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Students seek more fulfilling jobs in green fields

Fin MacDonald, sustainability analyst with engineering company Morrison Hershfield Ltd. in Ottawa, by a green wall at Carleton University April 11, 2013 in Ottawa. Mr. MacDonald started as an accountant and wanted to do something more meaningful so moved into the environmental field.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Four years of working as an accountant in Halifax was giving business grad Fin MacDonald second thoughts about his career choice.

"I wanted work I could attach meaning to. But I wasn't really getting that in accounting," Mr. MacDonald says about his decision to enroll in a two-year energy sustainability engineering technology program at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC).

"I wanted to do something that didn't just have benefits to my bank account, but also made a difference in the world. I work better when I can attach some value and meaning to my work," says Mr. MacDonald, who found the program opened a spectrum of green careers.

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"Every time I got to another semester, the gears in my head started meshing on different options. Originally, I thought I might want to be in solar power. Then I thought I'd like to specialize in energy conservation in older buildings. Then during a summer, I did a research program on energy monitoring."

That led to his current specialty: doing energy audits and monitoring greenhouse gas emissions, explains Mr. MacDonald, who graduated last spring and was immediately offered a job as sustainability analyst with engineering company Morrison Hershfield Ltd. in Ottawa.

Green specialties are among the fastest growing careers in Canada and the growth should continue as employers make a transition to greener practices and greater energy sustainability, according to a new survey by Calgary-based ECO Canada.

That's spurring colleges, technical institutes and universities to expand their offerings of degree and certificate programs in environmental specialties, says Grant Trump, founding president and chief executive officer of the group that monitors the green employment market.

"Our surveys find that young people are seeking out specialized green education programs because they want to make the world a better place," Mr. Trump says.

And it helps that the training can lead to solid employment. Its study found that the number of Canadians who work as environmental specialists has risen close to 700,000 today from about 250,000 10 years ago, and that about 2.2 million Canadian workers perform environmental activities for at least part of their time on the job.

Most universities now offer four-year environmental science programs at the undergraduate level and there are a wide range of two- and three-year environmental technology diploma programs offered through colleges and technical institutes.

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And increasingly, graduates with generalist degrees in science, economics and engineering are enrolling in one- or two-year postgraduate programs being offered in energy supply and sustainability, conservation, engineering and green architecture.

Green jobs with the fastest growth rates are tied to environmental protection: in air, water and land. Also in growing demand are positions tied to resource conservation and renewable and green energy, Mr. Trump says.

"A lot of these areas have requirements for people beyond science and engineering and there will be a spectrum of green roles in the humanities and social sciences, business management and law, as well," he adds.

But these are not necessarily new green career paths, as much as they are transformations of the jobs we already know, notes Ashaf Zohar, associate professor and founding chair of the sustainability studies program at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. The sustainability program's courses draw on faculty from not only the hard sciences and engineering, but also the humanities and social sciences.

"I find that students are looking for jobs that do things in fundamentally different ways than they have been done in the past," Dr. Zohar says.

They want work that addresses the challenges they see to their future, whether those are in environment or climate change or social issues. "And they see the need to extend the time frames beyond the focus on quarterly results and to find different approaches to generate value," he adds.

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Trent launched its two-year graduate program in 2010 and it has drawn students from across Canada by word of mouth, he says. "We don't really have an advertising budget, so students come in having heard of the program from other students or other programs at other schools."

To keep courses relevant to opportunities in the job market, programs like NSCC's in sustainable engineering regularly consult with employers about the kind of green specialists they are looking to hire, says instructor Scott Henderson.

"A lot of organizations are implementing energy management systems and they say they will have full-time energy managers as part of their organizations in the future," he's found. The two dozen students in NSCC's program study process development and renewable energy technology and graduates become specialists in designing energy saving systems for commercial, industrial and residential buildings.

A specialty of the program is setting standards for new buildings and energy-saving retrofitting of homes. The program has an 1,800-square-foot super-insulated home that's set up as a laboratory to test passive energy, heat storage and solar power systems. "It looks like a regular house, but if you look at the energy bills, they're 90 per cent less than a typical house," Mr. Henderson says.

While much of the curriculum is technical and engineering-focused, the program also teaches economic analysis. "That's often what makes the most convincing argument in terms of activities that the graduates will be engaged in," he notes.

As green careers continue to evolve, so will the demands for professionals to stay relevant, which means education is destined to be life-long learning, Mr. Trump cautions.

"Employment is expanding, but it also dynamic. That will mean the competency requirements will be constantly changing. So individuals will have to rely on continuing education in order to keep pace with the fast-changing trends in green jobs throughout their careers."

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More


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