Companies & Industries

Switching To Green-Collar Jobs


A growing number of professionals are taking their talents and moving them to jobs that can help improve the environment

On Dec. 6, Berkeley (Calif.) nonprofit Avoided Deforestation Partners hosted a panel at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali on the topic of REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). The group's 55-year-old founder, Jeff Horowitz, took the stage and addressed a crowded room of environmental movers and shakers on his vision for the protection of rainforests. Horowitz describes the moment as a career milestone. But he is no lifelong activist; only a year before, he was a highly paid, sought-after architect in San Francisco.

A growing number of midlife career-changers like Horowitz are trading in their nine-to-fives for jobs more in line with their convictions and concerns for Mother Earth. So-called "green-collar jobs" are on the rise—the current tally of 8.5 million U.S. jobs in renewable-energy and energy-efficiency industries could grow to as many as 40 million by 2030, according to a November report commissioned by the American Solar Energy Society.

And the burgeoning industry is claiming scores of experienced workers who can put to use the skills they've acquired in more established fields such as construction, finance, and marketing. In some cases, the high demand for green career-changers translates into a larger paycheck. But more often, the satisfaction of making a positive difference in the world is enough of a boost.

Put Your Skills in a Green Context

Many people are tired of their jobs and know they want to give back to the environment, but have no idea where to look for a green-collar job. That's where consultants such as Marie Kerpan can help out. Weary of her own job as a career adviser at New York outplacement firm Drake Beam Morin (DKBMF), and anticipating the looming trend of green career-changers, Kerpan in 2000, positioned herself as an environmental career consultant—the first, she claims, of her kind.

Since then, her company, Green Careers, has helped thousands of people assess what cause their skills and interests are best suited to—which could be anything from renewable energy to water conservation—and has helped them get hired. Most of her clients come from middle management or higher, and are seeking what she calls a path-of-least-resistance move, "doing something you already know how to do and putting it in the context of the green agenda," she explains.

One former human resources manager at General Electric (GE), for example, had "a whole kitbag of tools, and just had to figure out how to use them" in a green job. The solution was simple enough: She landed a post as human resources manager at an organic foods company.

Awakening an Inner Passion

But if someone prefers his green second career to be a completely new experience, that's okay too, says Kerpan, "This is a new frontier, and there's also a lot more latitude to make a more radical change."

Such was the case with architect-turned-activist Horowitz. As partner in San Francisco's KMD Architects, he seemed to have it all: a central role in high-profile commercial projects such as Two Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, frequent travel to exotic destinations, and enough downtime to mind his own Sonoma Valley vineyard. But through his involvement with Equator Environmental, a for-profit group he helped to found with nephew Gerrity Lansing, Horowitz awakened an inner passion for the environment. The creation and sale of carbon credits, he realized, could make conserving rainforests a profitable enterprise.

A Different Kind of Bonus

So last year he left behind architecture altogether and started Avoided Deforestation Partners, a think tank aimed at realizing this goal through new international policy. While his day-to-day routine has changed dramatically—instead of leading a large internal team, he networks with contacts all over the world—some of his skills have carried over into his new career. Just as architect-Horowitz "was never satisfied unless [I] saw the project built and completed," activist-Horowitz strives toward real-world results, such as a plot of forest saved from the bulldozer.

Horowitz says his salary doesn't come close to what he used to make as an architect. But he doesn't care—he'll take a menial paycheck if it means bringing about positive change in the world. And the way he describes his experience speaking at the UN Climate Change Conference—"It felt like we were at a rock-and-roll concert with 20,000 people and we were backstage with the lead singer"—makes it sound as if he had a better yearend bonus than most.

Business Exchange related topics:

Renewable Energy

Solar Energy

Career Change

Non-Profit Management

Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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