Finding and Filling Jobs in Climate Tech

Sabrina Dove-Petrigh is the founder and principal of Pacific Search Firm, a San Francisco Bay Area–based recruitment firm specializing in climate tech and sustainable technologies. In June 2021, she sat down for a chat with Sam Steyer and Richard Kim to share her thoughts and experiences with the Work on Climate community.

We last talked with climate tech recruiter Sabrina Dove-Petrigh (owner of Pacific Search Firm) in June 2021, so we thought we’d catch up with her and see what’s happening with recruitment for startups!

WoCl: What are you seeing that’s different from the last time we spoke?

Funding has expanded into a broader range of climate tech startups. While these startups are asking for specific technical skills, they can’t really demand climate work experience. There just aren’t enough of those professionals out there. For example, in AgTech or Carbon Removal,  there aren’t a lot of engineers with agricultural or carbon removal experience, so the startups can’t require it. Battery startups are slightly different and generally need more specific battery experiences, though not always. 

We’ve been placing technical product managers and a variety of engineers from senior or staff levels of experience all the way up to Senior VP level–in climate tech startups. The majority did not have climate tech experience, but they were super interested and committed to getting into that space and learning new technologies.

And it’s not only engineering roles. We placed people with no climate background into a Head of Business Development role and a Head of Product Management role. Recruiters, especially those who are hardware-focused, could definitely get into climate tech!

We’re also seeing that those later in their career–maybe their kids are out of the house now–can shift to being more mission-driven and take that startup job now.

WoCl: It’s the back half of 2022, and we’re looking at a possible recession. How are your clients feeling about the near future?

My clients are still bullish on hiring as they have ambitious hiring goals that have to be met in order for them to get the next round of funding or meet their milestones along the way. They still need to hire a lot of people with specific skills to meet those goals and there’s still a labor shortage.

WoCl: How about on the candidate side?

There are some potential candidates who are interested in climate tech but haven’t thought through what that means in terms of working with early-stage startups. It’s a different level of risk to come from a big tech company to a climate tech startup. They are interested, but they’re not ready or committed.

And then some people are 100% committed to climate work and startup life. They’re already demonstrating that commitment–maybe they’ve done a deep dive into the research, they’ve volunteered or taken on a side project, or they’ve taken some climate action at work. It’s also become clear to them that the path they are on now is unimportant to them going forward. These candidates are generally an easier fit.

WoCl: Final thoughts?

We’re in a crisis now. You can’t get away from it. We’re all sitting in a heat wave and feeling it more. While there’s growing anxiety, people want to be doing something. 

It’s a difficult time for many people with high inflation and other factors. It’s really encouraging that people are leaving their stable industries and roles for startups. It’s starting to feel like a critical mass. It’s encouraging! If we can get people out of these old industries and get them dedicated to climate change, it’ll really make a difference.

Thanks to Sabrina for the update! Below is the original article from June 2021. Enjoy!

Originally this interview was published in two parts. In this Part 1, Sabrina introduces herself and discusses the climate tech industry and job market generally. Later on in Part 2, she discusses networking, transitioning into climate tech, and her advice for founders looking to hire.

Part 1

SS: Sabrina, thank you so much for making the time to do this with us. I know the Work on Climate community is really excited to hear about your path and your company. To start with, could you just tell us about Pacific Search Firm? 

I began working in the climate tech recruitment space twelve years ago and never stopped! I decided to launch my own climate tech recruitment company, Pacific Search Firm, about five years ago. Pacific Search Firm is a recruitment partner and advisor to early-stage climate tech and sustainability startups. We source and recruit critical senior technical and leadership roles.

It has been a fantastic experience to have started working with clients when they were at a very early stage — oftentimes, under ten employees — and to grow alongside them by helping them to build entire teams. It’s also very satisfying to work with brilliant individuals who are committed to the space, understand what really inspires them, and then match them with some of my (also) brilliant clients!

