Taking the Green (Career) Path
A conversation with six Utahns who have found their way in the new economy, and some who help others find green paths as well.
As a recent grad from the University of Utah’s Environmental and Sustainability studies program, I am constantly being asked: What are you going to do with an environmental degree? My answer typically turns that question around: What will I not do with an environmental degree? I firmly believe that the green careers sector will not only continue growing but that, in this imperative hour, we must do everything we can to encourage its growth.
In The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems (HarperCollins: 2008), Van Jones breaks the environmental movement into three waves: the conservation movement of the Roosevelt administration; the federal regulation movement (think clean air and water acts) of the Nixon era (inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring); and, as the threat of climate change hangs over our heads, the investment movement that is happening now with the growth of the “green economy.”
One hundred and forty-five million people go to work in the U.S. every day. Imagine if each and every one of those jobs was done from a sustainable perspective. The future would likely look a lot more livable.
This third stage of environmentalism means that we all have a responsibility to observe the career paths we have chosen and see where that path could be refurbished into something a little more green. And if you, like me, have a yet uncharted course for your future, there are plenty of educational options available in Salt Lake City that can get you on a green career path.
You could go down the four-year degree path, or you can take some classes that offer certificates of sustainability. Higher education isn’t even always necessary in this green economy. Many solar companies will train you upon hiring.
Read ahead and meet a few people who are turning their interests into full-time green collar gigs. Perhaps their stories can help you find your path into the “green collar economy.”
Name : Alyssa Kay
Job Title: LEED AP, Energy Management Program Manager
Company: Salt Lake Community College
Background : MA Architecture, University of Utah
Eco-story: When Alyssa Kay graduated from the University in 2003 with a focus on sustainable design, she found that architects in Utah weren’t exactly designing for sustainability. So she moved and spent some time working various jobs in the South.
Then she lost her home in Hurricane Rita, weeks before giving birth to her son. She moved again, this time back to Utah where she took the first architecture gig she could get to support her family. “When the economy went down I took the opportunity to start my own company and I finally got to do what I had wanted [sustainable design], but I had very little business,” she said in a phone interview.
Kay’s first big project was designing the first shipping container home in Salt Lake County. She worked her way up to bigger projects, building the zero-energy Sego Lilly School, a small school focused on play-based and self-directed learning. She learned vicariously through the consultants she was working for. Soon was offered a position in the Energy Management Program at Salt Lake Community College, which she runs today.
Program Pitch: The Energy Management Program is an Associates of Applied Science degree. Students who go through this program come from a variety of backgrounds—kids straight from high school, moms returning to school, or engineers looking to up their knowledge. Participants learn everything there is to know about the energy landscape in Utah and how energy is used in buildings.
The program teaches students about HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), lighting, the business of energy, calculating eergy use and even energy investing.
This program takes from 18 months to two years and costs on average $10,000. With this certificate you can go to work as an energy auditor for power companies, among many other things. “Its a great program for people who might not have experience in energy but they want to go into a green career that is hands-on,” Kay explains, but many people working for this degree are already employed in the energy sector and are looking to gain promotions with certificates in HVAC analysis, lighting efficiency and solar installation, the school’s newest program. Some business students take the “energy accounting” program.
SLCC Continuing Education Energy Management courses: SlccContinuingEd.com/program/energy-management
Name: Morgan Olsen Bowerman
Job Title: Resource Recovery and Sustainability Manager
Company: Wasatch Resource Recovery
Background: Undergraduate in Music and Vocal Performance, Utah State University; Masters in Music and Choral Conducting, University of Nebraska, Omaha
Eco-story: Bowerman had a “come to Jesus” moment while living in Washington, D.C., she says, and it pushed her to do something with more meaning.
At the time she was working for a D.C.-based NGO managing a micro-enterprise organization in northern Uganda. The job brought her face to face with trash. “There was no garbage pick up [where I was working]. It would get thrown in back alleyways, streets, gutters, sewer systems—and those who thought they were being responsible burned it in their backyards,” Bowerman recalls. She knew burning waste releases toxins that are then absorbed into the soil and lifted into the air. “I’ve always cared about the earth but I didn’t know I was an environmentalist until I saw this,” says Bowerman who began her own recycling project she called Recycling for Hope.
For nearly two years, until she got malaria and returned state-side, Bowerman did everything she could to divert waste into safer places. Back in the U.S., she landed a job at Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colorado where she gained enough knowledge that, despite her lacking a formal degree, she was given the position of Resource Recovery and Sustainability Manager at Wasatch Resource Recovery, Utah’s first anaerobic digester for food waste.
Program Pitch: Diverting food waste on an industrial level. The first anaerobic digester in Utah is set to be fully operational by June of 2018. Located in North Salt Lake (1380 West Center Street, just eight miles north of South Temple), this space will be used to capture methane that is created when naturally-occurring microorganisms break down organic waste without oxygen. The methane, a natural gas, can then be used to heat homes and run lights.
Another byproduct of the digester will be a carbon-rich fertilizer. That rich soil will initially be used to reclaim land along the north end of the Great Salt Lake. Eventually the fertilizer will be pelletized and sold at an industrial level.
This project is a public-private partnership between South Davis Sewer District (SDSD) and ALPRO Energy and Water. “Knowing that we throw out 40% of the food that is grown here in the U.S., it seems that the new ‘it girl’ on the block is food waste,” Bowerman says.
Name : James Robert Sears Wirth
Job Title: Sustainable Food Specialist
Company : USU Student Sustainability office
Background : Botany at Humboldt State University, Interdisciplinary Self-designed Degree focusing on plant science, environmental science, landscape architecture and environmental planning at Utah State University.
