How to Land a Job in Sustainability
Updated: Jun 25
Looking to get a job in sustainability but aren't sure where to start or what positions are out there? You'll want to bookmark this article now.
CEP Toronto recently hosted Claire Westgate, Placement & Employer Relations Manager, Master of Science in Sustainability Program, at the University of Toronto to discuss the types of jobs available in the sustainability industry, how to “market yourself” in a challenging economy, and her tips on setting yourself up for success.
Whether you’re a new grad or looking to make a switch into the sustainability industry, watch the video to hear Claire’s invaluable advice to land the career of your dreams.
Claire also generously answered as many of the audience questions that weren’t addressed in the live video as possible (scroll down past the video to see them).
Watch the How to Get a Job in Sustainability Webinar
Claire Westgate and Connecting Environmental Professionals Toronto discuss the types of jobs available in the sustainability industry and tips on how to stand out in today's competitive job market.
Additional Questions from the Audience
How do you suggest we carry out networking while in quarantine? Besides emailing people of interest, it seems like they might not be very inclined to answer a whole lot of emails or LinkedIn meeting requests.
LinkedIn and email requests are the way to go: just be clear and concise in what you are asking for. Not everyone will respond - but that's normal even in non-pandemic times. For LinkedIn, when you make either a connection request or send a message, be very direct about what the purpose of your ask is. For example: "Hi Claire, I just graduated from a sustainability program and am hoping to speak with you briefly about your career in sustainability, to acquire some advice and insight. Do you have twenty minutes for a call or zoom chat in the next few weeks? Thanks in advance, (you)". Or "Hi Claire, I am hoping to connect for some advice and insight into careers in sustainability; would you have a few minutes to chat by phone or zoom in the coming weeks? I'd be grateful for your advice." - something along those lines, so they understand the purpose of your outreach, and what's being asked of them.
Again, similar advice applies in non-COVID times! People generally like being asked for advice - and in my experience, sustainability professionals are generally quite keen to help the next generation of sustainability-minded folks to find their way.
I have quite a good network from my last job at MaRS. I feel a bit strange asking for people’s time right now. How do you approach asking for “coffee chats” at the moment? (This question is similar to the one above on networking)
Just be honest - "Hi (whomever), I hope you've been well since we last connected. This summer, due to the current landscape, I find myself with some time to really explore careers, and I've decided to embark on an informational interviewing/advice-acquiring project to help me learn more about careers in sustainability. Would you have a few minutes to chat and share some insight with me about (x, y, z)?"
If you frame it that way, it is clear what your purpose is, and people will appreciate that you are doing something valuable with this weird summer that we're all living in.
You mentioned taking online sustainability courses. Do you have specific recommendations?
Great question. Not really, to be honest. I do know, however, that some of the online free options include courses on sustainability; go onto Coursera, for instance, and look up sustainability. One that I have heard much about is Jeffrey Sach's course "The Age of Sustainable Development" - although I have not taken it myself. There are certainly others listed as well. This isn't the same weight as taking a full degree or diploma - but it will help you to become acquainted with key topics, and more importantly, terminology and lenses, that apply in sustainability areas.
You can also just look up books and articles - when you're doing informational interviews with people who work in the field, ask them for their recommendations on good reads. Lastly, when looking at different professionals on linked in, scroll to their education sections and see what and where they studied - often you'll see both formal and informal learning listed, which may give you some ideas.
How do you avoid overlapping too much between the cover letter & resume?
Think of it this way: your resume says what you did, and your cover letter articulates what the key points are, and why they matter specifically in the context of that job, and for that firm. The "so what", if you will.
The cover letter also lets you write about an experience not as a stand-alone (as it is on the resume), but in context. So your resume may have a section that talks about the policy paper you wrote on single-use plastics, for example, but the cover letter is where you explain how that experience will help you in the specific role that you're applying to.
The cover letter is not a regurgitation of your resume: it's a sample menu of what's applicable and [tells] the reader some interesting and applicable details that outline why they should see that experience as valuable for the role they're considering you for.
How can one stand out during the interview when you have little work experience?
Preparation! Preparation, authenticity, and fit.
If you don't have a ton of experience, you have to think about what skills/knowledge you have that is transferrable, and why. How have your academic experience, volunteer work, and extracurriculars prepared you for the role?
Use STAR stories [and] be really clear about why you're interested in the firm, and why you're interested in the role. Get specific: why them? What is it about their work that really aligns with your values? Exhibit the authenticity and enthusiasm that shows the firm how hard you'll work to learn, and contribute. Ask good questions at the end. Not questions about money, schedule, culture, or things you can find online - but really smart questions; something about a current project they're working on, or something you read in the news.
I like questions such as "If I’m the chosen candidate for the role, can you recommend some reading or preparation I can do in advance of the first day?" or "Can you share some particular skills or personality traits that have made past people in this role really successful?" - which gives you an opportunity to respond with a good example. That level of commitment to an interview, and the preparation required, can get you chosen over someone who might have more experience but is less prepared, or less authentic.