The climate tech industry and job market

RK: What is climate tech generally? For people in our community who don’t necessarily know.

Climate tech is any technology that reduces greenhouse gas emissions or negative environmental impacts, or increases efficiencies by using natural resources that are not harmful to the planet. It’s helping the planet, creating more sustainability, creating more sustainable products.

SS: You know, I think for people who are new to clean energy, oftentimes solar comes to mind first. But you were touching on that there’s lots of other kinds of solutions. What are some interesting clean energy companies beyond solar?

People do think of solar first, but it’s getting to be quite broader. There’s also batteries, carbon removal technologies, energy storage, advanced materials, climate monitoring and sensors, sustainable fashion and e-commerce, alternative meats, etc. All sorts of transportation. Most of my clients have a hardware component, but some are software only.

RK: So what kind of positions do you primarily recruit for?

Technical and senior leadership roles. Software engineers, embedded software engineers, lead mechanical design engineers, systems engineers, senior process engineers, software engineering managers, to Directors of Engineering, VP of Manufacturing, VP of Product, VP of Business Development, etc. So a variety of positions. 

A lot of the companies are early-stage startups in the research or R&D stage. Typically, they’re looking for strong, hands-on, multi-disciplinary technical engineers and scientists to begin with.

And then, as the technology matures and they scale, they tend to build their manufacturing capacity, sales, product management, and marketing teams. They scale up, they need these VP of manufacturing and VP of sales kind of roles.

RK: If someone is reading this interview right now, who should call you up in order to find a job? Who are the candidates that you want to be finding the most right now?

Senior leaders and individual contributors in systems engineering, business development, electrical engineering, software engineering, process engineers and chemical engineers, controls engineers, mechanical design engineers, etc…. Individuals who have taken a product from 0 to 1 and who are open to being individual contributors or team leads. People who are very scrappy and hands-on, and also have strong fundamentals in their field are always in demand. Of course, you should be interested in the technology — or have experience with the specific technology. I’m willing to talk to a wide variety of people.

Sometimes I know that people get frustrated because they want to find their role in climate tech, and sometimes I’ve had people call me who are in, say, marketing, and they say “Well, we have this climate catastrophe. Why is it so hard for me to find a role? There should be thousands of jobs.”

A lot of these companies are early-stage. They’re trying hard, and the bulk of the people they need right now are hands-on individual contributor scientists and engineers, or technical directors, or VPs. 

As they grow— the startups that are succeeding, that are getting past a certain point — then they need all the other people. They get to the point where they need a VP of marketing, and a product management team, and marketing and all that. They have to reach a certain point of success, I’m seeing, in order for them to need those kinds of roles.

Some things I look for: if there’s a real excitement — the attitude about working for this company is there, … they ask excellent questions, they have done their research, they have a flexible curious attitude.

RK: What makes a good candidate for the kinds of roles that you’re looking for?

I’ll have a deep conversation with the founder of the company and the hiring manager, and I probe them with questions. One question I like to ask is, “One year into the job, what does this person have to achieve, such that you will feel confident this was a good hire?”

And so, it’s not things that the candidate has, it’s what can they do. What can they do? How can they achieve those kinds of milestones? And then I look for that, through the conversations that I have with candidates.

It’s kind of a broad question. But you know, some things I look for: if there’s a real excitement — the attitude about working for this company is there, they’re willing to be an individual contributor and do whatever it takes, if they really are excited about the mission of the company, they ask excellent questions, they have done their research, they have a flexible curious attitude — and that comes through in addition to their skills and their ability to be able to perform on these expectations.

RK: You mentioned related fields. Are there people in related fields to the companies that you work with who would be qualified for these jobs, but who might not think they are qualified? Like, what are some fields that people transition into climate tech from?

Absolutely. Oftentimes my clients are trying to do something that has never been done before. No one knows the answer. It’s helpful to have folks from a variety of different industries bring their backgrounds and approaches to try to solve a multidisciplinary tough problem.

