Most sustainability professionals don’t go into sustainability fields to make money. They care about the environment, helping people and making a difference in communities or in companies. The reality, however, is that while working in sustainability, you still have to be able to sustain yourself and your family. While saving the world may be your goal, there’s no denying that a good salary is important, too.
If salary matters to you, take note: the highest median salaries in sustainability are found in science and management as opposed to social sciences or humanities. Naturally, entry-level positions have lower starting salaries than positions higher on the management or decision-making chain; and, positions with higher salaries usually require higher levels of education (such as graduate degrees and/or certain certifications) and more years of specialized experience.
Below are the top 11 highest-paying careers in sustainability:
- Chief sustainability executives (Average annual salary of $166,910): Chief sustainability or environmental executives or directors (titles vary by employer) are typically fill the top sustainability position in a company and are in charge of envisioning, developing and implementing sustainability initiatives. Ultimately, the buck stops with them when it comes to how sustainability is practiced and enforced within an organization. As The New York Times points out, “the titles vary, mixing and matching “chief” and “vice president,” “sustainability” and “environmental,” making it impossible to track how many people fill the role. But whatever they are called, the new environmental chiefs—many of them named in the last two years—wield extraordinary power.”
- Natural sciences managers: (Average annual salary of $114,770): Natural science managers must be both scientists and managers as they often coordinate teams of scientists and researchers focused on sustainability problems or challenges. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “if there are multiple scientists, such as a chemist, atmospheric scientist, and an environmental scientist working on a large project, the science manager will oversee and coordinate the efforts of the other scientists.”
- General and operations managers (Average annual salary of $95,150): While a chief sustainability executive sets the tone and direction of sustainability at an organization, a general or operations manager brings ideas to life in the day-to-day operations, production processes and services of a company. Duties vary widely, but tend to include waste minimization and recycling, pollution prevention, financial efficiency and energy and water conservation and efficiency.
- Chemical engineers (Average annual salary of $92,930): Chemical engineers make chemicals and chemical processes more sustainable. They may work to minimize the toxicity, waste and pollution associated with the production or use of chemicals, creating chemicals that are biodegradable or not derived from fossil fuels.
- Atmospheric scientists (Average annual salary of $89,790):Atmospheric scientists study the impact of air pollution and climate change on organisms, people and ecosystems. They may also research ways to lessen the air pollution caused by an industrial process or service.
- Industrial production managers (Average annual salary of $88,190): Like general and operations managers, industrial production managers are often tasked with increasing efficiency and decreasing the pollution associated with production or manufacturing processes while remaining on schedule and within budget.
- Environmental engineers (Average annual salary of $79,050): Environmental engineering is a broad category and could involve a variety of work depending on the employer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Environmental engineers use the principles of biology and chemistry to develop solutions to environmental problems. They are involved in water and air pollution control, recycling, waste disposal, and public health issues.” Other areas of focus could include stormwater management, sewage disposal and treatment and developing new processes that turn waste into usable products (such as turning yogurt containers or plastic water bottles into park benches or jackets).
- Civil engineers (Average annual salary of $77,990): Civil engineers focus on designs for buildings, bridges, water supply or sewage treatment plants and other large systems. They might be involved in green building design that reduces air and water pollution and decreases greenhouse gas emissions.
- Health and safety engineers (excluding mining safety engineers and inspectors) (Average annual salary of $75,470): Health and safety engineers design processes and systems that ensure the safety of people and the environment. They may focus on the occupational health and safety of workers, machine inspections, air and water quality and control and the design of processes and systems to control chemical, physical, radiological and biological hazards. They may also be involved in monitoring and ensuring compliance with state and federal laws and regulations.
- Industrial engineers (Average annual salary of $77,240): Similar to their managerial counterparts, industrial engineers design processes that help companies become more efficient and less wasteful; however, they are focused on developing and implementing strategies and rather than on supervision. Industrial engineers might work on issues like energy efficiency, recycling, waste minimization and pollution prevention.
- Campus sustainability coordinators or managers (Average annual salary of $45,000-$62,059): Sustainability coordinators or managers at colleges and universities are increasing in number. Sustainability coordination or management is a good starting position for those just getting into sustainability in the higher education field, and those in these roles may eventually move into more senior positions including chief sustainability officer, executive or director. Sustainability coordinators or managers mostly work on operational issues like climate planning, energy efficiency, waste and recycling, sustainable food systems, water efficiency and student engagement in sustainability. However, a growing number work with faculty on sustainability degree curriculum development and research, and many engage with the municipalities and states in which their colleges or universities are located.