Looking for a Career in the Green Economy?

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Director of the Hixon Center

Looking for a career in the Green Economy? Here are some tips on where to look.

Harvey Mudd College graduates are smart, hard-working and dedicated. You graduate in sought-after STEM fields. Many of you move on to pursue graduate studies. As a result, you typically have job offers in hand before or shortly after graduation, and many of you succeed in combining your passion with a great job and an excellent monthly paycheck.

For those of you whose passion is environmental sustainability, it may seem daunting to step off the college campus and into a career in the amorphous green economy. Until 2011, the nation’s major employment data collector – the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics – didn’t even have a green economy’.

As part of the Hixon Center’s #SustainableCareers month, we want to provide you with some guidance on what to look for in a green job, where to find one and what high-growth sectors and well-paid positions are out there.

Defining ‘Green’ Jobs

There is no traditional classification of “green” or “not green” economic sectors or job categories. The concept of the ‘green economy’ – also referred to as the ‘clean’ or ‘low-carbon economy’ – emerged over the past two decades as new technologies and associated skill sets developed that focused on pollution mitigation, waste reduction, and climate change by transitioning to a low-carbon, low-resource intensity economy. Many of the sectors working on these problems, such as waste management, construction, natural resources and mining, are not new, and neither were many of the jobs they offer. However, there has been an accelerating shift towards specialized, eco-conscious sub-sectors such as renewable energy (e.g., solar and wind power) and jobs in operationalizing sustainability (e.g., Sustainability Officers). Thus, the new green economy is represented in several sectors, both mature and new, leading the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to define Green Jobs as:

With that said, to find your dream job in the environmental sector, you must take the time to learn about both the business or organization, as well as the position’s specific role within that institution.

The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program conducted an in-depth study of the clean economy in the nation’s metropolitan areas with some interesting and helpful findings for job seekers. Here are a few relevant highlights:

  • In 2010, the clean economy employed approximately 2.7 million workers across a diverse group of industries – more than the fossil fuel industry, but less than the IT-producing sectors. Most clean economy jobs are found in mature sectors (e.g., construction, manufacturing and public services). A smaller, but more rapidly growing, portion of clean economy jobs reside in the renewable energy field (e.g., solar photovoltaics (PV), wind power, fuel cell, smart grid, biofuel, and battery companies).
  • The clean economy grew at a relatively modest annual average of 3.4 percent between 2003-2010, but newer, specialized cleantech businesses grew faster and showed more resilience during the recession.
  • The clean economy is manufacturing- and export-intensive, with approximately 26% of jobs in manufacturing establishments compared to just 9 percent in the broader economy, and exporting at twice the value of the typical U.S. job.
  • The clean economy thrives in metropolitan areas with vibrant industry clusters (groups of similar or related industries). Cities vary in their clean industry profile, with some having more service-oriented businesses, while others dominate in manufacturing.

The Brookings report also developed a helpful grouping of green economy categories and industries that can help you structure your job search.

Brookings-Battelle for Clean Economy Categories and Segments (2010 Jobs in Parentheses)

Agricultural and Natural Resources Conservation

  • Conservation (314,983)
  • Sustainable Forestry Products (61,054)
  • Organic Food and Farming (129,956)

Education and Compliance

  • Regulation and Compliance (141,890)
  • Training (266)

Energy and Resource Efficiency

  • Appliances (36,608)
  • Energy-saving Building Materials (161,896)
  • Battery Technology (16,129)
  • Energy-saving Consumer Products (19,210)
  • Electric Vehicle Technologies (15,711)
  • Fuel Cells (7,041)
  • Green Architecture and Construction (56,190)
  • HVAC and Building Control Systems (73,600)
  • Lighting (14,298)
  • Professional Energy Services (49,863)
  • Public Mass Transit (350,547)
  • Smart Grid (15,987)
  • Water Efficiency Products (13,066)

Greenhouse Gas Reduction, Environmental Management and Recycling

  • Air and Water Purification Technologies (24,930)
  • Carbon Storage and Management (391)
  • Green Building Materials (76,577)
  • Green Chemical Products (22,622)
  • Green Consumer Products (77,265)
  • Nuclear Energy (74,749)
  • Pollution Reduction (9,986)
  • Professional Environmental Services (141,046)
  • Recycled-Content Products (59,712)
  • Recycling and Reuse (129,252)
  • Remediation (56,241)
  • Waste Management and Treatment (386,116)

Renewable Energy

  • Biofuels/Biomass (20,680)
  • Geothermal (2,720)
  • Hydropower (55,467)
  • Renewable Energy Services (1,981)
  • Solar Photovoltaic (240,152)
  • Solar Thermal (5,379)
  • Waste-to-Energy (3,320)
  • Wave/Ocean Power (371)
  • Wind (24,294)

Source: Brookings Institution. Sizing the Green Economy (PDF) (accessed 10-27-2016).