For example, I could see how a carbon removal company could benefit from someone with batteries, consumer electronics, medical device, or aerospace industry experience. Or, there could be someone from a more established chemical company who could bring a lot of relevant experience to an early-stage battery startup. These are just a few examples.

And so, it’s not things that the candidate has, it’s what can they do. What can they do? How can they achieve those kinds of milestones? And then I look for that, through the conversations that I have with candidates.

It’s kind of a broad question. But you know, some things I look for: if there’s a real excitement — the attitude about working for this company is there, they’re willing to be an individual contributor and do whatever it takes, if they really are excited about the mission of the company, they ask excellent questions, they have done their research, they have a flexible curious attitude — and that comes through in addition to their skills and their ability to be able to perform on these expectations.

RK: Are there other centers where you see a lot of these roles, other than the Bay Area?

Yes. For the U.S., Boston, NYC, Seattle, and Austin come to mind, but there are others. Some companies, of course, are allowing roles to be permanently remote, too, but they generally are software roles.

But I would say that the Bay Area with Stanford and Berkeley is a natural hub for this, with the Bay Area’s progressive adoption of a lot of environmental ideas — and with Google and the larger companies, like Apple, having these ambitious renewable goals, lends itself to this area being a hub.

But then overseas there’s Germany, and there’s of course China, Australia. So it’s not just the Bay Area, but there’s a lot here.

SS: I know you’ve said it’s easier to find a role for people who are an engineer or an operations person in a specific domain. But where have you seen people succeed in finding business roles, or policy roles, or non-technical roles in clean energy?

Yes, it definitely is possible for non-technical folks to get into clean energy. For example, I’ve placed business development leaders, technical writers, accountants, CFOs, HR managers, salespeople, marketing managers, product managers without technical backgrounds, for many of my climate tech clients. Of course, I should probably include myself there!

So for the non-technical people, you know what you do best, and there is a role for you to find your way, but it may not be what you think. It also may not start off as being a job immediately. There are a lot of different ways that you can contribute.

Part 2


Richard Kim (RK): I think a lot of people are in a situation where they feel like: I don’t know enough yet. I don’t know enough about solar panels to talk to that person at the panel, because they’re gonna find out that I don’t know… whatever the thing I don’t know is.

I know exactly how they’re feeling because I remember, in 2009, I didn’t know anything about solar and I went to the Intersolar conference. And I remember that “deer in the headlights” feeling. But I quickly started meeting people, asking questions and learning as much as I could. People wanted to share information, so just keep an open mind and ask questions and you will learn.

You don’t have to learn or know everything about every clean energy technology. We can’t possibly be experts in all these different technologies. But you can keep asking questions and keep educating yourself. I’m always trying to keep up with all of my clients’ technologies and latest developments while learning the new ones. I can’t possibly do that but I can find out as much as I can by asking good questions.

But just start where you are, and don’t feel like you have to know everything before getting into this field. Because otherwise, if we all wait until we know everything and we’re experts to play a role, this climate crisis will never get solved! Just start where you are! Start where you are, and do what you do best, and then you learn as you go. Keep reading, learning from others, staying curious, asking questions and you will learn. We’re always learning.

RK: Do you feel like people in this industry are generally approachable in that way?

Yes, yes, definitely! Especially at speaking events or climate tech contests or conferences. Definitely, it’s a really good chance, even in smaller events, to be able to strike up conversations with people. I think that it’s very approachable.

 I always like the face-to-face route, so I always say, get away from your computer. Now you can’t do this during the pandemic, unfortunately, but get away from your computer and go in person and meet people. Go to these kind of speaking events, go to the conferences physically, go to GRID Alternatives, give what you can, make the relationships in person.

 It’s ultimately a smaller community. It’s a large community of companies, but it’s also a smaller community too, and so you meet people that way, and that’s the best way. That’s what I would recommend, but I know how hard it is right now.

Right now it’s a challenge, it’s really a challenge. But that’s what I would say. Get away from your computer, go in person.


