How a Master of Public Administration (MPA) in Sustainability could offer the optimal blend of skills for a career in sustainability management.
In the 1970s, there’s a real lurch off the bottom as the ecology movement took hold and the world reeled from an energy crisis created by oil export shortages from the Middle East. Then nothing remarkable emerged for more than a decade – until the mid to late 1980s, the era that gave birth to the Brundtland Report.
“Our Common Era” was the official title of the 900-page report issued by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development. Spearheaded by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, the report was the first catalog of the crises to come, describing the tension between growing populations and economies and the limited resources the world contains.
It was that report that set out the first universal definition for sustainable development:
Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
In the years since, that definition launched a thousand ships of sustainability into the public and corporate consciousness, sending the concept out into the world to become something that most of us think about almost daily.
Sustainability may now be something of a buzzword, but it’s also a moral imperative. The planet we live on is very nearly an entirely closed system. The Earth is vast, full of wonders and life, but it is finite. Barring the bits of space dust that rain down or the fractional few hydrogen and helium atoms stripped away from the upper atmosphere by solar wind, what we’ve got here is all we’re going to get and all that we will ever have.
Making use of the Earth in ways that do not degrade, pollute, or damage it is a matter of survival. And today a new brand of professional is stepping forward to manage sustainability in a way that achieves that goal.
It may be that humanity is still in the early days when it comes to taking that goal seriously. We can’t see the full scope of the future. But we can hope that new studies and a new wave of professionals focused on sustainability management can make it a better one for all of us.
- What Is Sustainability Management?
- How Public Administration Has Become Crucial to a Sustainable Future
- How the Modern World of Sustainability Management Continues to Evolve
- Developing the Skills and Expertise To Take on the Hardest Sustainability Management Roles
- Why the Master of Public Administration in Sustainability Is the Ideal Preparation for Sustainability Management Roles
- Exploring the Diverse Coursework That Make MPA Programs in Sustainability Unique
- Choosing the Right College for Your MPA in Sustainability
- Exploring the Wide Range of Careers Available in Sustainability Management
What Is Sustainability Management?
As a general concept, it describes a state that is necessary for the survival of humanity. In more specific usage, though, it can cover everything from forestry to fishing.
So amid all the grandstanding and advertising for things like sustainable fossil fuels, and dozens of other improbable branding efforts, it’s easy to lose track of what global sustainability really means.
Sustainability is commonly described as involving three overlapping dimensions:
- Environmental – The environment is both the thing to be protected for human habitability and the source of all the resources we need for sustenance. Environmental security is a necessary condition for life and happiness.
- Economic – Economic productivity remains the lifeblood behind human societies and the leverage through which resource scarcity can be managed. Any effort must be economically viable to be sustainable.
- Social – The human factor, through culture and interaction, influences how both economic and environmental priorities are weighed in both individual and collective decision-making. Social equity is a touchstone used to make sure sustainability efforts are both practical and ethical.
These three factors exist in both tension and mutual support, a trifecta of considerations that must be brought to harmony to achieve sustainability. They are the good and the bad of the system all in one package—the source of abuses and the key to correcting them.
It’s also important to understand the concept of sustainability itself is impacted by each of these realms. In the social realm, it’s a normative perspective on what is or is not acceptable or endurable. Economically, it’s what is affordable. And environmentally, it’s what the system can or cannot support over the long term.
On a Long Enough Timeline, the Survival Rate Always Drops to Zero
Many alternative energy sources, in fact, rely on finite resources such as rare earth metals used in wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries. And the recovery and extraction of those resources, particularly at scale, comes with its own environmental costs. On a long enough timeline, will that be sustainable?
Sustainability managers are the ones who will have to make the complex calculations and trade-offs when data is unclear and priorities are in dispute.
Sustainability boils down to living within our collective means. But the actual mechanisms to make that happen, and the areas, industries, and attitudes to be taken into consideration, together may represent the most complex set of issues humanity has ever had to address.
This collection of intersectional problems represents a massive undertaking, complete with a staggering set of requirements for in-depth knowledge and specialization. They include:
- Global climate change
- Environmental justice
- Resource conservations and management
- Community and regional development
- Global food security
Not only do each of these serious issues need to be managed in their own right; they also need to be weighed, balanced, and addressed collectively to have any hope of success.
How Public Administration Has Become Crucial to a Sustainable Future
Sustainability requires leadership. If it were easy or natural, it would simply happen. But the effort required to make most things sustainable runs counter to the path of least resistance. It takes leaders with inspiration, actionable plans, and keen organizational skills to convince the world to consider a more sustainable path forward.
