Breaking into the environment sector: tips from the graduates that made it (Shared Article from The Guardian)

For the original article click here. 

Recent IEMA Graduate Award finalists give some insight into their background and how that has led them to success
Working in a field
Do you have experience in your field? Environment professionals recommend graduates get involved in the area they want to work. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

Heather Poore, youth volunteering project manager, Global Action Plan

Have patience. It’s very hard to get work straight away so be creative about how you can gain experience in the industry

After a few weeks of trawling the internet looking for work in the environmental sector I received an email from Milkround with a link to a new youth volunteering programme which had just been launched by the environmental charity Global Action Plan. The project looked fun, engaging, involved other young people and aimed to save carbon so I sent them an email straight away. I was one of the first volunteers to ask for more information and register with the project so was fortunate to then be invited to the launch of the governments Road to Copenhagen strategy at London Zoo, with Global Action Plan, where I met Ed Miliband and heard about the government’s plans for developing a sustainable future.

At the event I met staff from Global Action Plan for the first time and having got on really well with them I was fortunate to then be offered an internship. I started the internship straight away, volunteering in its youth team. After volunteering full time for two months a job vacancy opened up within the organization, so I applied and was successful. In October 2009, five months after my initial contact with Global Action Plan, I became the youth volunteering coordinator.

I realise that this sounds like it all came really easily, but having had no working experience in the environmental sector I had very little confidence which is why being able to commit to something as a volunteer and learn the ropes before becoming employed was a huge benefit. This also demonstrates that opportunities can crop up at any time and it’s just a case of taking the initiative to email people, ask questions and find out more as often as you can.

Attend every event, conference, workshop and volunteering day you possibly can

There is so much going on in the environmental sector as sustainability feeds into absolutely everything. Although you can read a lot online, attending events and speaking to people first-hand exposes you to so much more information, gives you a chance to gain insights, ask direct questions and, most importantly, make contacts.

When I meet people I like to find out about their backgrounds, what their job involves and what their goals are. This makes it possible to identify areas where we could potentially collaborate or promote each others work and achievements. I also like to ask about people’s interests as it helps me gain an idea about the bigger picture, such as people’s motives and routes to joining the environmental sector, which then helps me communicate and engage others in environmental issues.

The beauty of the environmental sector is you meet people who are all out to achieve a common goal, yet are all approaching the goal from a different motive, background, perspective and are faced by different challenges. It’s important to be aware of as many of these factors as possible.

Sign up to all of the environmental news, jobs websites and newsletters

My favourite sites are Springwise and BusinessGreen Daily. Twitter is also a fantastic way to keep on top of the latest news and hear from people directly, I particularly like to follow The Environmentalist and (even if I didn’t work for them) Global Action Plan/Trewin Restorick are great ones to follow for keeping up to date with practical action taken around climate change within schools, business, young people and communities.

I now work on the Greenprint 2020 project where we give 16 to 25 year olds to the opportunity to have their say, create their vision of a sustainable future and then provide them the tools to work towards creating it. We offer volunteering opportunities and internships which have so far helped many young people make that first step into gaining experience in the environmental world, so I would advise any young person to register for the newslettersTwitter and Facebook news feeds – that’s how I started out!

Laura Duggan, environmental executive, George Best Belfast City Airport

You need to gain experience in the field

When I first decided that I would like to get involved in the environmental sector, I joined Voluntary Service International in Dublin and undertook a short term volunteer project in Iceland on the theme of environment and sustainability. I was also really interested in development studies as well and so I took a course at night delivered by SUAS Educational Development. I knew then that I wanted to pursue further studies in the field and so I decided to apply for a master’s in Leadership for Sustainable Development at Queens’ University Belfast. I chose this course in particular because it was very much geared towards gaining professional and practical first-hand experience and was to involve a number of short term placements in the NGO, governance and business sectors.

During this master’s, I worked with Northern Ireland Environment Link (the forum and networking body for environmental organisations in Northern Ireland) to conduct research on the sustainability of transport in Northern Ireland and with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland collating existing statistical information with respect to rural areas to inform the wider project under way to develop a Rural Evidence Base for Northern Ireland. While I was fortunate to be put in touch with these organisations by my course director, it was necessary to prove early on that I was up for the task.

