What a Career Path in Sustainability Really Looks Like

How one young woman turned her passion for sustainability into her career.

by Rebecca Scurlock, September 13, 2017
sustainability careers

Ana Ferreira is a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental research (CIIMAR) of the Porto University. She recently won the BIP Program 2017 and obtained a full scholarship for a Magellan MBA. She is an absolvent of the Catalyst Professional Education Course of Climate-KIC.

ana ferreira - sustainability career

We had the chance to chat with Ana about how she got where she is today.

Why did you decide to take a Professional Education Course in the area of sustainability and climate change?

I am currently working at CIIIMAR (Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental research), Porto University, where I develop work connected to the rehabilitation of urban water bodies to promote better water quality and management, which increases local biodiversity and citizens’ well-being. Hence, I became very interested in attending a Professional Education Course in the areas of sustainability and climate change to enhance my knowledge of innovative processes for project development in this area of expertise. Working on sustainability and climate change requires participation of all local actors, such as municipalities, technicians, researchers, and citizens, which can be truly facilitated by the innovative processes taught in these courses. Usually, such methodologies are transmitted in a business environment for business-oriented projects, which means these courses are unique opportunities for people working on sustainability or environmental projects to get this kind of knowledge and practice.

In your opinion, why is there such an increased trend among young people to work in the area of sustainability?

Young people – millennials – grew up with the word sustainability. We understand that for something to continue, it needs to be sustainable. This concept can be applied to all our projects, no matter our areas of expertise. We have to be certain that all our projects and actions are sustainable to be truly successful in the long run. Also, we are very conscious about the multiple possibilities for the re-use of products and sub-products, so the circular economy and sustainability are at the core of our education and follow us throughout our professional and personal lives.

What was the trigger for you to choose the career path in the field of sustainability?

As a biologist specializing in Conservation Biology, I always felt very connected to ecosystem restoration. This is the only way we can guarantee the ecosystem’s sustainability and enjoy all the services it provides. However, it was only when I started working in the “Ponds with Life” project at CIIMAR that I understood the true value of ecosystem restoration as a way to guarantee sustainability in cities and natural areas. Working in real, practical project implementation with local actors gave me a great sense of accomplishment and was for me the trigger that led me to choose a career in sustainability and innovation.

You are active in a working environment focused on, or even based on the notion of sustainability. Are the tasks in your job comparable to “normal” working places?

The tasks are quite the opposite from the so-called “normal” working tasks in terms of dynamic innovation. Although some tasks are performed to achieve a specific goal, as in “normal work” environments, the processes needs to be more dynamic, involving totally “out-of-the-box” ideas and a great deal of transdisciplinary thinking. Working on sustainability means that my work environment, and its tasks, need to go beyond the walls of my office. One minute I am meeting with the head of the municipality, and the next with the citizens that are experiencing the challenges in the field. Usually I have an office where I perform most of my “normal” tasks (such as writing emails, meeting with colleagues, writing documents), but the real action on sustainability happens while I am engaging local actors and implementing projects, my other and favourite “office.”

In your opinion, are there indispensable skills for a professional in the field of sustainability?

Yes – indispensable skills include the capacity to engage other people in the projects you are developing, having an innovative mindset, knowing how to work across disciplines, having good communication and creativity skills, and understanding the circular economy well. Lots of passion and motivation are also key.

Are there many possibilities of choosing a career in the area of sustainability or is it still difficult to find a job? 

Sustainability is a very broad topic involving a wide array of entities, such as large companies, SMEs, municipalities, ONGs, etc. All of them need to practice sustainability in their core actions. This means that there is a growing trend of sustainability-related jobs, because there is a great demand! Young people like challenges, innovation, and sustainable choices. Such new opportunities enable them to find a job where their creativity, knowledge of sustainability, and principles can best help them build a solid career, breaking out of the less-satisfying “traditional jobs.”

In your opinion, what type of jobs do we need for a sustainable future? Also, what kind of education is needed to get enough qualified people for the development of green cities?

The types of jobs needed for a sustainable future involve biology (ecologists, conservationists), environmental science (environmental engineering, climate change modelling), landscape architecture, social sciences, the circular economy, and sustainable management. However, I think it’s more important that sustainability is incorporated into different areas of expertise, not just the disciplines I mentioned. This requires, of course, that professional education has a strong component of sustainability, and offers the opportunity for students to work in transdisciplinary teams to solve real challenges related to sustainability (e.g., a final university project in which architects work with biologists to overcome real sustainability challenges). This would ensure that graduates in all areas of expertise are knowledgeable about sustainability and have the capacity to work in a transdisciplinary way.