Is a skills-based resume better than an experience-based resume for recent grads?
Not necessarily. People are more used to what's called a "modified chronological" resume - where you have things in order, but by category (ie: Relevant Academic Projects, Leadership Experience and Additional Experience - which lets you put your more content-focused experience earlier in the resume, and the seemingly unrelated part-time jobs later).
Also, be really smart about content: if you worked as a server in a restaurant, what's transferrable? Not taking orders - but managing competing requests efficiently and professionally, or handling challenging customer requests or building team collegiality among staff - those things would be transferable.
That said, everyone's resume is different: so you need to do what works best for you. My advice is to draft a few versions, and get 5 people's opinions: take pieces from each opinion, and make it your own. But make it really, really crisp and professional - formatting will be key, especially when you're new to the workforce. Sometimes if you don't have much experience a 1 page is better. A nice, full 1-page resume is better than a spaced out page and a half resume.
As we discussed 80% of jobs not being posted - I wanted to hear your insight on if it a good use of time to perfectly tailor our resumes to jobs that have hundreds of applicants. Should I spend my time primarily on networking and only apply to jobs where I have a connection?
So we didn’t have time to get into this, but generally, I recommend a scheduled approach to job searching. If you think back to the triangle image [in the video], you will see that you spend some time looking at postings, some time looking at specific company websites for postings, and some time networking and doing informational interviews.
So you can break your tasks up into (A) job boards, (B) company websites, and (C) informational interviewing.
For (A), use a range of sites - LinkedIn, Indeed, but also places like Good Work, Work Cabin, Charity Village, and so on. Set up a few hours a week - say some time on Monday and some time on Thursday, to devote to looking for postings, and drafting super tailored applications. Once you submit those applications, do your best to follow up on them a few days later - sending a message that indicates you’ve applied, and that you'd be happy to send along anything further as required.
For (B), you start by making a list of companies that interest you, and then check their websites for positions maybe once a week. So schedule some time on Tuesday and Friday, say, to work on that list (keep expanding it! You'll need a lot!), and then to check those specific organizations' websites for postings. Don't just go with companies you know - go by sector. For instance, if you're interested in food, look up food retailers, suppliers, agriculture-related firms, nonprofits - all the things that could touch the topic of "food" by using keywords (eg: "food security + Toronto").
You can also use that list for activity (C), which is informational interviewing. Take the most interesting 10-20% of the companies you find on your list, and find someone to reach out to there for a coffee chat. That's the marathon we talked about: reaching out to those people isn't a job-today type of situation but you'll learn about the companies and sectors that interest you and get some advice so that when a job does come up, you're well prepared.
In short: apply to roles where you have a connection for sure, but even if you don't, still apply - but use an approach like described. Especially right now, when the market is a little tight, I’d encourage you to apply quite broadly.
Are there specific agencies that recruit sustainability professionals?
Not to my knowledge, no. But professional recruitment firms will hire for jobs that will be good "lilypads" - like analysts, marketing professionals, etc - which can be a good foot in the door at an organization that interests you and could be a great way to get the foundational knowledge of the company and sector that you would eventually need to be able to work on sustainability topics.
I'm a recent grad with not a lot of work experience and it seems that most job postings I see are asking for much more practical work experience. Knowing that it may take a while to get hired (especially in this economy) what should someone like me do to work on my skillset and buff up my resume?
Make sure you use your unemployment time wisely. When you do land an interview, and [the] employer asks "so what have you done since you graduated?" the answer can't involve Netflix. Through your school you probably have access to LinkedIn Learning - take a bunch of courses there, and put them on your resume. Or, look into Coursera or other online free courses, and take some of those.
See if you can volunteer: either look for volunteer positions online, or, approach some places that interest you and indicate that you just graduated, and while you're looking for work, you'd be very happy to volunteer in some capacity for a project or two, maybe 10 hours a week.
Both of those - courses, or volunteering - can go on your resume, round out your knowledge and skills, and demonstrate an enthusiasm for work. You might also use this time to read as much as you can about the industry or area you want to go in, so that you're as well informed as can be before an interview eventually comes your way.
Can you share a list of resources or job boards for students to visit? Associations? Events?
That really depends on the industry you're interested in! Good go-to's include LinkedIn, Charity Village (nonprofit), GoodWork, Work Cabin, and others - try TalentEgg, the different levels of Government job boards, and maybe Job Bank.
There are a lot of associations out there - both for networking and events/conferences and for possible job postings. They're quite industry specific! CEP Toronto is obviously a great one - but if you're into energy, for instance, you can look at APPrO, or WiRE, or CanWEA or others - and the same sort of goes for different associations by industry. If you’re into a given topic, say, waste, a good project might be to Google "waste + associations" or "waste + events + Toronto" and see what you trip over.