I found these placements enormously helpful for me in terms of gaining in-depth knowledge in key areas and being exposed to leaders in the field driving sustainable change and having the opportunity to learn from them. Furthermore, it gave me the chance to demonstrate the ability to work autonomously and to meet tight deadlines while producing work that was of a high quality and succinct.

I was really lucky to have also been awarded a North-South Masters Bursary for 2008-09 (IBEC-CBI Joint Business Council, Universities Ireland) which was sponsored by George Best Belfast City Airport. For this reason, I had the opportunity to undertake my business placement at the airport where I carried out a review of the environmental policies and practices of the airport’s business partners and suppliers. Through demonstrating my ability and commitment during this placement I managed to secure a fixed term contract as environmental officer with the airport on graduating from my master’s.

Overall, by undertaking placements in various sectors and subject areas, it allowed me to get a better appreciation of the challenges and opportunities for the delivery of environmental improvement and sustainability across sectors as well as acquire in-depth knowledge in range of areas including, sustainable transport policy, low carbon technologies, climate change policy, sustainable procurement, environmental legislation, and so forth, which I think is hugely important given that the environmental/sustainability sector is so broad and cross cutting in nature.

Be flexible and and don’t be afraid to stray beyond your comfort zone in terms of previous academic and professional experience.

I undertook a number of placements as part of my master’s. These were quite varied and sometimes did not have a strong link to my academic studies – for example my placement in the Rural Policy division in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. That being said, I was able to apply previously acquired professional and academic skills to conduct research and compile and present findings while learning about the field as I went along. I think this was hugely important step for me to be able to demonstrate my flexibility and transferable skills.

Charlie Symonds, knowledge transfer associate – sustainable development engineer, Stannah Stairlifts and Oxford Brookes University.

Show leadership in pushing environmental issues and know how to communicate your ideas a non technical audience

When speaking with colleagues around the business there is not always a deep understanding of the environmental issues we face in today’s society. The environmental field is a fast moving one and it is important to stay up-to-date with the latest thinking. This must then be filtered out around the business to people who are not necessarily environmental professionals. It is therefore important to be able to explain these principles in a clear fashion to a non-technical audience.

An example of this would be when introducing Stannah to the principles of life cycle assessment and how to go about conducting a study. I found the best way to do this was using diagrams and flow charts to clearly show the stages and activates/data that were needed for each task. I also try to read and summarise legislation putting it in context by showing how this might have an impact on our business.

I speak with management to try and gain their buy-in on my ideas and speak with the people conducting affected roles to try and put together the best proposal. Communication is therefore important at many levels within the business.

I have developed my knowledge by reading around the area of environmental issues and sustainable design, paying particular interest to life cycle assessment. The IEMA website and the Environmentalist Magazine have proved good sources of information on environmental issues, legislation and conferences to attend.

I have done some training on Neuro Linguistic Programming and watch successful people in the media to try and model their behaviour and style of presenting (Barack Obama would be a good example). This has helped me in presenting ideas to the business and leading with confidence. I have also completed the Chartered Management Institute level 5 Diploma in Management and Leadership which has given me many of the core skills I use on a day to day basis.

The Knowledge Transfer Partnership gave me a start in my career

I would fully promote the Knowledge Transfer Partnership as a scheme to anyone starting out on their career after university. These partnerships are available across a broad range of industries.

The KTP is a partnership formed as a three-way project between a graduate, an organisation and a university with the project being part funded by the Technology Strategy Board. In my case this was Stannah Stairlifts Ltd and Oxford Brookes University. I have supervisors at both the university and at Stannah with my role being to take the learning developed within the university on product sustainability and imbed it within Stannah.

With my project been based around improving product and business sustainability, working on the KTP has enabled me to dramatically deepen my knowledge in this field and also apply this to a business on a live project.

Heather Poore is a youth volunteering project manager at environment charity Global Action Plan

By CJ Sanchez (He/Him)
CJ Sanchez (He/Him) Career Coach