Educators Say Higher Ed in Sustainability a Must; Business Execs Mostly Agree
Higher education in sustainability and environmental management is more important now than ever before, some education professionals believe. While environmental work was a fringe issue decades ago, this is no longer the case. “The issue of the environment has merged with the issue of economic development. In the seventies, managers could avoid paying attention to these issues; today they can’t,” says Steve Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and consultant to the EPA.
Environmental management has become a necessity. “Now, with the sustainability field evolving, every manager in the next decade will have to be a sustainability manager,” he says. Cohen, who is also the director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy, as well as the Master of Science in Sustainability Management at Columbia University, says serious harm can come to companies that fail to recognize that sustainability and economics must coexist. “Companies like GE and BP have ended up spending billions of dollars because they weren’t paying attention,” he says.
To an extent that increases daily, companies regularly task employees – who may not have the word “sustainability” in their titles – to tackle complex issues that confront business leaders under the sustainability umbrella. Operations, environmental health, marketing and supply chain executives may find themselves assigned sustainability as a new objective. Leaders of innovation, product development, and new markets are increasingly required to develop and implement sustainability plans, as well, says Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University. “When a company hires a professional with a higher education in sustainability, they’re hiring someone who is up to date on relevant topics and best practices, and will have the leadership and communication tools needed to make a business case for sustainability and help to embed sustainability into their organization’s overall strategy,” Crow says.
Higher education in sustainability is also important, some educators believe, because sustainability covers an incredible breadth and depth of disciplines. “Those who haven’t been trained become overwhelmed by the demand to merge new and emerging needs and ideas with traditional systems and strategies,” says Crow. “Often they have trouble stating the sustainability business case to decision-makers. Sustainability leaders know how to take this new reality and use it to inform overall strategy, innovation, investment, engagement and, ultimately, company success.”
Education vs. In-the-Field Experience
But in the field of environmental and sustainability management, companies might want to consider hiring managers who have hands-on experience in the work world as well as a degree in higher education, sustainability professionals say. A degree is useful, because it gives a job candidate important knowledge, but that alone is not enough, says Bob Pojasek, managing partner with RL Expert Group. “If you have a traditional Masters’ degree in science or engineering, [you expect] that you will develop the skills on the job,” Pojasek says. “Companies, however, believe that you will come with these skills. They are usually disappointed.”
The work done in receiving a Master’s degree can provide a deep basis of foundational knowledge and improve an individual’s ability to communicate the often-complicated ideas regarding sustainability or manufacturing, says Matthew Littlefield, president and principal analyst of LNS Research. “However, this is no replacement for on-the-ground experience and seeing how theory is actually deployed in reality,” he says.On the other hand, job candidates with higher education will bring a level of knowledge to the business that translates to reduced training, ramp-up costs and time, says Justin Grau, senior engineer with Con Agra Foods.
The ideal candidate, Littlefield and Grau agree, is someone with a strong academic background coupled with real-world experience. “Most of the things that I, and many of my counterparts, experience in the field is not taught in the books,” Grau says.
Educational Programs Offer Knowledge, Know-how
Some university Master’s programs have begun to focus on giving students these opportunities for real-life experience so they are better prepared to help companies solve real-world problems. Columbia’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy, for example, teaches system-based thinking focused on management and policy, with concentrations on earth systems, sustainability and conservation. In one course, a three-semester workshop, students focus on a bill or international treaty that has been proposed. They study the science of the problem, and the potential solution and program to carry it out, and develop a plan to put the program into place. Then the students engage in fleshing out these projects for government agencies and non-profits, offering pro bono analysis and gaining experience doing problem solving in the real world, explains Steve Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and consultant to the EPA.
“In my experience with the EPA, I’d be sitting around with lawyers and economists, and we’d be talking about issues like toxicology. And none of us were toxicologists,” Cohen explains. “The combination of science and communication, in real world problem-solving, is important in a Master’s program.”
Another sustainability program that has given students the opportunity to experience real-world challenges is the University of California Berkeley’s project to develop a socially responsible investment fund run by students.
The SRI fund offers Berkeley students in the Haas School of Business real-world experience in how to deliver a strong financial return and have a positive social impact. Since 2008, the student principals have grown the initial investment of $1.1M to $2M+, a more than 50% return on investment over six years, outperforming their environmental, social and governance (ESG) benchmarks, according to the school. Students working on the project conduct their own research on the ESG performance of the companies they are considering, and deal with real-world accountability that has tangible repercussions.
The Harvard Extension School’s Sustainability and Environmental Management is another program that offers experience in the work world. The program offers a track that includes an internship and a “capstone project” that hones professional skills by having students complete work in the field. Students joining the program are those looking to learn project management skills, says Pojasek, who is also a thesis director for Master’s degree candidates in the program. “I would always want to hire a master’s person if I wanted someone at the project manager level because they understand the science and engineering behind these issues,” he says.
Higher education is absolutely critical to develop the deep expertise that is needed across so many sectors; the caveat here is that the knowledge that is obtained must be able to be translated from an academic perspective to an applied perspective, says Dan Bena, senior director of sustainable development for PepsiCo. He adds, “In addition, the one thing that is crucial, and which cannot be taught in halls of higher education or elsewhere, is passion.”
Look for a mix of passion, the ability to articulate it influentially, and the support of a strong educational background for a winning combination in potential employees, he suggests.
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