Environmental careers and how to get them

offshore windfarm - environmental careers
Investigate green jobs you might enjoy, from careers in renewable energy to becoming an ecologist or sustainability manager.

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Countryside officer Ecologist Waste management and recycling officers Environmental protection Hydrologist Environmental engineer Environmental consultant Environmental charity worker Sustainability manager Energy consultant

Interested in jobs that help the environment? There are plenty of green employment options to choose from. Many of these careers require a degree but there are some where you can get in via an apprenticeship or entry-level job.

Some green jobs have only emerged relatively recently – for example, sustainability careers such as environmental manager or energy consultant. As such, there won’t always be a well-trodden path to the job you want and you may need to be proactive about gaining relevant experience, such as working in a related role first.

Be aware as you read this list that many environmental careers involve balancing the needs of the environment with other factors, such as a business’ ability to make a profit or a public sector organisation’s drive to save money or to provide for residents’ needs. If you want the environment to have top priority in everything you do, consider careers where you can stick to working for environmental charities – see our charities section below – and also roles such as countryside officer.

Careers as a countryside officer, aka conservation officer, nature conservation officer or ranger

Countryside officers – aka conservation officers, nature conservation officers or rangers – are responsible for looking after a particular habitat and the animals and/or plants that live there. This could be anywhere from a small area of woodland within a city to a remote mountain range or stretch of coastline.

Duties include planning how to care for the habitat and then putting this into practice. You’re likely to do quite a bit of the hard work yourself, for example repairing footpaths or drystone walls, so expect to be outside in all weathers. However, there will often be volunteers to help, so you will coordinate their work too. You’re also likely to carry out surveys to monitor how different species are doing, analyse the data and produce reports on these. Other typical office-based tasks include writing grant applications to try to gain funding and keeping up to date with trends and developments – for example projects elsewhere with similar habitats or species, or government policies that will affect your work. Your employer could be a charity, such as a local wildlife trust, or a public body, such as a national park.

You’ll often need a degree to get job. Science subjects relating to biology (such as ecology and zoology), geography or the environment are particularly relevant. However, there are some environmental apprenticeships available, such as the countryside worker apprenticeship.

Careers as an ecologist

Ecologists specialise in understanding and monitoring one or more types of ecosystem (eg rivers) or wildlife (eg bats). Ecologists can work for:

  • public sector organisations (such as local authorities)
  • construction companies
  • universities (where they will combine teaching with their own academic research projects)
  • conservation charities
  • ecological consultancies (who hire out their services to other organisations who need them).

Depending on who you work for, quite a bit of the work may involve conducting environmental impact assessments before construction projects take place. So be aware that your work could be more about reducing the potential impact of a new development on an ecosystem or species, rather than preserving a habitat as it is.

Ecologists need a relevant degree. Ecology is a good bet, or take a related subject such as zoology or biology and select relevant modules.

Careers as a waste management officer or recycling officer

Local authorities need to get rid of the waste that their residents and local businesses produce. There are regulations about how this needs to happen, so that it does not endanger the environment or people, and targets for how much waste should be recycled. Waste management officers are responsible for this; sometimes the role includes responsibility for recycling and sometimes there is a separate recycling officer to look after this side of things.

Waste management officers develop plans for how to deal with waste effectively and within budget, monitor how things go in practice and liaise with others involved in the process (local authorities and private companies often work together). Recycling officers do a similar role and also promote recycling to the public, for example by giving talks or developing new initiatives.

You can get into a waste management or recycling career with or without a degree. If you want to go to university, science and engineering subjects are relevant, including environmental science. Alternatively there are apprenticeships available or you can get a more junior job in the waste industry and work your way up.

Careers in environmental protection and enforcement

There are plenty of jobs making sure that environmental protection regulations are enforced. For example you could work as an environmental health officer, making sure that individuals or organisations aren’t endangering public health – for example in terms of pollution, excessive noise or unsafe food. You could join the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as a drinking water inspector. Or you could work to make sure that factories' outputs are within acceptable limits in a role with the Environment Agency.

The qualifications you need depend on the job you want. A relevant degree is often required but there are some alternatives if you want to start work as soon as possible. For example, you could get an environmental health technician job without going to university, then study for a degree while you work if you want to progress up to environmental health officer level.

Careers as a hydrologist or flood risk consultant

Water’s great when it’s in the right place. Hydrologists deal with all aspects of getting water to where it should be – and keeping it out of where it shouldn’t. This includes predicting the risk of flooding and its possible effects, as well as helping make sure that our drinking water supplies and waste water systems function effectively and investigating potential new water sources. Flood risk consultants – as the name suggests – focus purely on predicting flooding and devising solutions to prevent it.

