You’ve decided to make a career switch to work on climate change. Great! But now that you’ve made up your mind, how do you actually go from doing whatever it is you do now to working on climate?
Everyone’s career path looks a little different, so I interviewed some people who recently made the move to work on climate to learn from their experiences.
Meet the new hires
I spoke to six professionals who recently used the Work on Climate Slack community to help them find a new job in climate:
- Andrew Angus, VP of Sales at ChargeLab, a Toronto-based maker of software for managing EV charging stations
- Mark O’Neill, VP of Engineering at EnergyHub, a Brooklyn-based maker of distributed energy resources (DER) management software
- Katherine Tang, Growth & Strategy at Energicity, a solar mini-grid startup in Freetown, Sierra Leone
- Rustin Coburn, Director of Marketing at Voltus, Inc., a San Francisco-based DER software company
- Sílvia Coimbra, Climate & Product at Overstory, a Dutch software company that analyzes vegetation to prevent wildfires and power outages
- Julia Li, Customer Success Lead at Afresh, a San Francisco-based software company focused on reducing food waste
Everyone I spoke to came from different backgrounds, and while some of them had worked on environmental issues before, they didn’t make the switch to a green career until recently. Here are some of their insights on how they made this happen as well as advice for others looking to do the same.
Step 1: Set your intention
First off, take some time to reflect on the significance of this moment in history.
“There is no task more important to our current generation than to heal the ecosystem that sustains all of life itself, including our own,” says Julia Li of Afresh. “We have the greatest opportunity in all of human history right now to drastically shape how future generations experience Earth, and it’s a responsibility we must bear wisely.”
With a cause-driven field like sustainability, it can be easy to get caught up in how you’ll help save the world and overlook some considerations you might normally have when searching for a new job. But a job is still a job. If you take the first offer you get just because it’s climate-related, you may not be setting yourself up for success in the long term.
“Transitioning to climate is not like your typical job search, it is also a search within yourself,” says Sílvia Coimbra of Overstory. “What do you love? What are you good at? What does the world need? What is real, and what is ego? Make sure you allow space and time for this self-exploration.”
Instead of setting your sights on a totally different job, think about how you might apply your current interests and skills to a role in sustainability. Mark O’Neill of EnergyHub leveraged his knowledge and experience in software engineering to land a job that aligned more with his personal concerns about climate change.
“There are the things that I do for money, and there are the things I worry about for free,” Mark says. “For the last little while, I’ve been thinking I would have more [free] time in my life and would maybe be better at my job if I could get the Venn diagram of those two things to overlap more. Interesting technical challenges are good, but it’s hard to get excited about selling sneakers when you look at your kids and think about the challenges that are coming.”
Read more: Insights on the Climate Workforce
Narrowing down the niche you want to work in can take some time, so don’t get discouraged. The bad news is that climate change affects everything. But on the flipside, anyone working in any field can do something meaningful about it.
Step 2: Grow your network and tap into current connections
Once you have a sense of where you’d like to narrow your focus, start getting to know people in that space. You can do this by joining different communities and making cold introductions.
Katherine Tang of Energicity joined online communities like Work on Climate and started cold messaging people she found through keyword searches. She started by expressing her interest and asked if they had any opportunities for her.
“People were extremely generous with their time to just chat with me, share their journeys, and pass my resume onto their connections. There was a huge knock-on effect from there,” she says. “I probably spoke to about 50 to 60 people over three months, and I am so grateful for their generosity in sharing their time.”
It’s also smart to take advantage of the connections you already have.
“I joined a lot of online communities like Work on Climate, I reached out to my broader network, and I just started the process of learning, connecting, and deciding where would be the best fit for me,” says Rustin Coburn of Voltus, Inc. “I always recommend people to triangulate around something that they can be passionate about, something that matches up with the skillsets they have, and [something] that has very clear work to be done.”
Nothing beats genuine human connection, but offering incentives can also improve your odds of finding a new job.
“I have a great network and great connections, but it still was more of a challenge to transition than I thought,” says Andrew Angus. “Which is why I offered a $10,000 reward to whoever connected me with my next role in climate tech.”
But if you—like me—don’t have a pretty chunk of change burning a hole in your pocket, you might take a leaf from Mark O’Neill’s book.
“So when I first started thinking about this, I began the process of trying to ask smart people stupid questions,” says Mark.
After tapping a friend who works in renewables, Mark found his way to Work on Climate and the My Climate Journey Slack workplaces, where he proceeded to learn more about how he could get involved. A contact in New York eventually led him to EnergyHub, right in his backyard in Brooklyn.