Government provides a platform and the muscle for those leaders. Only governments can make laws and enforce them. They have the resources and the capability to investigate, inspect, and compel environmental and social practices in a way that no other organization can.
Working through public administration also offers the socially-accepted path for enacting certain changes that would be required in social habits – it wasn’t until curb-side bins began showing up, for example, that most people had any way to sort recyclables from trash.
Additionally, with social justice as a major factor in sustainability management, enacting measures that have the potential to create scarcity or impact livelihoods can only happen with consent of the governed.
Sustainability Management Extends Beyond Just the Public Realm
Many sustainability professionals today also work in academia. It’s a field full of emerging research and fresh ideas, so bringing it all to the public consciousness is work for teachers and scholars.
There are many roles in the non-profit space, as well. Here they encounter fewer bureaucratic obstacles and can focus on smaller constituencies than those working in government. That can be appealing if your interests in sustainability have a particular focus in terms of the people, places, and issues you want to serve.
Clearly, concentrating a small number of highly trained sustainability professionals in only one corner of our social web won’t have the broad scope and far-reaching impact that a sustainable future demands. And so sustainability must be a cross-platform, inter-industry, society-wide effort.
How the Modern World of Sustainability Management Continues to Evolve
There is also the occasional wildcard that shakes up sustainability efforts. The COVID-19 pandemic came with all kinds of unexpected side effects, from dramatically increasing death rates to creating a new population of patients with long-term illness. And the Russian invasion of Ukraine put energy security at risk, while at the same time putting several nuclear power stations in danger. But unexpectedly, it also dramatically accelerated Europe’s transition away from fossil fuel dependency, accomplishing in a year what was expected to take decades.
That variability goes to show that there are bright spots and opportunities even in catastrophe that sustainability managers can seize on. But it’s also an indicator of the kind of complexity that sustainability management embodies. And with so many moving parts on the table, that complexity requires specialists in the field. More governments, corporations, and non-profits are coming to understand that.
Developing the Skills and Expertise to Take on the Hardest Sustainability Management Roles
So, what kind of skills does it take to do the job of a sustainability manager?
You’ll recall that all sustainability efforts have to hit on social, economic, and environmental considerations.
Anyone who wants to manage sustainability measures effectively will need some knowledge and skills touching on each of those three areas.
The recognition that global sustainability is a problem that must be managed collectively is resulting in a groundswell of demand for expertise. LinkedIn analyzed sustainability job listings posted between 2016 and 2021 and found that sustainability manager was growing faster than any other, at a rate of 30 percent annually.
With more jobs overall requiring sustainability skills of some sort, the demand for managers who are well-versed in those principles and leadership skills is similarly on the rise. But what exactly do those skills look like?
In some sense, these positions are like any sort of public administration job. They revolve around organizational and leadership skills in fundamental management fields like:
- Human resources
- Accounting and finance
- Project management
- Strategic planning
But they also rely on important new fields and skills like:
- Environmental science
- Sustainable construction management
- Social sciences and intercultural competency
- Green energy and renewable technologies
And because sustainability is necessarily global, it also calls for people who have strong cultural knowledge and relationship-building skills.
These are the kind of people who are concerned about tomorrow and willing to roll up their sleeves and build it better. They aren’t concerned with fitting into the molds laid out by earlier generations; they show up prepared to fix legacies of waste and injustice and lay down the law to prevent such inequity in the future.
Some activist zeal along with a degree that covers the gritty details of what it takes to design and implement sustainable solutions can be a powerful combination.
Why the Master of Public Administration in Sustainability Is the Ideal Preparation for Sustainability Management Roles
Sustainability managers have long had to choose from among different options in different specializations within the broader field. Degrees in environmental science, organizational leadership, social science, and engineering were commonly considered standard preparation.
There are also more degree programs in various skill specializations starting to turn up with sustainability concentrations. For example, you can find degrees in diverse fields such as these offering options for a sustainability focus:
- Project Management
- Business Administration
And of course, there are degrees in sustainability and sustainability management itself, like the Master of Science in Sustainability.
But it’s becoming clear that the Master of Public Administration in Sustainability may offer the best way to make a meaningful and lasting impact in sustainability management.
They are also found with variations like the Master of Public Administration in Sustainability and Social Justice or the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Policy and Sustainability. These degrees offer distinct learning outcomes that are right in line with the sea-change of the modern equity movement, while also being fully aligned with the requirements for high-level positions in sustainability management.
That’s because it’s only in the realm of government that all the elements of a problem and its solution can be weighed. As we’ve seen, the three aspects of sustainability include not just environmental realities, but also the equally important elements of economics and social acceptance.
