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Amid green jobs boom, some Singapore youths score dream gigs, others have a bumpy ride

SINGAPORE: Where would all the spiders go? That thought sparked Too Fang Ning’s interest as a child in how humans impacted the environment, as she watched a field next to her home turn to concrete.

She immersed herself in nature, learned about Singapore’s ecology and grew certain that she wanted to work in something environment-related, and “not just in (her) free time”, said the 23-year-old.

But for a while, it seemed that jobs for someone like her were mainly in niche areas like environmental impact assessments.

In the last few years, however, the environmental studies graduate has seen roles sprouting up in various sectors, from manufacturing to finance to communications. More and more “regular” companies were embedding sustainability in their day-to-day business and hiring sustainability professionals.

As countries including Singapore square up to climate change, there has been a concerted effort to cut carbon emissions from activities like power generation, transport and food production as well as protect forests and other ecosystems.

In 2021, when Singapore launched the Green Plan 2030, with targets such as quadrupling solar power deployment by 2025 and planting a million more trees, it highlighted the green economy as a growth engine that will bring about new jobs and new skills requirements.

This means people like Too have more opportunities than ever to pursue careers aligned with their passion. And growing numbers of young people are interested in these green jobs.

It came after her stint as a pro bono intern just before her final year. She found the work “electrifying for the brain”.

That passion for advocacy she’s always had has now found its place in teaching and research. This year, she was appointed a Sheridan Fellow at NUS Law. It is a fellowship “to groom the next generation of law academics in Singapore”, Tanne said, and her specialty will be environmental law.

As for Too, whereas her peers felt doom and gloom about climate change, she saw a problem that could be solved. She was particularly interested in how corporations could do more for nature “without dragging their feet”.

What caught her eye leading up to her graduation this year was environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing, which has emerged in recent years. It takes account of environmental, social and corporate governance factors when evaluating companies and making investment decisions.

Seeing a shift in companies’ attitudes towards sustainability — from something to comply with to perceived risk and opportunity — encouraged her. In June, she began work in the ESG team at an investment firm.

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A SENSE OF PURPOSE AND JOB SECURITY

In Singapore, Accenture has found the highest demand for green skills in water treatment, environmental engineering, renewable energy and climate change, said Mark Tham, its country managing director for Singapore.

According to government agency SkillsFuture Singapore’s Skills Demand for the Future Economy 2022 report, jobs with high demand growth lie in areas like green facilities management, carbon markets and decarbonisation strategies, sustainable investment management and photovoltaic energy assessment.

This has opened pathways for youths who have the technical skills but maybe not an avid interest in environmental issues.

Take, for example, Lim Kang, who studied materials science at university because it offered “the greatest possible options in terms of specialisation in different industries”.

Given his parents’ pharmaceutical careers, the 26-year-old might have gone into the biomedical industry. But a series of part-time jobs and internships at solar energy companies opened his eyes to the renewable energy sector.

“Towards the later part of university, clean energy kind of boomed or gained a lot of traction. So it also gives me some sense of security (to be) moving towards this space,” said Lim.

“We need a lot of new people to do a lot of research (and) engineering work for all the components and … materials for (the industry).”

Indeed, there was no shortage of jobs after he graduated last year. Lim applied to four solar companies for both corporate and engineering roles. The job search took two to three months, and eventually he joined clean energy provider EDPR as a business development executive.

While most listings, he said, were looking for candidates with a qualification in sustainability, he hoped his volunteering experience and involvement in his previous company’s sustainability initiatives could make up for it.

Some roles he considered were product manager in a start-up that traced data in the natural rubber supply chain and account manager in the built environment industry. Both, however, felt too niche for his liking.

Safa recalled starting to get “really nervous” by the third or fourth month of his job hunt, as he had got fewer than five interviews.

“(I started to think), are my standards too high? Am I expecting too much in the career switch? Do I need to take something that doesn’t align with what I want to do and then slowly work my way up?”

Julian Lee, too, left his first job as a cloud engineer in a technology services firm after just over a year to pursue his passion for ecology.

At university, he had chosen electrical and electronic engineering simply because he was good at mathematics and physics. But he realised engineering was not what he wanted to do in the long term.

“It’s a bit spiritual, but when I thought about … being called to serve the world, my mind (turned) to ecology or sustainability,” said the 27-year-old.

“Nature’s always been something I like. I live right next to a park. I go (for) walks whenever I’m troubled or need some fresh air. I think it’s helped me a lot.”

Hazel Chan, meanwhile, was halfway through her business and communications degree course when she set her heart on a job in sustainability. It would give her a strong sense of purpose and pay decently, she thought.

From then on, she threw herself into internships and networking with anyone in the field who was willing to share insights.

She connected with people on LinkedIn and asked for video chats, to find out their likes and dislikes about their job, the skills required and what roles were most attainable for people like her without a technical and environmental background.

The 26-year-old decided she wanted to do sustainability consulting or work in-house for a company, helping to calculate and manage its emissions.

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• Work hard for it

What Chan lacked in skills, such as knowledge of the various reporting frameworks, she made up for by attending courses she could afford.

But when she graduated in April, she was disappointed to find most companies were looking for candidates with two to three years’ experience for the roles that had interested her.

Out of about 20 applications, she received a handful of callbacks. “I felt like I’d spent the last two years trying to grow a portfolio, but it wasn’t enough,” she said.

Chan mostly did not make it past the first round of her interviews. In her final interview, she switched tack: Instead of emphasising why she wanted to work in sustainability, she demonstrated how she had “carved (out) her own pathway”.

She landed a role as a sustainability and communications executive in a multinational food manufacturer and started this month. Her responsibilities include putting together the company’s yearly sustainability report, accounting for its carbon footprint and monitoring regulations.

In its Youthquake Meets Green Economy report, Accenture said companies can appeal to young job seekers in several ways.

These include offering employees creative freedom and facilitating unusual combinations of expertise, such as climate science and artificial intelligence, or chemical engineering and innovation.

Companies can also create new green businesses that are decoupled from their legacy businesses, and build “internal capabilities for sustainability in all business divisions, which could include introducing and tracking new sustainability key performance indicators”.

And to make opportunities more accessible, companies could invest in skills certification programmes for incoming semi-skilled or unskilled workers as well as create more specialisation pathways.

Meantime, some youths are paying it forward by helping the younger ones.

To help like-minded fellow undergraduates, Too, who had been tracking green jobs on an Excel sheet to prepare for graduation, went a step further and organised a green career fair at NUS in January.

As the outreach director of the environmental studies student committee back then, she invited 12 organisations from various sectors to provide updates on career pathways. She estimates that there were about 300 attendees from faculties across NUS, including business, computer science and arts and social sciences.

“A common challenge is that sustainability is very broad, and no one knows where to start,” said Too. “So the career fair is like a shallow swim rather than a deep dive into what lies out there.”

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