Step 3: Go for it
If you’re like me, making decisions can be tough. I want to learn everything I can about something before I jump in, but sometimes I have a hard time discerning whether I have enough information to act or if I’m doing research overkill.
Learning is good, but be careful not to get stuck in learning mode. Katherine Tang struggled with this, but she was pleasantly surprised by how much she learned by reaching out to people.
“The job search itself was a big first step for me,” she says. “And through the process, I spoke to so many folks who were so much more knowledgeable than me, and I learned tremendously from them about the climate space. So even the journey itself was intrinsically valuable for me.”
Mark O’Neill echoes this sentiment.
“I got some really bad advice years ago,” he says. “I had been living abroad, and I thought I wanted to move to London. An English friend of mine was like, ‘Don’t be an idiot—make a name for yourself in your home country and then move to London.’ That was terrible advice because here I am, 20 years later, sitting in New York! [laughs] It worked out fine, but I think the lesson I took away from that was, if you want to be somewhere, just go be there. If you want a job in climate, just run right at it.”
Step 4: Think of creative ways to stand out
More and more people are starting to find opportunities on climate-specific job sites, but for many employers, the majority of candidates for green jobs still come from big job sites like LinkedIn and Indeed. Some well-known climate companies receive hundreds of applications for a single role, so this is where a personal touch can make all the difference.
“I didn’t directly apply for the job using the traditional process,” says Sílvia Coimbra of Overstory. “I got to know Fiona, the chief product officer (CPO), through the My Climate Journey podcast. I casually heard the podcast at lunch time, and in the end I felt so inspired that I messaged her on LinkedIn thanking her for the inspiration. Surprisingly, she answered back and proposed we would have a virtual coffee chat. Things evolved naturally after that.”
As someone in a position to hire, Andrew Angus emphasized the importance of finding ways to stand out on applications.
“At least with me, your interest in climate is relevant,” he said. “So you’re gonna have to come up with a way of getting on my radar, and that’s not gonna be just applying.”
He also shared one of his secrets of how he’s used creative and entrepreneurial thinking to get a job in the past.
“I have run ads on Twitter against a hashtag for a conference, for example,” he says. “So if there’s like a climate tech conference and you want a job, you can run ads against that hashtag and then people at that conference will see it. I send people to my LinkedIn profile because I know who they are as soon as they hit my profile, so I can follow up with them even if they don’t follow up with me.”
Step 5: Don’t give up!
Getting a green job has probably never been easier, but these jobs are still in high demand. According to the Guardian, a significant number of Gen Zers entering the workforce want to work in sustainability, and millions of people of all ages intend to switch jobs once the pandemic becomes less of a threat.
Making the switch to work in environmentalism can be challenging, but for the people I spoke with, it’s all been worth the effort.
“I think we’re at the birth of a number of new technologies that are going to fundamentally change the world,” says Mark O’Neill. “There’s a ton of huge opportunities sitting here for people that want to come and get involved. If you’re interested in building a business, if building technologies and platforms excites you—no matter what piece of this you seek, that sort of dynamic enterprise is everywhere you look in the climate space. That’s just a fun place to be, where you’ve got a lot of people, a lot of opportunity, and a lot of new stuff that you can give birth to.”
Everyone I talked to also spoke to how rewarding it is to work with a team of like-minded people who are passionate about climate action. Working at such an enormous problem by yourself can be daunting, but when you’re working with a team, it can be pretty inspiring.
“To know that I’ve been putting hard work into being someone that is proficient and hopefully an expert in branding and marketing, and now I get to apply that to an industry that, not only do I really care about, but that is having a significant impact on climate change and climate action—that feels really good,” says Rustin Coburn.
Julia Li also shared her perspective here, driving home what a collaborative spirit there is among people working on climate.
“People truly want to help each other out because we’re all reaching for the same goal,” she says. “So many others have guided me along the way, and I’m so excited to now be able to share my own learnings to help others enter this space. The opportunities are only going to grow over the next few years, and we’ll need all hands on deck!”
If you’re ready to make a sustainable change in your career, we’re here to help. Visit our website to learn more about our community, the latest job openings in climate, info on upcoming events, office hours, and more!
Editor’s note: Some of the people interviewed for this article also wrote articles of their own going into more detail about their personal journeys finding a job in climate. You can read more here from Julia Li and Sílvia Coimbra.