I was gonna say, before when I was preparing some things that people should know when they’re considering getting into climate tech, that these startups tend to be flat in their hierarchy for several years. And sometimes people say, “I was a manager before and I really want to be a manager” and that oftentimes doesn’t translate well. But if you’re flexible, and you’re saying, “you know, I was a manager or a director before but I’m okay being an individual contributor or open to whatever the team needs right now,” and just be open and adaptable, that helps tremendously. It can be difficult for people to really make that transition.

And the other thing I would say is the compensation. Many folks are paid quite handsomely now in the San Francisco Bay Area. I think that the pay is generally competitive and fair in climate tech. It’s not shoddy at all. But, it is certainly different than tech. I sometimes talk to well-meaning people from large tech companies and they say “yeah, I really wanna be doing something more meaningful for the planet” but then when it comes down to it, it’s difficult to make that transition when they run the numbers.

So, think about that before, because it will be different than what you’re being paid now. So, that’s something to keep in mind.

I’ve recently spoken to a lot more engineers recently from the big Bay Area tech companies who have had a change of heart during the pandemic and are now much more serious about getting into climate tech.

RK: Yeah, just following up on that a little bit… would you say that most of the climate tech startups you’re working with are not primarily profit driven? That that’s balanced with their desire to to address the climate crisis?

All of the clients who I choose to partner with decided to get into climate tech because they wanted to work on hard problems that will in some way mitigate climate change. They are mostly scientists and engineers who have been working on these problems for years. They are both mission driven and also have a practical go-to-market plan for profitability. They are funded by VCs.

Sometimes I’ve seen, the first market that they take may not be so satisfying to someone who’s really idealistic. But it’s their first market and they’re being strategic, and then they’re going to work on grid storage.

Some people are really rigid about going to climate tech and they’re saying, “well, they’re doing that now, so I don’t want to be a part of it.” But, what they have to understand is that that company is going to survive because they’re figuring it out and making money now, in one area. And they’re going to move into the good area later.

I think that the founders… I know they got into it for the right reasons.

Sam Steyer (SS): Is there anywhere you’d recommend people go to learn about climate tech startups? If you wanted to go see a bunch of startups and understand what’s out there, are there people you can talk to to figure that out?

In non-pandemic times, I would recommend attending as many speaking events, conferences, clean energy contests, and clean energy social events in person! Now, I would recommend attending virtual educational sessions hosted by Work On Climate, listening to interviews or podcasts such as My Climate Journey and Watt It Takes, subscribing to Bill Gates’ Gates NotesBloomberg Green Newsclimate technica, etc.

There are also a ton of great climate blogs and more Slack channels specific to climate tech. There is a great group called The Battery Brunch and they provide lots of industry and company-related information on the battery sector. They also host this fantastic monthly brunch via Zoom with breakout rooms where you get to randomly meet people who are in the field.

It’s also true that there are more clean-energy-focused VCs now. They can be a wonderful source of learning about different types of climate tech startups easily.

Founders looking to hire

RK: What advice would you give to climate tech founders who are looking to hire employees?

I’ve found that many founders think at first that hiring won’t be that difficult or time-intensive. They say, ”I have everyone I need in my network” or “We know everyone in our industry already.” Or, “My friends are going to want to join, I’m sure.” And that may be true at the beginning. But, oftentimes, they quickly realize that their network isn’t as interested as they thought they would be and that their friends don’t want to join. Or people are happy working where they are. Or no one knows about your company. They also realize that it takes a plan to attract more women and folks from different backgrounds to their teams. They also realize that their network is not that diverse.

I would ask founders some of these questions:

  1. Can you communicate your story and vision and adapt it to the different audiences you are trying to attract?
  2. If you’re prioritizing hiring a more diverse senior leadership team — women, people of color and folks from different backgrounds from the founding team — what’s your strategy?
  3. Do you know what are the most critical hires and challenging hires you need to make?
  4. How much time are you personally prepared to spend on the recruitment for those critical hires each week?
  5. If you are not prepared to spend X hours per week on recruitment yourself, what is your plan for outsourcing recruitment?

