engineering majors

'Green' employment is growing steadily (but quietly)

September 5, 2013: 2:13 PM ET

Renewable energy, water management, sustainable building technology, and other planet-friendly fields are producing a fresh crop of jobs.

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FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: Since I have a son and a daughter starting college right now, I read your recent article on picking a major with interest. My daughter plans to study environmental engineering, and I'm just wondering, is that a smart choice? It seems to me that there was a lot of talk about "green" jobs a few years ago, but now that seems to have faded away, to the point where you hardly ever hear anything about job creation connected to sustainability. I'm all for my children pursuing their interests while they're in college, but I'd also like to see them get opportunities in their chosen fields after they graduate. What do you think? -- Monterey Mom

Dear M.M.: As a general rule these days, any major that includes the word "engineering" is an excellent bet. Employers across a wide range of industries are snapping up STEM (for science, technology, engineering, and math) grads by the thousands, and there aren't enough of them to go around.

Moreover, the shortage may be even more acute four years from now. The Department of Labor forecasts a 17% rise in STEM job openings over the next few years. Many high school and college students seem to be getting the message: Almost half (46%) of U.S. teens say they want to aim for STEM careers, according to a new survey by Junior Achievement and the ING U.S. Foundation. Even so, that's a 15% drop from the number who said so in 2012.

As for environmental engineering, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects faster-than-average employment growth of 22% by 2020 (and notes that environmental engineers currently earn a median salary of around $80,000). To boost your daughter's prospects, you might suggest she take a few courses in hydrology and civil engineering, whether or not they're required.

MORE: Energy's unexpected jobs boom

"One of the biggest areas of demand for environmental engineers, now and in the years ahead, is water-supply management," says Judith Albert. "Many parts of the U.S. are facing serious water shortages plus an old, leaky water-supply infrastructure. It's a tremendous engineering challenge that isn't going away, and solving it will take a lot of talent" -- and create a lot of jobs.

Albert is executive director of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a New York City-based consortium of "green" companies and venture capitalists. The nonprofit's 800 members have started or invested in more than 1,400 enterprises in sustainable energy and other earth-friendly fields. Those companies now employ about 500,000 people.

In the second quarter of this year alone, E2 reports, businesses and local and state governments launched at least 58 new clean-energy and transportation projects, generating almost 40,000 jobs -- a slight increase over the 37,000 such jobs created in the same quarter last year. E2's new website shows exactly where they are: An interactive map of green employment in the U.S. is searchable by state (California leads the pack) or by sector (solar energy, wind power, green building, and so on).

Albert acknowledges that, as you note, there isn't as much fanfare about green jobs as there was a few years ago, but that doesn't mean things have come to a halt. "There is a real and continuing growth in green activity and jobs," she says. "A lot of what's changing now is subtle. For one thing, a big push for sustainability is spreading through industries that people don't usually think of as 'green.'"

Such as? "When Nissan builds electric cars in Tennessee, and installs car-battery chargers in its parking lots, those are clean-energy jobs, even though the people on the assembly line may see themselves as 'just car guys,'" Albert says. "And when Wal-Mart (WMT) puts the word out that they want less packaging, to help lessen the clutter in landfills, that pushes change all through the supply chain" at hundreds or thousands of vendors.

MORE: Wal-Mart's D.C. wage battle: A shortsighted skirmish

Other retailers are greening up, too. Between 2011 and 2013, for instance, the percentage of retailing companies using green technology in new stores, or retrofitting old ones to be more energy-efficient, rose from 18% to 38%, says a June report from McGraw-Hill Construction. At the same time, among hotel companies, the percentage of those using green building practices increased from 28% to 48%, the report says.

One more example: Sustainable-business website TriplePundit, in a recent list of the top five fastest-growing green jobs in the U.S., included one you may never have thought of: Fashion designer. Big names like Oscar de la Renta and Diane von Furstenberg are paying more attention to sustainable manufacturing methods and incorporating organic clothing into their collections since they've discovered their clients are willing to pay more for "eco-apparel."

Four earth-friendly careers on TriplePundit's list outrank haute couture. One of them, you may be glad to hear, is environmental engineering.

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