Preparing graduates for sustainability careers

Nov 9, 2022 | Development, You might have missed

With environmental and social sustainability in the news and on students’ minds, here are some ways to help them prepare for sustainability careers, reports Samuel Gordon, Group Sustainability Insight Associate at International Airlines Group (IAG) which include British Airways. IAG is recognized as a leading airline on climate action and Sam was the Research Analyst in the ISE team prior to joining IAG.


1. What is a sustainability job?

“Sustainability” covers a huge range of issues. As well as climate change, examples of sustainability issues include pollution, waste, water use, resource extraction, biodiversity, soil erosion, conservation, and even noise, gender diversity and human rights.

One option for interested graduates is to seek out specialist sustainability courses and jobs. This was my approach. I gained an MSc in Environmental Change & Management from Oxford University, and my first graduate role was in the Environment Team at Tesco Stores. I’m currently in a team that advises IAG airlines on their environmental strategy and analysis.

However, today’s graduates can get involved in sustainability in broader ways. More than ever, they are likely to work on it via specific work projects (like being tasked with new ideas to reduce plastics), or as a normal part of their day-job (eg as part of the marketing team, crafting press releases to share the company’s sustainability journey).

As a result, graduates will benefit from having some base knowledge of the issues involved and the jargon. Encourage them to be able to hold a conversation on topics like the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.


2. A long-term career path

To excel over the long-term, they need to be thinking beyond their technical skills.

Many companies are now expected to show sustainability progress year after year. This push is coming from all angles – including customers, employees, regulators, investors, the media, suppliers and even company CEOs. More employers have appointed Chief Sustainability Officers (or similar) into their top management teams.

This matters for graduates because it means sustainability can be a route to senior management. Which hasn’t always been the case. For those graduates who aspire to go this route – compared to, say, a more technical route – they may want to be strategic about how they build their skill-base. In the long-run, to be promoted to senior levels, they need to show they can deliver results.

Skills that are helpful to build over time are skills like project management, data analysis, influencing, communicating, accounting, and marketing. It might sound counter-intuitive, but one pathway for interested graduates is to choose non-sustainability work at the start of their career to build up those skills. This can set them up to transition into a sustainability role once they have more experience.

To succeed, they need to be effective as well as passionate.


3. Be helpful

The goalposts for “what good looks like” can shift very quickly in this line of work. What seemed out of reach two years ago can quickly move to becoming the bare minimum. As one example: in 2019, IAG was the first airline group to commit to net zero emissions by 2050. Fast-forward three years and over 290 airlines and 193 countries have now adopted net zero goals, so the focus has now shifted to short-term action.

Across multiple industries, there is always more to do.

This matters for graduates because they can be quite skeptical about whether employers are doing “enough”, and they will need to stay motivated in the face of changing expectations. One way to tackle this challenge is to engage their curiosity about what employers have done so far, and to encourage them to focus their mindset and their work on being helpful.


4. Two key skills

Developing core employability skills remains vital. Two important skills for sustainability work are commercial awareness and managing up.

Most graduates are hired to support the work of their team. So, even if they have a personal passion for sustainability, their success depends on how well they can advance the priorities of other people. They need to remember this and to invest time in understanding these priorities, including how they can manage up to best support the priorities of their manager.

A solid knowledge of commercial decision-making is vital too. Being more sustainable is the right thing to do. However, day-to-day, employers must still choose between different types of sustainability projects, and that choice is often done on a financial basis. Being able to argue the benefits of a sustainability project in financial terms is key to getting specific projects over the line.


Final note

Finally, it is worth imparting to them a hefty dose of patience. Sustainability issues are complex, and often take years to figure out and fix. However, it can be incredibly rewarding work to be a part of this type of journey. Best of luck to the graduates of tomorrow!

Read more insight and advice on sustainability in graduate recruitment and development

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