How can I, a total weirdo, get a job saving the environment?
July 17, 2011 11:47 AM   Subscribe

Green career ideas for a right-brained, mechanically challenged sociophobic introvert who doesn’t want a desk job?

I’m looking to get out of my public service job and into an environmental job of some kind. I’ve been researching this for ages and feel like I’m trapped in a hellish career change idea vortex. Ideas I’ve seriously considered (and dismissed):

*Naturalist (poor job prospects, plus I’m loath to spend any more time in chaotic environments teeming with children)
*Electrician working on wind turbines or some such thing (I’m terrified of heights, mechanically inept and would probably electrocute someone)
*Science writer (crowded market, I’m not really the go-getter journalistic type)
*Environmental nonprofit (my partner does this for a living and watching him I’m certain this career would make me go insane. Plus I have ADHD and a desk job is like torture.)
*Landscape design/installation (still maybe considering this, but wondering if there’s a way to make it work as an actual person in the field who does not destroy one’s body with manual labor and also earns a living wage)

The one career category that I keep coming back to is that of an environmental scientist or technician. I would like to be out in the field rather than trapped at a desk. I can’t afford a whole lot of schooling, and was thinking about attending my local community college to get an “environmental science safety and health associate degree.” However, I haven't been able to figure out whether getting a career in this field would be benefiting the environment, or simply helping corporations figure out how much they can get away with polluting. (This is based on doing searches for jobs in this field on and other job sites.)

I realize that my list of restrictions is a bit ridiculous, and at some point will have to go ahead with something that is not perfect for me. I’ve read this thread and this one. I’m looking for more ideas, or an insider's perspective on why I'm right or wrong about any of my above career ideas.
posted by indognito to Work & Money (22 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
*Landscape design/installation (still maybe considering this, but wondering if there’s a way to make it work as an actual person in the field who does not destroy one’s body with manual labor and also earns a living wage)

Installing and maintaining landscape elements - and I'm thinking here of everything from specimen trees to lawns to rock wallks to doing grading and drainage work of a minor sort that a general contractor wouldn't farm out to a non-landscape sub- doesn't "destroy one's body". My family business has been large-scale landscape design and installation as well as running a large tree and shrub farm for 4 generations and the number of employees who have developed a disability or lasting injury on the job has been insignificant. There is of course the potential for repetitive strain injuries - though the work is rotated often enough that this is far less of an issue than in e.g. berry agriculture - and the more dangerous work is done with mechnical assistance from machines and hand tools.

This type of job can suck in other ways - being outside in the sun and rain, dealing with unreasonable customers who think the guy installing a 10-foot-diameter root ball tree is there to help with their houseplants, working with incompetent contractors on bigger jobs - but the potential for physical injury is not one of the reasons to avoid the job. If you're more on the design side you'll be leading by example anyway - you'll be doing some physical labor to train people and stay involved on the situation at particular job sites - but the overall volume of physical labor will be reduced.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 12:00 PM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you thought about environmental building/construction? I worked for a high school that developed a school-within-a-school that emphasised green issues, and the research that we did into the field (including what careers seemed most promising) showed that green building is the "hot" field right now.

That doesn't mean that you have to swing a hammer necessarily, but it may at least give you a new search term.

Good luck!
posted by guster4lovers at 12:06 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you thought about environmental building/construction?

Yes, LEED-related jobs could be a possiblity - anything from coordinator on site for a large GC to energy modelling to building commissioning to estimating/sales related to geothermal or any of the other "green" technologies to working for companies that separate demolition materials for recycling and on and on. If you don't want an engineering degree look for comm college courses that offer diplomas in construction management or building science or the like.
posted by jamesonandwater at 12:33 PM on July 17, 2011

Tell us more about what you positively like and want, what you lose yourself in doing, not just what you want to avoid.
posted by brainwane at 12:38 PM on July 17, 2011

Depending on where you live, you might become an installer for low cost, low tech residential evaporative roof cooling systems, solar water heaters, or solar voltaic systems. These jobs mostly involve minor assembly and installation of solar system components on the job site, carrying them up ladders, and mounting them on roofs. Skilled people often come later to add programmable system controllers, make the electrical and/or plumbing connections, get the system programmed and running, and teach the homeowner how to use and maintain the system.