Eco-story: Originally from Logan, Wirth was first introduced to the concepts of organic gardening, herbalism and green design at Humboldt State University. When he returned to Logan to be closer to family, he got an internship at the USU Sustainability Office. “I changed my degree like five times through out college but mostly I took classes that were in sustainable food production,” says Wirth who graduates this month but plans on continuing his education with an eye on Geographic Information Systems design and a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) certification program at USU (a intensive training program through the College of Natural Resources). Wirth’s end goal is to work for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.
Advice for Readers: “There are so many applications for environmental science. Right now, throughout the nation, the fastest growing energy job is wind turbine maintenance,” Wirth explains. His advice: Start working now, don’t wait until the end of your college experience to start a good job. Don’t leave college with zero experience in your field.
USU NEPA Certification Program: this short course prepares natural resource and environmental professionals to work effectively with NEPA documents. Proof of completed bachelor’s is required. Participants can apply and be admitted at any time. Usu.edu/degrees/index.cfm?id=194
Name: Bowen Humphreys
Job Title: Co-founder and Chief Operations Officer
Company: Zenith Sustainable Consulting
Background: Environmental Studies with a Sustainable Business Focus, University of Montana.
Eco-story: After graduating college, Humphreys got an internship with the Sierra Business Council in California doing energy efficiency work in mostly rural areas and for small businesses. After a couple of years he decided start his own business, Zenith Sustainable Consulting. “We help business check the box in being a green business,” Humphreys explains.
So how can a business earn Humphreys’ green stamp of approval? “That could include addressing anything from basic energy use and carbon emissions to more complex issues like corporate charity,” he says.
On the Green Collar Economy: “Salt Lake City is surprising. It is kind of locked away, seemingly isolated, but it is absolutely the frontrunner when it comes to things like the green collar economy,” says Humphreys. “That is one of the reasons why we started up here. Other cities like Seattle already have a solid reputation for being sustainable. Salt Lake is not far behind.”
Name: Sarah Lappé
Job Title: Communication & Development Coordiator
Company : University Of Utah Sustainability Office.
Background : Masters degree from Westminster College in professional communication.
Eco-story: During school, Lappe helped her brother run Cafe Niche, a dining establishment with a farm to table mission. “Once a week I got to greet the farmers and talk with them about their crops. I met this lady who cared so greatly for her heirloom tomatoes and then I would watch my brother turn her produce into something fantastic,” remarks Lappé. She attributes her time spent at Niche as a huge inspiration for her own commitment to sustainability.
After receiving her masters degree, Lappé was offered a position at the University of Utah Sustainability Office. “I was hired to essentially do communications like writing blogs and social media, branding and creating the website, PR campaigns, just to name a few,” says Lappé. “From there the administration recognized my talent and asked me to take on this development role where I get to help others express their philanthropic wishes.”
Program Pitch: The University of Utah Sustainability Office is an advocacy group on campus promoting sustainability through programs and partnerships. While they support the Environmental and Sustainability studies program at the University, they also offer certificates in Sustainability to anyone in any college.
The office also runs successful campus campaigns that encourage alternative transportation and recycling, and advocate for environmental and social justice. They also train faculty in integrating sustainability ideas into their curriculum. “I call myself a cheerleader for the planet,” says Lappe.
Advice for readers: Millennials are looking for issues to get behind. Find and support an organization that is aligned with your values. “All experience is good experience,” Lappe reminds us. “Your first job out of college could be working in retail and you are going to gain experience. Take that experience, grow as a professional and seek those opportunities that are sustainability-minded.”
U of U Sustainability Office: Student internship opportunities include edible campus gardens steward (recruit and manage garden volunteers, coordinate garden activities), sustainability ambassadors (assist in development and implementation of camups sustainability projects through social media and marketing), farmers market student manager, sustainability office assistant (participate in day-to-day office operations including greeting visitors, planning events, scheduling meetings). All internships are currently taking applications. Sustainability.utah.edu/about/internships/
Name : Beverly Brewer
Job Title: Student Sustainability Coordinator
Company : Weber State University
Background : Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science in geography, emphasis on Environmental Studies, Weber State University.
Eco-story: Beverly Brewer started college set to declare a geography degree and focus on her passion for food and its relation to the environment. “I wanted to improve the way food is grown and reduce its environmental impact, and that is still true for me today,” says Brewer. “It was later on in my degree that I learned what the green economy encompassed and that I was developing lucrative skills and knowledge to be successful within the business field.”
Today, she works at Weber State University in the Energy and Sustainability Office (ESO) as the Student Sustainability Coordinator. The office implements strategies and projects designed to achieve the University’s ultimate goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Her job is to assist with these goals and to offer peer-to-peer training through the Environmental Ambassadors program (for which she is currently president).
Program Pitch: The Environmental Ambassadors program is an outlet for students who want to be informed and involved with environmental initiatives. The program also supports individuals with projects designed to improve sustainability in our campus community. The office has also implemented the Green Department Certification Program which incentivizes offices to incorporate sustainability into their behavior and work environment. Participating teams earn points for things like having Energy Star-certified electronics, stocking paper with recycled content and how well they recycle. The Environmental Ambassadors also assists with the annual Intermountain Sustainability Summit at Weber State University.
On the Green Collar Economy: “Green collar jobs having been growing in Utah, especially in the solar industry,” says Brewer. “I would suggest evaluating the skills and professional experience you have gained in any previous or current job and see how it can be applied to the green economy. Maybe you’ve been a plumber your whole life and now decided you want to be part of the green economy. You don’t have to necessarily learn a whole new set of skills because the greening of any business is possible. However, gaining a deeper understanding of sustainability in your particular job field would provide you with better tools in entering the green economy.”
Jane Lyon was CATALYST’s intern two years ago. She is now a part of our staff.