Among the aforementioned categories, the renewable energy sector experienced the fastest job growth, growing at an average of 8.3% per year and outpacing the 4.2% job growth rate of the entire economy.

Harvey Mudd graduates will find more good news when examining the composition of the green economy, as it favors scientists and engineers almost 2:1 compared with the general economy.

Composition of the Green Economy

Composition of the Green Economy

In regards to the geographical distribution of green jobs, it might be surprising to learn that approximately one third of green jobs is located in the South. Another 25% are based in the western U.S., whereas the Mid-West and Northeast are home to 23% and 20% of green jobs, respectively. When measured as a share of total employment, the western U.S. takes the lead: 2.2% of the region’s jobs are in the green economy. California is the country’s largest employer of green economy workers, followed by New York and Texas. In these states, green technologies, services and manufacturing are the primary job providers, while in Alaska, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Wisconsin, the focus is on land and natural resource conservation and management.

However, if you’re an urbanite trying to decide which big city to call home after graduation, the choice might be difficult considering how many metropolitan areas have thriving green sectors.

Metropolitan areas with thriving green sectors

Metropolitan areas with thriving green sectors

Are you interested in joining companies seen as pioneers and trailblazers? You might want to look at the Global Cleantech 100 Report, a biennial list of the top 100 global clean economy companies best positioned to solve clean technology challenges and disrupt the markets in which they innovate. Here are some of the companies from the most recent report:

Company Name Country Sector Year founded
4Energy UK Energy efficiency 2005
Advanced Microgrid Solutions US Energy storage 2013
AirBnB US Other cleantech 2008
AirWare US Other cleantech 2010
Alphabet Energy US Energy efficiency 2009
Anesco UK Energy efficiency 2010
Anuvia Plant Nutrients US Agriculture & Food 2008
Apateq Luxembourg Water & wastewater 2013
Aquion Energy US Energy storage 2007
AutoGrid US Smart grid 2010
Avantium Netherlands Biofuels & biochemicals 2000

Source: Global Cleantech 2015 report.

Of course, feeling good about doing good is one thing, but paying the bills is another. So, how do wages and salaries in the green economy compare with those in the rest of the economy? The Brookings report finds that ‘green collar’ jobs, on average, earn 20% more than comparable jobs. For Harvey Mudd graduates, we would typically think positions such as scientists, senior engineers or managers. Forbes conducted a study on the top ten green jobs salaries of at least $100,000. This list is a bit dated now, but it is not likely to have changed very much.

  1. Chief Sustainability Officer
  2. Environmental Engineer
  3. Environmental Lawyer
  4. Climatologist/Environmental Meteorologist
  5. Renewable Energy Manager
  6. Environmental Specialist/Scientist
  7. Senior Urban Planner
  8. Commercial/Industrial Designer
  9. Conservation Scientist
  10. Senior Hydrologist

Source: Forbes. Six-Figure Green Jobs  (accessed 10-27-2016)

Some of you might still be hesitant and wondering: is the green economy is here to stay? We are convinced that it will: the list of environmental and sustainability challenges continues to grow: from climate change to water scarcity, food production and mobility, a growing population and rising living standards are putting more stress on limited environmental resources and absorptive capacity. Indeed, leading researchers view sustainability as a Megatrend in the 21st century. Thus, even absent eco-conscious government policies, the market in the U.S. for green companies and their products is expected to grow and supersede the $1.25 billion in venture capital that have already flown into cleantech between 2005-2010. Innovation in science and technology in the green economy will continue and provide more, exciting opportunities for Harvey Mudd graduates to make their mark and find a fulfilling career.

To learn more about green economy careers, internships and other opportunities, please contact us at hixoncenter@hmc.edu or swing by our office in Parsons Engineering Building, Room #1255.


  1. Unfortunately, the BLS’s important work on measuring the green economy was cut by the so-called Budget Sequestration in September 2013, thereby terminating a critical source of data and analysis.
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS Green Jobs Definition (accessed 10-27-2016)
  3. Brookings Institution. Sizing the Green Economy (accessed 10-27-2016).
  4. Global Cleantech 100. (accessed 10-27-2016).
  5. David E. Lubin and Daniel C. Esty (2010). The Sustainability Imperative. Harvard Business Review No. 43, May 2010.