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Jobs Our Parents Never Heard Of
By Melissa Everett

Here's one more reason to dread the infamous party question, "What do you do for a living?" When you're talking about a fair number of the positions connected with protecting and restoring the environment, it is not easy to answer that question in less than 1000 words. Does Thanksgiving dinner, with family questions, send you into performance anxiety? That's because so many new environmental jobs come in such unorthodox packages.

Farmers, zoo-keepers, and engineers have it easy. What they do is widely understood. But many of the jobs now emerging, in response to environmental initiatives and opportunities, are brand new creations. For the job-seeker, a new level of research savvy is required to make sure the most fascinating opportunities don't fall outside the scope of your search.

Steve Greska moved out of electronics manufacturing to become a Toxics Use Reduction Planner, then found his way into a newly created position training other TURPs. While companies everywhere have pollution prevention specialists, only Massachusetts has TURPs -- professionals certified to approve the Toxics Use Reduction Plans the state requires companies to file, under an innovative statute that has greatly reduced industrial emissions. The Toxics Use Reduction Institute, housed at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, employs a staff of 25 to support the statute through industrial training and research on safer chemical substitutions. Wisely, the statute doesn't require companies to make process changes unless they will be profitable. So TURPs, whose background is usually in engineering and pollution prevention, become agents of environmental innovation in companies throughout the state.

Laurel Severson is Administrator for Rideshare Services for the Giant 3M Company. When any 3M employee on the planet needs help in getting to work, Laurel's phone rings. On the company's home turf, in Minnesota, her major role is coordinating the 25-year old van pooling program, the first in the country. That means equal parts logistics and diplomacy. "To make an alternative transportation program work, you have to be a really good problem solver, listener, and people person," she says. "I've helped groups iron out questions from who gets picked up first to whether Friday is donut day to whether the van should be fragrance-free." Sometimes, though, her role is mission-critical. When the San Francisco earthquake rained rubble on a mountain pass used by factory workers in a 3M plant, keeping employees on the factory lines became Laurel's nonstop job.

"Not once in my life have I landed in a predictable job," she laughs. This one found her because she wore two hats: a volunteer van pool driver herself, and administrator of a program developing contracts between 3M and hotels, run by the same operating group as the van program. When the vacancy arose, her colleagues drafted her.

These two new job fields, pollution prevention and transportation planning, have one thing in common. They have both been mainstreamed, beyond a few visionary companies, in part by government regulation. In the case of transportation planning (and related initiatives like telecommuting), there has been a distinct ebb and flow in corporate interest depending on state regulations.

This points to a job search strategy that's much more elegant than poring through ads -- going upstream to follow the changes in policy that dictate some of the work to be done. That same "upstream" strategy also means tracking the flow of foundation funding, and private sector investment, in order to know where the work is about to be. This requires an understanding of the field, which takes some time; but it's more empowering and typically generates more leads than simply watching for ads. The trick is to identify a small number of key information sources to monitor for your specific interest, including association newsletters, databases on grants, and even the good old Wall Street Journal.

True, this is a reactive approach. Wouldn't it just be easier to visualize the work to be done, and then prospect for the dream jobs? Sometimes that works. But listen to a cautionary note from Kevin Doyle, Director of National Programs for the Environmental Careers Organization:

"Where the jobs are, and where the cutting-edge problem-solving needs are -- these can be very different. People looking for work need to straddle two worlds. On the one hand, they need to take a very locally-specific look at the work to be done to build sustainable communities, and find ways to do that, while realizing that the actual infrastructure of jobs hasn't progressed far past the paradigm of pollution control and resource management. If your local government doesn't have a position called 'bicycle transportation coordinator,' find a job in a related agency where people are open-minded, do your job, and make a project of the innovation you want to see." Let your mind wander around your home community. Who is doing the practical work of protecting and renewing the environment? There may be greenway coordinators, telecommute center managers, environmental health and safety Vice Presidents, trail maintenance people, waterworks engineers, GIS specialists, recycling market developers, windmill designers, and many more. Some are professionals, some are tradespeople, and others have just built up their people-skills or hands-on skills through living. So, if you're drawn to this kind of innovation, take courage. Find a phrase or two to say what you do (or want to do) in plain English. And recognize how many worthy opportunities there are out there, to do vital work, by finding (or creating) jobs our parents never heard of.

Originally published on <>.

Melissa Everett is a professional career counselor and author of Making a Living While Making a Difference: Conscious Careers for an Era of Interdependence She has also written three previous books and many articles. She is the recipient of the Olive Branch Award of the NYU Center on War, Peace and the News Media for her book Breaking Ranks. Information about Melissa Everett as an event speaker here.

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