You could become a pond technician, and maintain ponds and water features on golf courses, commercial and residential properties, and public parks.

You could become a sewer lining installer, and work for private contractors or cities needing to reline leaking sewers.
posted by paulsc at 12:57 PM on July 17, 2011

Energy auditor.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:09 PM on July 17, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you for your responses.

Brainwane, sadly I don't really lose myself in doing anything that could conceivably be construed as a job (does reading or walking through the woods count?) Although your advice to look for positives rather than negatives is sound.

Iris Gambol, paulsc, guster4lovers and jamesonandwater, thank you for your green building recommendations. I am definitely going to investigate these options further. I especially am attracted to the energy auditor idea because it seems like this could make a real difference.

Inspector.Gadget, thanks for your info on landscape design and installation. I need to find a family business like yours in my area. I know there are several organic and natural lawn care-type places--will look into these further.

Sully75, you make a good point. I'm just holding out hope that I could find a meaningful job I don't totally suck at.
posted by indognito at 1:50 PM on July 17, 2011

What about forestry? I keep seeing advertisements for what seem like really swell jobs in that field.
posted by Jess the Mess at 2:25 PM on July 17, 2011

I have done a bit of work in public policy regarding all things green so I have seen quite a bit of what the field has to offer. Where in the world are you? What is your education and professional background? Would you be willing to go back to school? What skills do you have? You don't have to answer, but keep that in mind when you browse websites like Green Jobs or Idealist for jobs and find ones that seem appealing.

Green jobs really can be anything from contracting to desk work to lobbying to community organization to legal work. Depending on where you are there could be several organizations you could volunteer with to check out and see if you like what they do.
posted by munchingzombie at 2:30 PM on July 17, 2011

You like walking in the woods alone? Hie thee to the nearest university and start trying to find work as a field biology research assistant. As the summer ends all the students will go back to school, so you might be able to fill in for the fall.
posted by salvia at 2:39 PM on July 17, 2011

Basically, that job requires being able to go out -- maybe with one or two others, hike off trail all day, find something (e.g., stakes in the ground, coin-sized markers on trees, a radio-tracked animal), and then record something systematically (e.g., all the plants along a transect between two trees). You have to be fit, able to tolerate long hikes (boring to me), organized and careful. You might have to go live in a trailer or cabin near the research site. Also, over time you'll need to learn to identify things -- but that's surprisingly easy to get good at, and in the meantime, you can be a helper/recorder.
posted by salvia at 2:49 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Brainwane, sadly I don't really lose myself in doing anything that could conceivably be construed as a job (does reading or walking through the woods count?) Although your advice to look for positives rather than negatives is sound.
As you try to think of the activities you enjoy, do not limit yourself to the things you can currently imagine as job-related. One of your problems right now is a lack of knowledge and imagination regarding labor in general, the industry you believe you are most interested in, and the market as a whole. If you talk about what you like, then someone may be able to point you towards a niche you'd never heard of.

So: what activities do you find fulfilling, sustaining, enjoyable, inspiring, or otherwise suited to your temperament, skills, or personality? Yes, reading and walking through the woods count.
posted by brainwane at 3:31 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

A big reason I press the point: Relevant career Venn diagram. If you love something, and then discover (via us or other advisors or research) that there's a way to get paid for it, then you'll be passionate and motivated and supported enough to work at it enough to get good at it, and then you'll be set.
posted by brainwane at 3:40 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Salvia, I'm very intrigued by your suggestion. Not knowing very much about it, that sounds like a dream job. Will be looking into it for sure. Same with forestry (thanks Jess the Mess). I've considered forestry, but have always been scared off by the strong possibility of having to relocate to get a job. Munchingzombie, I do need to get into some volunteer work--I've just been spinning in circles with the "research" phase and perhaps it's time to take action. Brainwane, the cynic in me says there's no way I'll be able to earn money doing "what I love" but perhaps this attitude is what has me in this awful state of indecision in the first place.

