I am 50 years old and looking at a major career change. I have wasted most of my adult life at a soulless job that has provided for me and my family. In that regard, I am grateful and fortunate. However, I have always been passionate about animals and the environment. I have suffered from low self-esteem for quite a while and was never confident enough to pursue my passions. In any case, the support and encouragement of my soulmate and wife has me going in the right direction.
That being said, I am anxious about waiting until I have the knowledge and tools required to be a champion of the environment as a career. I understand that I need an education, but I have such a strong sense of urgency. Continuing to toil at my 9-to-5 while the home I love hurtles toward ruin is an unbearable thought. I have wasted enough time and want to contribute more sooner, rather than later.
I am still the major earner for my family, but taking a pay cut is something I am willing to do. What careers related to environmental conservation, sustainability, or preservation, are more open to entry-level positions with little-to-no experience or education? Landscape architecture. Urban planning. I am really open to many things. Ultimately, I want to be a vehicle for positive change seven days a week, 24 hours a day, not just in my time away from my empty job.
— Paul in Wayne, New Jersey
Which industry do you work in now?
I am a credit analyst, so it falls under finance. Completely not me. The twists and turns of life brought me there. So I have no work experience, only personal life experience.
To help answer your question, I spoke with three people: Lisa Yee-Litzenberg, a green career coach; Duke University’s Katie Kross, author of the book “Profession and Purpose: A Resource Guide for MBA Careers in Sustainability”; and 39-year-old career-switcher Tim Ellis, a one-time rave DJ, freelance writer, Bernie Sanders presidential campaign staffer, gym technician, and bond analyst who is now a senior organizer for Leadnow, a nonprofit citizen advocacy organization in Canada. For anyone who wants to make a career change to the environment or sustainability, they offered a wealth of tips — and some homework, too.
Step one: Assess your existing skills
You call your job “soulless” and “empty” and worry that you’ve wasted your adult life. I gently encourage you to give yourself some credit. At a minimum, as you say, you’ve managed to support yourself and your family. That counts.
You’ve also almost certainly picked up skills that could serve you in a second career focused on the environment. If you can stomach it, finding a new use for your existing skill set and educational background is likely the quickest path to making a switch: “Ideally, if possible, you would want to build on your foundation,” Yee-Litzenberg says.
Ellis, for example, found that the event-planning skills he learned while working as a DJ translated well to his work on the Bernie Sanders campaign. And the political organizing experience he gained working for Sanders set him up for his current role at an advocacy organization.
As a credit analyst, you probably have developed skills in accounting, computing, quantitative analysis, documentation, and risk analysis. What about “soft” skills, like managing your time, working with a team, or conflict resolution? Take some time to reflect and write down a list of the skills you’ve gained over the years.
Now consider which, if any, you’d be interested in using to help the planet. “The scale of the climate challenge is so massive — we need all hands on deck,” Kross says. “We need every potential skill set.”
That includes quantitative and finance skills. Yee-Litzenberg points to the field of conservation finance, for example, where people work to raise and manage money to protect the natural world. Solar firms are hiring financial analysts. And major corporations are increasingly disclosing their environmental, social, and governance-related financial risks, which means they need employees to help them do that, Kross says.
Next, think about the type of organization where you’d like to work. When she’s advising MBA students at Duke, Kross distinguishes between sustainability roles and sustainability organizations.
For example, The Nature Conservancy’s payroll staff don’t focus on conservation as part of their day-to-day job duties. But their work still supports the organization’s mission as a whole. Conversely, employees in the sustainability division at a major corporation spend their days focused on environmental issues, but that’s not the company’s core product or service. And of course, some jobs, like Ellis’s role as an organizer at a nonprofit, are both: sustainability-oriented roles within sustainability-oriented organizations.
Spend some time thinking about which scenario sounds most like you.
Step two: Read postings on green job boards and conduct informational interviews
You asked which careers related to the environment are open to entry-level job seekers. The answer is: many of them! So start zeroing in on jobs that are most relevant to your existing or potential skill set and passions.
To do that, Yee-Litzenberg advises reading job postings and conducting informational interviews with people in the field. At this stage, your goal is not to apply to jobs or to persuade people you’re talking to that they should hire you. You’re simply gathering information about what it’s like to work in these jobs and about the qualifications required: What are the common entry-level job titles, and are those the right fit for you? Which skills, subject-area knowledge, or degrees are typically necessary for successful candidates — and how well do those requirements align with your qualifications?
Step three: Build your resume for a green career
Many green careers (including mine) require both concrete skills and subject-area knowledge. As you peruse job listings, for example, you may discover that solar firms prefer to hire financial analysts who can both work with financial models and have knowledge of the renewable-energy sector. You’ll likely need to build your resume in one or both of those areas, particularly if you decide you don’t want to work in a finance-related field.
Volunteering can be one way to gain experience, says Ellis, who first got to know the organization where he now works that way. “Volunteering was a great foot in the door,” he says. “It’s a good way to get to meet people who are in that space. It’s a good way to understand what opportunities exist to get plugged into the organizations that are in the space and understand which ones are most impactful.”
Don’t be afraid to pitch a specific project to an organization, Yee-Litzenberg says. “If you’re needing to get more real estate on your resume, you might make a list of a few employers that you would be really excited to do work for and to think about ‘What could I do for them with my background?’” A person with experience in communications, for example, might volunteer to revise the organization’s brochure or update its communications strategy.
You can also beef up your resume, Yee-Litzenberg says, by joining professional associations (here’s a list), pursuing certificate programs, or completing a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. (But beware of expensive, scammy educational certifications that are unlikely to lead to employment.)
Step four: Write a cover letter that tells your story
When you’re ready to apply for an environmental job, Yee-Litzenberg advises taking particular care with your cover letter. Some employers might overlook you if they don’t understand why you’re switching to a different field or may worry that you don’t have a clear career path in mind.
To address that issue, make sure your cover letter clearly explains your personal story. “Give a genuine example of why you’re making the switch,” she says. That will help prospective employers understand the connection between the jobs listed on your resume and the field you’re hoping to join.
A final word
I’m so glad that your wife supports your dream of making a career change. Have you considered adding one or more additional allies to your life to cheer you on as you go through this process? If you haven’t done so already, it might be worth speaking with a therapist about your struggles with self-esteem. I’m rooting for you.
Got a question about climate change? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.
Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.