Public administration is the art of bringing these realities together—the work that goes on at the forefront and behind the scenes to create definitive policy. No in-depth scientific study alone will give you the skills to negotiate deals with titans of industry, and infinite command of the details of the climate cycle can’t give you a knack for swaying public opinion.
Public administration training, combined with a concentration in sustainability, offers you all the skills needed to advance practical sustainability in ways that make it stick.
Like most master’s programs, the typical MPA takes two years of intensive study to complete, though it covers a broader range of topics than other degrees commonly pursued in this field.
Choosing the Master of Public Administration with a Sustainability Specialization as Your Path
That could mean a bachelor’s in political science, or even business management if the mechanics of governance or business are your major interest. Or it could mean a degree in the hard sciences, like biology or even environmental engineering, to support a more technical sustainability management career.
Of course, for many, there are also undergraduate programs in sustainability practice and policy that lay a natural foundation for continuing on to advanced sustainability studies.
Public administration graduate programs often look to experience during the admissions process, giving consideration to jobs and volunteer work that may have intersected with sustainability efforts.
You’ll often need to articulate your interests and reasons for pursuing an MPA in a personal statement or essay when applying. And most programs prefer one or more letters of recommendation from mentors or supervisors.
It’s also possible, although less common, for MPA programs to require scores from the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) or GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test). Even if not required, however, most programs will accept submission of your scores, and they can be a factor that weighs in your favor if they are high enough.
Exploring the Diverse Coursework That Make MPA Programs in Sustainability Unique
A sustainability or environmentally-focused MPA will keep most of the same classes, but may offer them with a sustainability spin to focus on the unique challenges in the field.
Some of the exciting classes on the syllabus for sustainability MPAs include:
- Organizational Development and Leadership – Nothing happens in any kind of organization unless the structure is aligned with goals and values. And developing that structure requires the elements of leadership the MPA is known for: developing an understanding of human motivation and behavioral drivers, and how to put systems in place to take advantage of those factors. You’ll learn about making decisions in complex scenarios by analyzing and breaking problems down.
- Project Management – Projects, large and small, but all of great importance, dominate sustainability work. Honing your ability to manage programs of all sizes means mastering the basics of project management work. That includes resources assessment, tracking, communicating with stakeholders, and managing staff. You’ll learn how to plan and track timetables and use common tools like Gantt charts and Excel to keep everything on track and everyone on the same page.
- History – One of the clearest intersections in sustainability and public administration is that both place a strong emphasis on understanding how we got where we are. Very little of the world of public administration makes sense without understanding the history that led to our current form of society, governance structures, and cultural expectations. The same is true of perspectives on sustainability, environment, and consumption. All of these are subjects you will explore in courses that lay out the history of modern sustainability management and public administration.
- Psychology and Social Science – Public administration is a job that can be very literal: administering the public. That puts it squarely in the category of work that is heavily impacted by group psychology and social mechanisms of behavior. Savvy administrators learn about how people are wired individually and as social beings, and what the latest developments in behavioral psychology can reveal about how to reach and motivate the public.
- Governance Systems and Policy – The form and expression of government power, its legitimacy, and its limits are absolutely key things to understand for sustainability management. These classes teach both the theory and philosophy of government and dig deep into the practical expressions and applications that have emerged throughout history. You’ll also do a deep dive of some of the key elements of government power that are commonly used in sustainability management, including eminent domain, administrative regulation, and inspection powers.
- Managing Public Organizations – Sustainability managers have oversight over large departments, requiring all the basic management skills required of any organizational leader. You’ll get training in budgeting, financial analysis, accounting basics, human resource management, and the day-to-day management skills required to keep teams tracking toward the right objective. Public entities also often have unique considerations since they are both constrained by law and frequently unionized, so you’ll get the broad strokes of administrative considerations in these courses.
- Data Analysis and Program Evaluation – Sustainability is rooted in science, and sustainability managers need the basic skills to assess and evaluate information coming in from a wide range of sources. Whether it’s production data, pollution monitoring, even social media analysis, or some combination, it takes specialized tools and methods to derive meaningful insights from huge volumes of information. You’ll study some of the basic theory of data analysis and learn about the tools you can use to process and draw conclusions from what you find.
Sustainability leadership skills don’t just come from sitting in the classroom, however. Almost all MPA programs include some experiential elements that get you out in the field to learn how the job is really done. In most cases, schools make every effort to place you in a practicum or internship role that is aligned with your personal career goals and interests.
Because sustainability is a global effort, in many cases these are offered through overseas learning opportunities. They bring intercultural understanding and new perspectives to your studies. They may also result in meeting new contacts that could influence the course of your career in sustainability.
