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Working for a greener world

Some kids always knew what they wanted to do when they grow up. I wasn’t one of them, writes Sue Northam-Ras.

© WWF South Africa
For many young learners, deciding what to study is a big decision with many overwhelming options and considerations on how it could evolve into a relevant and meaningful job.

I think there is truth in choosing a career pathway based on that thing that we were most drawn to doing from a young age. For me, that thing was asking questions and then writing about what I realised or discovered. I invite you to think about what that thing was for you while reading the rest of this blog.

What to do after school

I enjoyed many subjects at school from English to Home Economics, Biology (Life Sciences) to Geography. After school I'd considered studying Journalism. Alas, when we looked into South Africa’s gold standard at Rhodes University, combined with living-away-from-home costs, it was out of our budget.

So my mom suggested I do a career profiling test. I distinctly remember the weather when I went: one of those stormy Cape winter days where the rain is relentless and the air is icy. It felt like hours that I sat at a wooden table making crosses on a piece of paper, answering multiple choice questions about my interests and preferences.

What to be or not to be

Back in 1997 when my career test results were finalised, there were five careers that I was best suited for: working with plants, in public relations or as a journalist, librarian or school teacher.

As my mom had been a school teacher I vowed not to work as hard as she did for so little pay. Being a librarian didn't appeal to me, and in contrast journalism seemed hugely exciting. As for plants, I had propagated cuttings from a young age but had never considered a degree in botany.

That left me with public relations, or 'PR'. The concept itself was new to me. It intrigued me.

The career advisor suggested an excellent PR course at the Cape Technikon, in my home town.

© WWF South Africa
Well-managed internships that are paid and last a decent amount of time are a useful way for graduates to gain valuable hands-on work experience between studying and applying for a first-time job.

From course work to career path

At first I thought that PR sounded a bit calculated. It was defined as the practice of deliberately managing the release and spread of information between an organisation and its stakeholders.

Reflecting on 19-year-old me, I didn't grasp the notion of PR until well into my second year. I wonder how often this is the case for other young students. It’s much easier to imagine a career if your profession is to be a doctor, game ranger, teacher, journalist, librarian or such.

As part of our three-year course we had to do a year-long internship. Only when applying for the internship positions did I realise how many job options there were. I could work for a PR agency which serviced many different clients, I could work inside a specific company or I could choose to work for a social or environmental NGO, to raise awareness for its cause.

I chose a PR agency for my internship. As a PR officer, I creatively planned the positive spread of information for our clients, engaging with the media to place stories plus organising events, CEO engagements and more. I loved learning on the job and using my writing skills to shape stories.

Before internet, and beyond

My paper-based career profiling process might seem foreign to anyone who is under 25. Most of today’s first-time university goers were only born in the late 1990s or early 2000s, when the internet was an infant and social media didn’t yet exist!

Social platforms today are integral to how we get and share information. Even a social media manager - as is abundantly common as a job choice now - was not on the horizon back then.

I was making my career choices when Google hadn't yet formed; when search engines were still rudimentary. Fast forward to 2020, the 'world wide web' is an intertwined maze of info and creative ideas, fake news and fabulousness. In the realm of career guidance today, the information available is more abundant than ever.

New jobs have arisen as a result of the fast-changing world we live in - and the current reality of Covid-19 affecting every aspect of life as we know it will no doubt change the job landscape again.

© Unsplash
Through the impact of the global health crisis from the coronavirus, nature is finally being recognised as an essential service - critical to how we work, consume, live, survive and thrive.

A green career for our shared future

A younger me imagined a 'green job' as that of a zoologist, a game ranger or working with orphaned animals - the more traditional jobs in the environmental sector.

While I didn't imagine that I would be working for a greener world when I was younger, my career has progressed in this very direction. I am delighted that today I am working in the communications team for WWF.

It is exciting how the scope of green jobs has evolved over the years. Now there are many ways of making a green career choice that can bring benefits for our country and ensure that a healthy environment supports our collective well-being.

Through WWF’s Graduate Internship Programme, I have been exposed to a diverse mix of both traditional green careers and emerging green jobs: from the classic marine biologists and the estuarine ecologists who focus on ocean and river health, to the emerging roles of environmental economists who follow and influence socio-economic trends through an environmental lens, and chemical engineers who can work on developing biofuels and such from sustainable sources rather than other petro-chemical compounds.

I’ve also learnt about sustainability managers working for retailers and big brand corporates, plus electricians, plumbers or town planners who bring a sustainability focus to urban development. The green careers space is wonderfully diverse and presents a vast array of opportunities for people with different qualifications, fields of study and skillsets.

© WWF South Africa
For over a decade, WWF has been running a one-year professional internship programme for university graduates to work in the environmental sector. The next intake starts April 2021.

Towards a greener world, and beyond

In response to the crises of health and climate, what are the green jobs that will be needed the most? Where can we be most relevant? What will be the most in-demand jobs?

Choosing what you study or which career path to follow can be your way of working towards a better future for the environment and your country, and the people you share it with. And, if you find yourself working in a company without a strong environmental and social awareness, how can you bring in the critical conversations and the transformational shifts to embed sustainability and social inclusion in everyday practice?

A healthy functioning natural world is essential. From maintaining balance between nature and people, to how we produce and procure food and the source of our energy, nature is central to all. From the way we build houses, transport systems and cities, to the way we write and communicate... 

The jobs of the future will hopefully all be green, whether an environmental social media manager (and other communication roles) to the many emerging and new green jobs yet to be discovered and defined.

Sue Northam-Ras Photo
Sue Northam-Ras , Communications Manager

Sue believes in making information valuable by writing and shaping content in a way that gives it meaning. She packages the environmental content for WWF South Africa.

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