordinator at the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, will soon transition to a new role as project manager at The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Michelle shares something else with Andy when it comes to career advice: “Having a network around the city was the most important part of what got me where I am today.” Michelle also brings a long standing passion for sustainability and some powerful hands-on experience to her career in education. Her career trajectory not only includes a degree in accounting and a position as Outreach Coordinator for Grid Alternatives, but also “fourteen years as a stay at home mom with four kids.” Like Jonce, Michelle moved to New York from the West, having relocated from Los Angeles. She says she now puts her experience raising kids to work, “selling sustainability to kids, teachers and principles.” Michelle urges business and technical professionals to consider applying their sustainability passion to education, where they can help kids become marketable in the work world.
A leitmotif of many previous Career Tracks meetings turned up again this evening–the importance of good public speaking and writing skills–and all panel members echoed this sentiment. In addition, says Jonce, “Be confident. If you go into a meeting about a certain topic, try to be the most educated one in the room about that topic. Show up early to things and stay late. Never sit in the back of the room.”