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Dear Annie: I’m in my last semester of college, and I want to pick a career with a lot of potential for growth. I’ve been reading up on renewable energy, especially solar power, and I’m really excited about the idea of a job that seems to offer some interesting opportunities over the next decade or so, while also helping to save the planet. The only thing is, I don’t know whether I have the right background. My major is in business, with a minor in marketing, and I am totally not a science person at all. Does this put me at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a “green” job? — Texas Tree Hugger
Dear T.T.H.: You’re certainly right in thinking that renewable energy, conservation, and “green” enterprises of all kinds are poised for enormous growth, which means many of them are hiring like crazy. Career site SimplyHired.com says the number of job postings with the keyword “energy efficiency,” for instance, has increased 500% since 2010. Solar energy in particular is hot, thanks in large part to the renewal of the federal investment tax credit in December.
The encouraging news is that not being “a science person,” as you put it, needn’t hold you back. If you haven’t already come across it in your reading, take a look at Coyne College’s succinct guide to “green collar” careers, which pinpoints regions of the U.S. where companies in a range of environmental businesses are hiring engineers, technicians, and scientists — but also people in finance, marketing, and management.
Solar power in particular is fragmented. “So far, the industry is primarily made up of a lot of very small companies that are still figuring out how to do things,” observes Graham Smith. “So they need many of the same skills and aptitudes that any startup needs.”
Smith is CEO of Open Energy, a Manhattan-based financial-services company launched in 2013 that makes loans to renewable energy companies.
At Open Energy, “apart from numerate, analytical people, we look for marketing and business development talent,” says Smith. Likewise, “any ‘green’ company trying to introduce new technologies, whether residential or commercial, needs outgoing, persuasive people, many of whom start out in sales.”
The main quality any candidate should bring, he adds, is passion. “That’s true in any career, but renewables have faced special challenges, both practical and political. You need passion to stick with it and overcome those,” Smith says.
Rod MacGregor agrees. “We don’t necessarily hire for skills. It’s more about attitude,” he says. “After all, you can teach someone skills. But you can’t teach enthusiasm.” MacGregor is president and CEO of GlassPoint, a venture-backed startup that is building a huge 1,021-megawatt solar power plant in Oman.
MacGregor says GlassPoint looks for “VSPs, by which I mean very smart people.”
“A small group of VSPs, who are comfortable with rapid change and have a global outlook, can accomplish things that much larger organizations can’t.” In a “green” job, he adds, “you are making a difference in the fate of the planet. We want people who are passionate about the mission. I’m sure that’s true of every other ‘green’ company, too.”
You mention that you’re excited about a career in renewables, so you’ve got that part nailed. But how do you convey that passion to hiring managers?
One way is to give examples in job interviews of situations where you’ve been “willing to roll up your sleeves and pitch in to do whatever needs to be done,” says Dominique Gomez. She is director of operations at WaterSmart, a Silicon Valley firm that makes software designed to teach conservation techniques to water utilities’ customers. WaterSmart, whose revenues have nearly tripled in the past year, plans to hire at least 15 people in 2016.
The company’s 35 current employees come from “all different backgrounds, including engineers, designers, data scientists, and policy analysts,” says Gomez. “The single most important thing we look for is talented people who are passionate about our mission.” (Are you beginning to see a pattern here?)
Gomez recommends that anyone who wants to work for a “green” company prepare for job interviews by doing more thorough research, on both the employer and the industry, than they ordinarily would. “It’s critically important to be able to talk about the reasons why you want to join a particular company,” she says, and “come prepared with well-informed questions.”
As a student, Gomez adds, “you have an advantage right now, which is that people are going to be more open about talking to you and explaining things to you” than they may be later on. “So use that. Reach out to as many people as you can find, in the industry or even the company that you want to go into, and set up informational interviews. Learning as much as you can is the best way to make a great impression and get hired.”
Talkback: If you work in a “green” industry, how did you get started? Leave a comment below.