By Wilma Bedford
Many young workers – middleclass members of Generation Z (people in their teens to mid-20s) – are searching out professional paths that combine flexibility and a deep sense of purpose. Demand is surging for these kinds of climate-related jobs – making it crucial for employers, career advisors and educational institutions to revamp their programming to be as climate-relevant as possible.
According to Lillian Zhou, who grew up in the US state of Michigan, milder winters coupled with fiercer storms that endanger lives and destroy property cause “an insane amount of existential anxiety”. She has therefore turned to work as a way to channel her ecoanxiety in a positive direction.
“I combat this anxiety through my work,” says Zhou. “Knowing that I am working for an environmentally and socially oriented organisation, that I am working for something bigger than a pay cheque – this is what brings me a sense of purpose.”
Surveys consistently show that many people claim they want to work for a sustainable company. A growing body of evidence suggests that it is true. At least 12 peer-reviewed studies show that many job seekers are attracted to organisations with sustainable practices. Other studies show the same in relation to social practices, more generally like community involvement and ethical governance.
The IBM Institute for Business Value surveyed more than 14 000 adults globally from nine countries (United States, India, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Spain, Brazil and China) during March 2021 to better understand consumers’ opinions and perspectives on environmental sustainability. The study revealed that 71% of employees and employment seekers say that environmentally sustainable companies are more attractive employers. In addition, more than two-thirds of the full potential workforce respondents are more likely to apply for and accept jobs with environmentally and socially responsible organisations – and nearly half surveyed would accept a lower salary to work for such organisations.
However, not all environment-focused jobs require financial sacrifices. Environmental scientists, who will see a high rate of job growth in the next 10 years, earned a median salary of $73 230 (£53 920) in the US in 2020. And according to GRID Alternatives, the US solar energy market is booming, with low barriers to entry and competitive salaries. GRID Alternatives is helping to bring solar education into secondary school curricula as well as providing free training to young solar installers.
Lauren Friedman, the senior workforce operations manager for GRID Alternatives, comments that “solar companies are hiring, and there is a major need for workers in this industry to meet the nation’s renewable energy targets”. According to the most recent solar jobs census, the solar industry will encompass 400 000 jobs by 2030, but the country’s 100% clean electricity goal will require a workforce of more than 900 000 by 2035. To meet the demand in specific industries like these, there’s a pressing need for more hands-on, vocational training, in the US as well as in countries such as China.
The jobs market will continue to evolve in response. Currently there’s a major need for people with the skills to respond to new environmental regulations – a need that is likely to grow in complexity and nuance. Expansion is also in the offing in the areas of supply chain sourcing, big data, AI and blockchain, as they relate to sustainability.
Job seekers report greater attraction when they believe the organisation is more environmentally friendly. It seems that sustainable practices help make organisations especially attractive options even when up against the most desirable employers at the career fair. This attraction is a source of competitive advantage. Studies show that by drawing more applicants, organisations dramatically increase their chances of hiring a top performer.
If you want to successfully leverage sustainability initiatives during recruitment, remember:
use effective and honest communication to position your organisation as a green employer of choice.
Researchers David Jones (University of Vermont) and Chelsea Willness (University of Saskatchewan) identify three ways that companies can use sustainability initiatives to draw the best talent.
- Sustainability draws job seekers because it’s a source of employee pride
Sustainability actions often lift a company’s reputation and status, leading many job seekers to believe they’d feel proud to work for a prestigious organisation admired for its sustainability. What you can do:
- Adopt sustainability practices that exceed industry norms and distinguish your organisation from other employers, such as by integrating sustainability with your brand, products, and services.
- Link sustainability to the organisation’s prestige by seeking recognition and awards from reputable third-party organisations.
- Demonstrate employee pride through testimonials and by showing how you celebrate sustainability achievements.
- Sustainability draws job seekers because it implies the company cares about its employees
Reinforce the belief that the company cares about society and the planet more generally, and link this to your people practices. What you can do:
- Showcase employee-driven sustainability initiatives to illustrate how your concern for sustainability is tied to efforts to create meaningful and rewarding experiences for your employees.
- Communicate to job seekers how your sustainability practices are connected to your people practices through messages like, “We strive to reduce our environmental impact because we care about how we treat the planet, just like we care about how we treat our people.”
Use multiple channels to inform job seekers about your sustainability, such as company websites, careers pages, employee testimonials, recruitment handouts, conversations with recruiters, and position announcements.
Job seekers know that the primary purpose of most for-profit organisations is to make money. So be transparent about viewing sustainability as a source of competitive advantage through reduced energy costs, employee retention, brand management, and so on. Avoid greenwashing. If new employees find that the messages about sustainable practices that initially attracted them are really just a green veneer, many will become resentful and some will leave. Messages about sustainability need to match the reality that new employees will experience.
- Sustainability connects organisational values to job seekers’ personal values
Job seekers want an employer whose values are a good fit with their own. More than three decades of research shows that the match a person feels with an organisation is a major driver of job choice decisions.
Clearly link your sustainability initiatives to specific organisational values and demonstrate their authenticity. What you can do:
- Explicitly describe company values that drive specific sustainability actions, such as values about protecting the natural environment, managing relationships with external stakeholders, addressing employee concerns, and being a responsible corporate citizen.
- Highlight management’s commitment to sustainability. Managers set the tone on values and organisational culture, so use them as role models. Show job seekers how sustainability is infused in daily work activities, training programmes, reward systems, and operational practices and objectives. Your hiring practices are a great place to start.
The explosion of interest in values-related work is also reshaping the educational landscape. In the US, increasing numbers of university students are seeking out environment-related careers, and there are ever more MBA programmes related to social impact and environment.
In addition, 55% of consumers surveyed report that sustainability is very or extremely important to them when choosing a brand – 22% higher than consumers surveyed pre-COVID-19 pandemic by IBM. Slightly more than six in ten consumers surveyed said they were willing to change their purchasing behaviour to help reduce the negative impact on the environment, with consumers surveyed in India (78%) and China (70%) being the most willing.
As Gen Z settles into the labour market, it’s clear that many of them are seeking to contribute to averting climate collapse. Whether they’re changing careers like Zhou, choosing climate degrees or researching employers’ environmental credentials, climate change is an inescapable presence in the future of work.
Zhou explains: “I’m interested in renewable energy because frankly, I don’t think that my generation can afford not to be. When you have witnessed first-hand how the climate in your hometown has changed, when you see how your government and leaders are failing to make substantial change time and time again – it’s just not something you can ignore.” Working for sustainability is imperative for Zhou. “I cannot imagine a more important industry to be a part of.”
How climate change is reshaping the way gen Z works.
Christine Ro.1 March 2022.
3 reasons job seekers prefer sustainable companies
David Jones &Chelsea Willness.
IBM Survey: 71% job seekers want to work for environmentally sustainable companies after pandemic.
The CSR Journal. 26 April 2021.