A week ago I attended a panel hosted by the Earth Institute (http://www.earth.columbia.edu/sections/view/9 ) at Columbia University on the present and future of the green economy. Apparently it’s a “great” time for the sustainability industry and “so much” activity is going on. As I wrap up my MBA studies this week (it’s last week of classes at my joint degree program between Columbia Business School and the School of International and Public Affairs), I have come to test that statement personally in the job market over the past few months. As a result, I wanted to take a moment to share my personal experience with the ability of the sustainability industry to recruit and retain talent.
It has never been easy to find a great job in the green space, especially for someone with a non-technical, non-engineering background. And it is nearly impossible to find a really well paying job in terms of base salary (though start ups would offer equity stake to improve your upside). This isn’t surprising given how young and underdeveloped the industry is. Moreover, business skills are valued the most at the commercialization stage of a technology, not at the time of its invention. When it comes to adopting green technologies at scale, however, short of wind turbines, solar panels and a few energy efficiency tools, there are few out there that have reached the mainstream. I dream of the day when I get to see more electric vehicles on the road than I hear about Tesla on the news! From my vantage point, it’s been lots of talk and not as much action.
Before you proceed to dismiss my complaint as wining and tell me your story of how long it took you to land your dream job, let me tell you why I think you should absolutely start worrying about my tough job prospects. Yes, it’s true that it is only natural that niche industries like cleantech, or social media, or organic farming (or add your own example here) don’t provide numerous jobs. That’s implied in the definition of “niche,” correct? How many jobs could be provided from one Facebook, one Twitter and one Zynga?!
The real problem here is that a third of the world’s people live within 62 miles of the shoreline. As climate change progresses, more and more of the world’s largest cities including Miami and New York, will be increasingly vulnerable to coastal floodings (claims the National Geographic in its latest edition: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/05/bangladesh/belt-text). I am not worried about either Miami or New York City, however, as despite the tough budget times, I am confident that the US government will find the money to pay for the flood protection projects. Who I am worried most about are those states out there in the world who don’t hold a vote with the Electoral College. It’s the Bangladesh, the island-nations, the people living on the edge of the African and Asian deserts, those are the ones who won’t get protection from floods or droughts. Climate change is a massive and complex problem with relatively small amount of brainpower employed to tackle it compared to the size and urgency of the catastrophe we are supposed to be trying to avoid. Again, from my vantage point, there’s not enough “we” in the fight against climate change.
So what is there to do for a recent MBA grad? Lobbying the government for more regulations or subsidies for clean technologies? Done before. With marginal results. Wait for carbon policy? Good luck in a few years! Keep looking for a job till you find one? Not a terribly satisfying answer. But I may just as well start learning Mandarin. In 2009, China invested $34.6 billion into clean energy development, that’s over 20% of the total global spending and 2X what the US spent that year for that purpose. These large capital flows are coupled with a range of predictable and generous policies to promote green technologies through: 1) national targets for emissions, renewable electricity and energy efficiency; 2) feed-in-tariffs; 3) tax benefits and long-term funding programs and well as 4) investments in transmission.
As a result, while American politicians would like to muse over the US’s ability to capture the lead in the new green economy, I worry about the ability of the US to retain American entrepreneurs within its borders. Let’s just put people to work first. Get me a green job!