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What Makes a Career 'Green?'

When it comes to careers, what does green mean? It's not a simple question to answer.

"Everybody's got a different idea of what a green job is," says Jim Cassio. He's an author and consultant who specializes in green workforce issues. "But the fact is, if a job is good for the environment, if the employer is dedicated to being environmentally responsible, then that's a green job.

"You have secretaries working in green jobs, you have laborers working in green jobs, machinists, mechanics, every kind of scientist you can imagine, any kind of engineer you can imagine, technicians -- so there's a whole range of career possibilities," Cassio adds. "It just comes down to whether the work is good for the environment."

The concern about doing what's good for the environment is affecting almost every job and industry. Entirely new occupations are being created. And many people in existing occupations must learn new, green skills.

"There's an incredible variety of green jobs out there," says Cassio. "I'm speaking not only in terms of what types of skills and knowledge that employers are looking for. The green jobs range from jobs that don't require any kind of college work at all -- they can be learned on the job -- to jobs that require PhDs and beyond."

Carol McClelland agrees. She's the founder of Green Career Central and author of Green Careers for Dummies.

"There are all levels of jobs," says McClelland. "There are even ways to 'green' the job that they currently have just by changing their own work habits. It's definitely a continuum from doing simple things to very elaborate green jobs that are very focused, [where] that's all they do."

O*NET describes three categories of green careers. One is "Green Increased Demand Occupations." This refers to occupations that have an increased need for people.

Some examples are agricultural inspectors, bus drivers, chemical engineers, electricians, and industrial health and safety engineers.:

Another category is "Green Enhanced Skills Occupations." In these occupations, the essential purpose of the job hasn't changed, but people in these occupations require additional skills and knowledge.

These are some examples: electrical engineers, farmers and ranchers, marketing managers, and roofers.

"The enhanced skills (category) would be like something in building, where it's still building -- the building trade hasn't changed -- it's just that the approach that they're taking and the materials and the practices that they're using have evolved to be more sustainable," explains McClelland.

"And so you still need a base knowledge in good, sound building practices and then you can layer on top of it this enhanced knowledge and enhanced skills to be able to build greener buildings or more sustainable buildings."

The third category is "Green New and Emerging (N&E) Occupations." These are occupations that are significantly different from existing occupations.

Here are a few examples: biofuels processing technicians, carbon credit traders, energy engineers, and green marketers.

Although there's a wide range of green jobs out there, getting one might not be easy. Demand for most green jobs exceeds the supply of interested applicants.

"A lot of people are under the false impression that green jobs are for the taking right now," says Cassio.

"People often find themselves in an unfortunate position where they're competing for jobs with hundreds of other people, and of course in the job market that we're living with today all jobs are pretty competitive, but green jobs can be even more competitive than non-green jobs, and there's a couple of basic reasons for that.

"One is that while green jobs include an incredible variety of job types, skill levels, skill sets, and other characteristics, they're still small in number," Cassio explains.

"And the best estimates view green jobs as being somewhere between one and three percent of all of our jobs. Then you have the second problem of a lot of people being interested in green jobs..."

One reason for that is because people see green jobs as an economic opportunity in a bad economy, says Cassio. Another reason is that a lot of young people are very concerned about the environment and want to do something about it.

"And then of course there are all the baby boomers who are looking at green jobs with envy because they would like the last stage of their career to be more meaningful," says Cassio.

"Consequently you have a small number of jobs and a large number of people wanting those jobs, and that creates a very competitive job market where it's not uncommon for employers to get 100 to 200 qualified job applicants for a single job.

"[I]f they're convinced that they want a green job or green career, they need to approach it as part of a long-term career strategy and not with the expectation that the jobs are for the taking," says Cassio.

If you're thinking long-term, you don't want to focus your studies too narrowly. A lot of green industries are in the early stages. Opportunities are still taking shape -- some will fade away while others grow in the coming years.

"People should pursue a career that gives them options and not be too one-dimensional," says Cassio, "because things are changing and we don't know exactly what industries are going to be at the forefront in 10 years and what careers are going to undergo major changes during that time period."

A good foundation is getting a degree in the sciences or engineering. A lot of green jobs rely on these types of skills.

"People with a hard-core scientific background -- engineers, people with knowledge about very technical things -- I think that's where the biggest crunch is right now in terms of workforce," says McClelland.

If science and engineering aren't your thing, there are other kinds of green jobs available to you. For example, you can be involved in shaping the green economy by working in areas such as finance or law.

Cassio says a science background is helpful but not essential for building a green career.

"A person can have a green job or a green career even if they don't have an interest or an aptitude for science, but it would certainly help if they were good in math and science, that's for sure," says Cassio.

Although there are green jobs for all educational levels, Doreen Dewell says it's best to continue your studies after high school. Dewell is president of Green Ideas Network, which educates people and organizations about sustainable living.

"The number one thing is people need post-secondary education," says Dewell. "I would suggest not being too specialized because environmental issues usually draw from a broad variety of disciplines. In other words, you need to know a little bit about various things rather than [being] too focused.

"Also, I would recommend not just the education but also getting out in the community and volunteering as well, just for people to get a feel for what people in the environmental area do," Dewell adds. "There are lots of organizations that need volunteers."


Green Economy Map
Learn about all of the sectors of the green economy at Green Career Central

The Green Economy
Learn more about green jobs at the O*NET site

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