So the advice that I would give them is recruitment takes a long time, it’s a process. Founders tell me that recruitment takes way more effort and time than they ever thought. It can be a long process of really sharing your story and telling it in a way that’s inspiring to other people. And a lot of people in your company have to be able to understand that story and share that story.

And then a lot of the candidates may be coming from other places, they may be working right now. Chances are they’ve never heard of you or your company, and so it can be helpful to founders to work with a retained recruitment company like Pacific Search Firm. We’ll hear your story, and we’ll be able to pitch your story to passive candidates that are working happily and are interested in climate tech but just don’t know about you.

And so, you know, that’s what I would tell founders.

RK: Would you say that then you really take on caring for the founder’s story when you’re recruiting?

Absolutely. I spend a lot of time (before I launch a recruitment project) understanding the founder’s story, the technology, the team they have already created, and what they are hoping to create. I also spend a lot of time understanding the parts of that story that will be most interesting to the individuals I am recruiting. Before this pandemic, I loved going on-site to see the teams in motion.

So I’m taking on the founder’s story or the hiring manager’s story of the company. And I’m really understanding why that position is motivating to a systems engineer. What makes a systems engineer tick? And why would that systems engineer be interested in your story? So, I’m understanding both of them as I’m approaching these passive candidates. Or, maybe I already have known those systems engineers for a long time and they’re just now open to learning about you.

I understand founders are sensitive to cost and to making these decisions. But, hiring and getting the right team, those are strategic decisions that are really, really important. So I encourage founders to consider working with a climate tech-specialized recruitment company for certain challenging positions or roles that they need to hire in a short amount of time.

RK: And the advantage working with like a climate tech-specialized recruiter is the expertise in the specific roles? Or the stories that are being told? Or both?

Both. I really seek to understand the stories and as a climate tech-specialized recruitment company I’ve been committed to this field for a long time and have long-term relationships with my clients and individuals in the space. I stay in contact with people for years and I attract people who are interested in getting into this field as well.

RK: And it sounds like you also place a really high value on understanding the candidates, understanding the organization, and communicating those needs back and forth.

Exactly. I do a lot of due diligence and have more focused conversations to really understand individuals. People say like well, “why are you spending so much time with me?” I do two interviews with candidates and so we have a long conversation, and the purpose of that is for me to really understand you. Many candidates say, “I’ve never had a recruiter ask the types of questions you ask” and they appreciate our conversations. They appreciate being able to share significant projects from their professional lives. I love learning about what people do and how and why they will contribute to decarbonizing the planet.

All of this due diligence helps both candidates and my clients — as a result, I am able to really explain who you are to this company and so that they understand you as well.

RK: Yeah, that’s fantastic. So often, recruiters that I experience in the tech space, they’re just trying to move volume. … I don’t feel understood or treated like a person. So, that’s just really nice to hear.

Yeah, recruitment can be very transactional when recruiters don’t have a long relationship with the company. They don’t understand the company’s story. They’re not committed. They’ll take roles from whatever industry; it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t feel good for anyone to be in a transactional kind of relationship. It doesn’t help the company. It doesn’t help the candidates.

I appreciate that making the decision to change companies and to join an early stage climate tech startup is a big one. These are big decisions. To change, and to accept a new role: it’s a big decision. It’s also a big decision for a company to hire someone. That’ll affect the dynamics of the whole company. So this is an important decision for all parties. Everyone has to feel very comfortable and have the information they need to feel comfortable.

So, yeah, my approach is slower. It’s slower and more thorough. But it tends to pay off in dividends to the companies and to the candidates who know that they’re making the right decision.

SS: Thank you, this is super interesting. I know that our community will be really interested to hear what you had to say. It’s a huge help.

Work On Climate