I am a new resident with substantial sustainability experience outside Canada and have been looking for a job in sustainability for over a year. I feel credentialism is a barrier in my case. Would you have any particular advice?
That's a good question. Informational interviewing will be particularly important for you by way of gaining advice from people who have been in similar positions, but also in creating a bit of a network for yourself.
You can also think about volunteer work (just a few hours a week) or looking for some boards or associations to sit on/belong to, to help add some local experience to your resume in the shorter term.
Like some of the other advice, taking some courses as ongoing professional development may feel redundant if you've got experience already - but choose some like project management, or perhaps data or analytics, in areas that you can still develop your skills while you look, particularly in emerging or rapidly changing areas. Again, it shows to an employer that you are filling your time with skills and training to move you in the right direction while looking for work.
As far as degree or credential requirements, I think we often see employers using that as a screening tool in sustainability - for a few reasons. Firstly, the market is flooded with people who want to work in sustainability or environment because they really align with the space, however, they may not actually have the skills, experience, or understanding of what's involved. So, if you're an employer, and you post a job, you may get 700 applicants - so sometimes they'll use an educational level or a credential screen to cut that pack down to a manageable size.
The second piece is that in absence of work experience, sometimes an employer will look at degrees or credentials as a way to assess if the candidate has had any formal training in the area - which in sustainability can be important because many job seekers don't totally understand the profession (which, as I've argued, is so incredibly diverse that it can be a real challenge to even see as a single profession at this stage).
The last piece is that different countries, and different cities, and different governments, and different companies are all at different stages in terms of understanding what sustainability is, what it means, and what it looks like: which means assessing for credentials, degrees, and experience is going to vary by jurisdiction. So there is no simple answer to this question: but just keep going, get some professional development and go to events, think about doing a little volunteering, just to show that even though you’re still looking for full-time work, you're still committed to continuing your professional growth and contributions to society.
Any suggestions for young professionals with resumes that are "all over the place" in terms of types of jobs/fields worked in? Is there a good way to tie them together or show an employer that just because you've had an unconventional career trajectory so far, you might be a good match anyway?
There are a couple of things to think about here: 1) transferrable skills, and 2) how you present your experience on your resume. If you've had roles all over the place, look for things that are mappable to sustainability: stakeholder engagement (could come from customer and client engagement experience as a first step), data analysis (could come from research papers you did, or doing any work relating to data and decision making from a job) - things like that.
If you have had an unrelated job, then a certain percentage of that experience won't translate - but a certain percent will! Go online and search for common "action words" - this may help you think about how to consider those diverse experiences in a new language, which may help you start to see connections to jobs you'd like to apply for.
From a resume perspective, you might want to think about what we call a "modified chronological" format - this means your experience isn't just listed by date, but rather by relevancy. So, you could have sections called "Related Academic Projects" or "Sustainability Coursework" or "Customer and Client Engagement Experience" or "Research Experience" (or any other number of headings), and then you can categorize your experiences in time-order under each of those sub-sections. This means that you can move the more relevant stuff to the first part of your resume, and have the less relevant but still helpful pieces later on.
When writing, use those transferable action words. This helps the reader see that YOU see the links between what you did before, and how that might have prepared you for the thing your applying for. A cover letter plays a big role here too in allowing you the space to explain why you're a fit, and why what you did before has brought you to this place in life.
The last thing might be to look at some of the easier ways to gain direct experience in the short term - primarily extra courses or volunteer work - to help nudge you forward in the direction you want to go.
BONUS AUDIENCE COMMENT: "The world needs generalists but they only hire specialists" Generalists know how to problem solve because they are cross-disciplinary. Audit your soft and hard skills and determine how they will apply to the desired organization.
This is a good point - and most importantly it draws attention to the cross-disciplinary nature of sustainability. For many firms, sustainability specialists really need to know a bit about a lot of things and be able to effectively integrate knowledge from those different disciplines together, which is more of a generalist approach. However, as we discussed, it really takes a village of sustainability experts in different areas to be able to achieve organizational goals - so there is certainly a role for specialists to play.
Nobody can be an expert on policy, as well as waste, as well as energy, as well as employee engagement, and so on - there is a key role for sustainability-minded people to play in specialist roles as well. It truly requires both types of thinkers, and people with a range of experiences and viewpoints, to create truly sustainable organizations.
Claire Westgate has worked in career education and industry engagement for sixteen years. Her Master’s degree is in Education, specifically in post-secondary education, work-integrated learning, and school-work transitions. Claire takes an individual approach to career coaching and partnerships: she believes the best connections and opportunities arise from personal authenticity and curiosity. Claire currently works with the Master of Science in Sustainability Management Program at the University of Toronto Mississauga, where her role involves individual student support, career coaching, and managing industry partnerships for the Program including co-op and post-grad employment.
Madeleine Lee is the Director of Marketing at CEP Toronto and is passionate about translating complex environmental concepts to a wider audience, collaborative partnerships, and building compelling brand storytelling.
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