A look at careers in sustainability
Updated: Aug 29
The field of sustainability, as with environmental science, is broad and can be intimidating. With the many different job opportunities and directions to be taken in this field, it can be overwhelming to think about. Here is a quick look at five careers within the sustainability field and what these folks are doing to make a difference.
Sarah J. Gardner – Climate Action Coordinator, City of Iowa City
Job Summary: My job is to coordinate resources and information to support different city departments as they enact their portion of Iowa City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which aims to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
Meaningful Experience: There’s no silver bullet that will solve climate change. Instead what we need is a lot of silver buckshot. What’s most meaningful to me is seeing how all those little victories add up: the growing number of electric vehicle users at our charging stations, the volunteers who delivered energy saving kits to 1200 homes on Earth Day, the contractor who sent his staff to be trained on heat pumps after attending one of our webinars. All those efforts matter!
Advice: Too often we shortchange our own job search by looking for positions with the word “sustainability” in the title. The truth is those jobs are few and far between, and the only way organizations become more sustainable is when everyone understands sustainability to be part of their job. Iowa City has made great progress on climate action because the transit director, landfill superintendent, economic development coordinator, urban planners, engineering staff, and many others have made sustainability a top priority for their departments. The best thing you can do is think about what area of sustainability most interests you, then look for a job in that field and build what you do on a sustainability framework.
Regan Watts – Recycling & Sustainability Coordinator, Eau Claire County, WI
Job Summary: I manage the recycling and sustainability program for Eau Claire County. Half of my time is spent educating residents and businesses about recycling and proper waste disposal in Eau Claire County. It depends on the day but that could be tabling at community events, hosting workshops, managing our social media/website, and writing newsletters. The other portion of my job is developing the sustainability programming in the community since it is a new program for the County. The biggest task has been developing our Climate Action & Resilience Plan as well as writing grants, collaborating with local utilities and community organizations on projects.
Meaningful Experience: The outreach and public engagement portion of my job is always most rewarding! I love learning about other perspectives and experiences and working with people to create solutions that are people and community focused.
Advice: Stay passionate! It can be hard to stay motivated when tackling such big issues. Persevere and stay connected with peers and learn what others are doing to keep the inspiration coming!
Tamara Marcus – Sustainability Director, Linn County
Job Summary: My job is to find solutions to help make our communities, businesses, and industries more sustainable and resilient here in Linn County.
Meaningful Experience: Serving as the first Sustainability Director for Linn County.
Advice: Try as many new experiences as possible! Make friends with as many people that are different from you as possible!
Kent Kraus – Key Accounts Manager at Eagle Point Solar, Dubuque
Job Summary: My role is to work with non-taxable entities such as municipalities and schools as well as large corporate entities to help them determine if solar can help them towards their sustainability and financial goals. I follow a very systematic process along with my technical supervisor to provide preliminary financial and sustainability data to determine if solar is a feasible solution to what they are trying to achieve. If so, we follow that with a detailed site assessment to provide final construction numbers. For non-taxable entities, I will work with them to determine financial solutions to help fund the project and help them meet their goals.
Meaningful Experience: The most meaningful experience(s) I have had revolves around smaller municipalities I have worked with who didn’t have any money to put towards sustainability. Through a 3rd party financing vehicle called a PPA (Power Purchase Agreement), we helped them build solar at no cost to the municipality, allowing them to save money immediately and work toward their sustainability goals.
Advice: The best advice I can give is to understand that everyone has their reasons for looking at sustainability and to not judge why those people are doing it, but rather look at the net result of their sustainability projects. In addition, realize this industry is ever changing and new technologies are being developed at a rapid pace. Always be looking to learn about new things whenever you can.
Gina Bell – Sustainability Coordinator, City of Dubuque
Job Summary: Gina, working within the City Manager’s Office, aims to strengthen our community’s resiliency through climate action. Working both internally, to review, advise and promote sustainability within City operations; and externally to build partnerships and support resident’s efforts, while fostering collaboration throughout the community. Recently, my work has focused on fleet electrification, low-income solar project and the Teen Resiliency Corps. This work improves the quality of life for residents of Dubuque, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, educates and empowers residents to take action while providing an example of how creativity and passion support sustainability.
Meaningful experience: I’m really excited about Renew Dubuque – the LMI solar project. I see climate action as equity work and helping households relieve their energy burden by utilizing renewable energy is very satisfying.
Advice: Lots of backgrounds are represented in sustainability. Try to broaden your lived experiences so you can have an understanding of what it takes aka become a generalist (know a little about a lot of things).
Evan Neubauer – Waste Reduction & Recycling Educator, Winneshiek County Conservation
Job Summary: I provide programming and collaborate with schools and other organizations to promote waste reduction, recycling, and sustainable behaviors.
Meaningful Experience: At the Winneshiek County Fair this summer, I was approached by hundreds of folks that were passionate about waste reduction and recycling. I was thrilled to see that so many people cared about their impact on the environment!
Advice: I recommend earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. If you know of anyone that provides programming for waste reduction education, ask them if you can volunteer at one of their events to gain some experience.
An important takeaway from responses comes from what Sarah Gardner said: “The best thing you can do is think about what area of sustainability most interests you, then look for a job in that field and build what you do on a sustainability framework”. The work we do with others and within careers outside of this field are equally as meaningful as what we do in it.
Sustainability is a broad term and can be hard to conceptualize, but it is also open to many possibilities which allow you to mix and match into a career that works for you. Instead of it being intimidating, let’s view it as something exciting since there are endless opportunities for change and improvement within this field and our society. Careers in sustainability can be personalized to fit what you’re most interested in and you don’t have to feel confined to one particular area; overlap exists in these careers and they can always be adapted. The work and ideas you bring to this field are so valuable, no matter what career path you choose, and the world needs what you have to offer!
About the Author
Jessie Joyner serves as a summer environmental steward at Northeast Iowa Community College in Calmar. She is headed into her second term with Green Iowa AmeriCorps as a sustainability coordinator.
Jessie graduated from Florida Southern College in May '22 and moved up to Iowa in June. She wanted to gain hands-on experience in the sustainability field, and feels she has already learned so much!