To get hired you’ll typically need a degree and sometimes a masters degree in a relevant subject. Relevant first degrees include civil or environmental engineering, geography, environmental science and potentially maths and physics.

Careers in environmental engineering, including renewable energy engineering and water engineering

For many engineers, considering the impact of their project on the environment is part of the job. Whether you’re running a power station, designing a new aeroplane or manufacturing toiletries, there will be environmental legislation to comply with and customers who want to hear that you’re doing your bit for the planet. Some engineers have the words ‘environmental’ or ‘sustainability’ in their job title, but it’s really the work you do that counts.

One particular area where you can help the environment is renewable energy engineering, which involves generating power from sources such as the sun, wind and waves. There are jobs working for large energy companies or smaller organisations, though you may need to take a first job in a broader energy role and then specialise once you have experience.

Another area that might appeal is water engineering. This involves making sure that sewage water is properly cleaned before it is released back into the environment – for example by designing effective sewage treatment facilities – as well as ensuring that drinking water is clean and safe, and getting involved in flood defence projects. There’s a lot of overlap with hydrology and flood defence consulting (see above).

To become an engineer, you can either take an engineering degree at university or get an apprenticeship.

Careers as an environmental consultant

Environmental consultants help clients or colleagues by investigating and advising on environmental matters – often, how to comply with laws relating to the environment. For example, their work can include ensuring air quality, dealing with contaminated land, or making sure that environmental factors have been considered before a new construction project or oilfield is given the go-ahead. Typically you’ll specialise in one particular area, rather than trying to be an expert on everything.

Some consultants work for environmental consultancies, which offer their expertise to a range of different businesses and public sector organisations; other consultants work just for their own employer, helping it to meet its own obligations. You’ll need both technical knowledge of your specialist area (eg a good scientific understanding of air pollution) and familiarity with the regulations and processes that surround them (eg how environment impact assessments are conducted). Be aware that the ultimate goal of your client or employer will usually be to make or save money, rather than to go over and above their legal obligations.

A typical route to becoming an environmental consultant is to take a relevant degree; some employers also ask for a masters degree. The best undergraduate degree subject to take depends on what type of consultant you want to be; relevant options include science, engineering, environmental science, geology, geography and town planning.

Careers working for an environmental charity or pressure group

If you want to go all-out to help the environment – rather than balancing environmental concerns with the needs of a business – then a career with an environmental charity or pressure group may suit you. There’s a huge range of roles available. Fundraisers are very important, as are volunteer coordinators, who oversee staff members who work for free. Policy or lobbying jobs aim to change government policy or public opinion on a particular topic; research jobs feed into this too, while also aiming to understand an area more fully. Charity officers can manage projects, apply for grants, manage budgets and help with admin, among other duties. Charities can also employ people in some of the other job roles on this list, for example ecologists or conservation officers. Plus there are many jobs available that you’d find in other organisations – for example HR, PR and marketing staff, social media managers, IT staff and legal advisers.

You can get into charity work with or without a degree. Either way, you’ll typically need plenty of relevant voluntary experience before you get your first paid job; you may also need to get a first job outside the environment sector in order to build experience – for example an office job to gain some admin skills.

Careers as a sustainability manager, aka sustainability consultant or environmental manager

Sustainability manager is quite a new type of job. It’s about helping organisations to reduce their impact on the environment, for example producing less waste or using less energy. For example, you may come up with new initiatives, put these into practice, monitor how they are performing and communicate about them to others inside and outside the organisation. As well as being a responsible thing to do, these actions can also save money and show the organisation in a positive light to customers and employees. At the moment, a lot of the jobs are in areas such as construction and property, where there are plenty of opportunities to increase efficiency, and in local government.

There are sustainability jobs working for just one employer (such as with a construction company) or with a consultancy that works with lots of different clients. There can be quite a lot of crossover with other jobs on this list (such as environmental consultant and energy consultant).

Employers tend to like degrees in areas such as science, engineering, maths, construction and the environment. However, you might need to start you career in a related area while you search for your first sustainability job.

Careers as an energy consultant

Energy consultants help businesses to reduce the amount of energy they use. They assess how much energy is currently being consumed by different parts of the business and why, then look for ways to reduce this. For example, this could include recommending more modern equipment that will take less energy to run, making buildings more energy-efficient, encouraging staff to be more energy-conscious or changing working practices. They also advise on how businesses could obtain more of their energy from renewable resources, or offset their energy usage.

An engineering degree is a good first step towards becoming an energy consultant, though other subjects are sometimes accepted.

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