Young People & Careers in the Green Workforce

Study reveals high school students’ changing understanding of environmental careers and how they can develop resilience.

by Rupu GuptaNicole LaMarcaKate FlinnerNezam ArdalanShelley Rank
Apr 27, 2021

Research has shown that environmental and conservation education programs for youth can help develop environmental stewardship and nurture interest in future career pursuits. However, we noticed there was little research on how young people perceive the varied skills and capacities needed in environmental careers. A deeper understanding of these perceptions and expectations would equip the environmental field to support young professionals who are knowledgeable of the diverse skills, interests, and opportunities involved in professionally solving environmental problems. This is especially important for young people who identify Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, who face many barriers to enter environmental careers. We also wanted to study how these new perceptions are related to students’ personal resilience, which is critical for professionals in the environmental field.

To get to the heart of this issue, we studied an internship program for high school students, run by The Nature Conservancy. Interns in the program represented a wide range of racial and ethnic identities. During the program, called Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF), interns worked with ecologists, biologists, and science communicators at field sites. Our study, published in the journal of Applied Environmental Education & Communication, showed that after the internship high schoolers believed more strongly that environmental professions involved responsibilities like educating others, conducting research, and influencing policy than before. In other words, they learned about the multidisciplinary skills needed in environmental careers. Not only that, but interns also developed adaptability – particularly skills in adjusting their actions to meet the needs of a given situation -- which is a key component of resilience.

Let’s Put It to Work

For environmental education professionals - In programs designed to build interest in the green workforce, environmental educators can highlight the broad spectrum of activities that are critical to environmental work, such as practicing law, developing policy, creating communications, and conducting research. Regardless of the disciplinary focus, we also recommend that programs can emphasize the implications of environmental work for society and young people’s ability to have a positive impact. Relatedly, educators should consider how to incorporate assessments of how youth’s understanding of environmental career choices grows and changes.

For leaders of environmental organizations - Young people with diverse identities are interested in careers in the environmental field. They will learn to navigate the environmental workforce, and they will also shape the field itself. Employers in this sector should consider how they will embrace new generations of professionals. Incorporating culturally responsive practices and policies should be a central feature of environmental organizations’ work.

Photo (c) The Nature Conservancy

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