Melissa Everett's Professional Site

A sustainability maven explains what she actually does for a living…

Letter to the Graduating Class

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A radio interviewer recently shocked me with a question about an energy challenge campaign I was promoting – which was really a question about human nature. On the subject of cutting our carbon footprint a mere ten percent, he asked, “Frankly, don’t you think our generation is too selfish and set in its ways? It’s going to have to fall on the young people to make real change.”

That’s too easy. My generation, the Boomers, and those before ours, helped to build a world of fossil fuel use and industrial agriculture and financial institutions that have gambled with the futures of the generations to come. You do not want to hear the state of the world; you probably don’t want to hear us apologizing for our short-sightedness – or, from those of us who have devoted our lives to creating more sustainable approaches, apologies for not being more successful.

You are entering the labor market before much of the Class of 2010 has been fully absorbed into meaningful employment. You are hearing a buzz about green jobs – renewable energy installation, smart grid engineering, transportation modeling, and materials research to produce better stuff with fewer toxics, to name some key opportunities . However, for the most part, the overall economic situation, and the slow movement of environmental policy, have kept the performance of the green economy far below its promise. As graduates, you are bringing your calm and accepting sensibilities out into a very competitive environment.

This predicament has already taking a toll with recent graduating classes and probably with you. According to a Business Week article written in the depths of the economic crash, young people are less and less likely to vote, and are paying less attention to the big picture, than they were a few years ago. Are you saving your strength for finding work?

It is not the business of the older generation to ask you to change that.

But there is one question that’s in your best interest to consider, if you want to see a stronger economy, and especially a stronger innovation sector. Where will all the green jobs come from?

What does it take to create a job? Aggregate demand. There has to be a market for the products or services, that is translated into the cash needed to hire the work force. For example, if a solar hot water system installation team of two can put in two systems a week, then it takes at least 100 installations a year to keep those people employed.

Aggregate demand is simply the consumers’ willingness and ability to use the products and services in question. The ability factor is, of course, tied to affordability and availability. When those things are workable, then the willingness factor kicks in, and that means the choices each of us makes.

If you want green jobs, patronize the green economy that exists now, and use all your leverage and influence as a citizen to promote green policies that will grow the clean tech sectors. Not only does the health of the environment depend on this – your economic future depends on it mightily.

As an illustration of the connection, consider what the state of Michigan is doing. Governor Jennifer Granholm’s state Climate Action Council last year recommended 54 specific policies and programs to reduce the state’s carbon footprint 20% below 1990 levels over the next 15 years, an ambitious and necessary goal. Achieving this goal will create 129,000 jobs and add $25 billion in revenue to Michigan’s industries. Michigan, California, Massachusetts and New York are among the populous states with fairly aggressive climate action plans. Those are the states where you are most likely to land your first job in these key industries.

These cornucopias of emerging opportunity do not come easily. In New York, where I live, one of my colleagues who makes her living in energy outreach was summoned into the local office of the Department of Labor where she was asked, a little angrily, “Where are those green jobs? Where are they?” In fact, as the state continuously tweaks its incentives for solar and wind installations, as the utilities get into the energy efficiency game, as a big new program in home weatherization nears rollout, the jobs are following. But the stepping stones to opportunity pass through the wonk domains of energy policy, utility regulation, employment and training programs.

These fields also hold opportunities to use a rich palette of skills – in communication, organization, strategy, data management, research, creative arts and more.

What is it that will make you compete in the job market or succeed in starting a business? Three fundamentals:

  • a unique value proposition that you offer in a way nobody else does;
  • a network of collaborators and clients who can use that value proposition;
  • the strength of will and heart to do the best possible work.

 

Now, what does it take to be an effective citizen and consumer doing your part to build the market for those good green jobs? Pretty much the same thing! Throughout my career, I have been an activist as well as an organizational leader, a counselor and coach, and a communicator. And the most reliable source of business for my day jobs and my counseling practice, by far, has been the networks of shared values and commitment that I draw from my allies in activism.

The social movement that is taking shape today – for climate action and a green economy – could be the most exciting, because it is not only about policy; it’s about innovation. Tens of thousands of people are involved in directly creating the world they want to live in, and plenty of them are young:

  • Gavin McIntyre and Eban Bayer, principals of Eco-Vative Design, graduated from RPI in 2008 and are running a company that makes packing material and insulation from agricultural waste and mushroom-derived enzymes.
  • Vik and Veena Patel, eco-preneurs near the University of Iowa, have created a pedi-cab business transporting people between campus and downtown Iowa City, staying in shape and providing a low-cost, flexible transportation option.
  • At Erasmus University in the Netherlands, where I got my Ph.D., graduate students in mechanical engineering designed and built a dance floor whose lights were powered by the kinetic energy of the dancers.

The world you are entering has less certainty and security than ever before – and more choice. And here is the encouraging side of this reality. While large corporations have provided their form of security, they have done so with reward systems that take much of the magic out of your working days. Organizational psychologist Daniel Pink, surveying four decades of research on human motivation, reminds us that peak performance comes when we are doing our own work, not somebody else’s. If you have a chance to ask for just one graduation present, ask for his new book, Drive, which he writes:

The secret to high performance and satisfaction-at work, at school, and at home-is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

The circumstances around you are an invitation to entrepreneurship. You have all you need to create those lives of purpose. But please – don’t let the older generation off the hook for changing too.

© 2008 Melissa Everett. Published by New Society Publishers

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Written by melissaeverett

September 5, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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