Thanks all for your answers.
posted by indognito at 5:56 PM on July 17, 2011

Indognito, yes, you need to allow your curiosity to win over your cynicism for just long enough to make a list of activities that suit you, and then post it so the people advising you have that information. Sounds like you have two:

* reading
* walking in the woods

Got three more?
posted by brainwane at 7:52 PM on July 17, 2011

For what it's worth, "Mechanically inept" is often fixable. It's not like other people are born knowing how to drive a nail, or how a carburetor works. It's just another set of learned skills that you haven't learned yet. So, you don't have a head start — but if you set your mind to it, catching up won't be impossible.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:13 PM on July 17, 2011

What part of the world do you live in, indognito? Does your nature loving extend to fauna, or is it just the fauna that interests you? What earnings expectations do you have? And how willing/able are you to retrain for your hypothetical new career?
posted by londonmark at 4:00 AM on July 18, 2011

*bah, flora of course. I need more coffee.
posted by londonmark at 4:01 AM on July 18, 2011

Response by poster: Brainwane, reading and walking in the woods are really at the top of the list, but I also do enjoy writing, drawing, and being outdoors and observing the world around me (everything from bugs and birds in the garden to the kids trying to tip over the porta-potty at the park).

For what it's worth, "Mechanically inept" is often fixable.
Thanks, it's good to hear that as someone who is none too confident in the mechanical realm.

Londonmark, I'm in a pretty unexciting part of the Midwest US, so probably no ecotourism for me (unless I work for a travel agency?) More into fauna than flora, though both are interesting. Not planning on ever making a fortune, and willing to do some retraining, though still paying off student loans from my liberal arts education 10+ years ago.

Thanks for your thoughts.
posted by indognito at 5:30 AM on July 18, 2011

I was going to suggest park ranger then, or at least something within the national parks system. I doubt you'll get filthy rich doing it, but I imagine it could be personally rewarding and ticks a lot of boxes. Good luck.
posted by londonmark at 6:43 AM on July 18, 2011

If your state is participating in this program and you are interested in the energy efficiency, green building or renewable energy fields, you might want to check if you are eligible for a training grant. The range of training (varies by state) that is eligible for funding is pretty wide from energy performance auditing to sustainable agriculture so it might be worth looking at just for the ideas. Best of luck!
posted by sacapuntas at 11:41 PM on July 18, 2011

Maybe I'm out on a limb here, but have you considered farming? There's not exactly a steady salary or regular hours to be found here, but many of the successful (small-scale organic/sustainable) farmers I know are folks who love to be outdoors and absolutely cannot stand a desk job.

ADHD seems to run amok in the farming community...there are always a hundred tasks to be done, and some of them can be easily switched between. An introverted and eccentric personality is well-suited to the planting/tilling/weeding/animal care aspects of farming. (As in you can spent lots of time by yourself, working with plants and soil directly.)

You might want someone else to handle the farmers' market/CSA aspects if you're very introverted.

I've spent hours weeding and talking with farmers/fellow farm interns/volunteers whether organic/sustainable farming counts as 'helping the environment' or 'activism.' In a small-scale, super-local way, organic farming done correctly builds soil by adding nutrients to it. This can help prevent erosion and other problems. (For tons of detail on this, read The Soul of Soil.) In a larger-scale way, maybe you'd help people get access to healthy food and reduce the amount of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides from going into the earth. Beyond that, the activism point may be hard to support.

Mechanical ineptitude could be an issue, especially as most small/organic/sustainable farmers who actually make it financially are heavily mechanized (read: use tractors for planting, weeding/cultivation, tilling, maybe harvesting). Using tractors and other equipment obviously saves time, and saves your body from doing it all by hand.

There is minimally paid training most fields (no pun intended), there are a plethora of internships out there for getting experience and seeing if you like it. Most pay very little - I made $125/wk during my first season, and $200/wk for the next season. Both of these internships came with free housing and food, which made it feasible for me as a college student with health insurance. If you're already an adult with a place to live and all, probably the housing won't be as valuable of a "perk."

But if you're at all interested, here are some places to learn more:

ATTRA - Directory of sustainable farming learning experiences/jobs
GrowFood - Another director of internships/volunteer opportunities
posted by brackish.line at 1:06 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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