Electives and Final Projects Help Polish Your Skillset to Support the Specific Career You Will Build in Sustainability
These programs also offer a wealth of elective options to help round out your skillset in areas you want to focus in. Whether that’s breaking new ground with coursework in urban sustainability or reinforcing some of your existing skillset in an area like public communication, it’s entirely up to you.
Some of the most common elective courses available in MPA programs in sustainability include:
- Geographic Information Systems
- Communications Strategies
- Environmental Management Systems
- Environmental Toxicology
- International Environmental Law
Like other graduate degrees, the MPA will almost always require the completion of a traditional master’s thesis paper, or a similarly challenging capstone project.
In both cases, you’re in for a serious level of research and investigation, uncovering data about your chosen subject and developing new and fresh ideas about it. In concert with your professors and advisors, you’ll work to craft a unique project that will represent a synthesis of all your knowledge and studies throughout the program.
Your thesis paper is then presented and defended before a committee of experts who will challenge every assumption and check every piece of data. But going through this process ensures that the final paper is a polished representation of your knowledge and expertise. That’s exactly what you want since it’s among the first things employers look at when evaluating your educational background.
A capstone project is less research-intensive and more practical. It may involve a real-world implementation of your concepts, or modeling and planning around such a project. It will involve both research and writing, but leans more heavily on planning and development work.
Choosing the Right College for Your MPA in Sustainability
As you identify the few options that are available, it’s important to think about getting an education tailor made to the career you want. That means looking for high-quality programs in public administration offering specialty courses that are closely aligned with your interests.
As with any level of university education, there are several key factors to consider beyond the specialization and major. In a relatively new field, it’s important to find a program that will set you off on the right track. These are the elements to look at as you explore the options.
Faculty With Deep Academic and Professional Expertise
It’s hard to overstate the effect that faculty has on the learning experience of students in any field. It’s not enough for professors to have developed expertise through research and study alone. You need faculty with a strong professional history and published works in the field.
Most importantly, they must also have the ability to get material across in a way that students can absorb and make their your own. At this level, learning from TAs or adjuncts shouldn’t be something you settle for.
Broad Connections and Support from Within the Industry
There are few fields that are more heavily dependent on the personal relationships you build than public administration. Connections can make the critical difference that help get your ideas off the ground.
So a school that comes with a built-in network of alumni, strong relationships and partnerships with public agencies, and with mentors and advisors who can nudge your career forward is invaluable.
Flexibility to Fit Your Career as You Build It
You don’t come to the point of earning a master’s degree in any field without building up some life and career experience of your own. You may have a job, a family, and community connections you need to maintain while you shine up your educational credentials.
So schools that offer degrees with a level of flexibility are a bonus. Whether that means part-time attendance, or a reliance on asynchronous, online coursework, or all the above, that’s an important factor for most MPA candidates.
Reputation and Accreditation That Reflect Academic Excellence
You may choose to start your search for the ideal MPA in sustainability by looking at programs that hold accreditation through NASPAA, the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration.
NASPAA is a non-profit organization with more than 300 member schools that offer programs that prepare professionals for fields that intersect with government. Since 1970, it’s been dedicated to evaluating those programs with respect to community standards in academic quality, ethics, and research scholarship.
The organization doesn’t specifically evaluate sustainability concentrations or any other specialty area, but it does hit most of the high points of school quality in the essential aspects of public administration education that were noted above.
Exploring the Wide Range of Careers Available in Sustainability Management
These opportunities are only likely to become broader and deeper as the world starts to get a grip on the full scope of the problem and gets serious about managing it.
There are also going to be plenty of private sector openings for people who have developed sustainability management expertise. ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) considerations are coming to the forefront of attention in corporate and investment circles. The acronym suggests that we are reaching critical mass to embrace a new way of evaluating companies beyond purely economic factors.
As investors look at their portfolios in a new light, and as governments warm up the regulatory engines to constrain actions that fuel environmental and social problems, private industry will be trying to get ahead of them. That means hiring experts skilled in:
- Building out sustainable processes for corporate business functions
- Evaluating company partners and suppliers for sustainability and social justice
- Advising on green construction and other sustainability techniques
- Negotiating and coordinating with regulatory agencies
No matter what side of the table you are sitting on, these are fundamental management jobs. They may be in an office analyzing environmental accounting reports or out in the field overseeing job sites or surveying animal populations. But in all cases, those jobs come with a lot of authority and responsibility.
Jobs at the intersection of public administration and sustainability come with titles that include:
- Sustainability Manager
- Vice President for Sustainability
- Environmental Planner
- Environmental Policy Consultant
- Corporate Sustainability Compliance Manager
As the field continues to expand and define itself, you’re sure to find new job titles coming into existence in the years ahead. You may even have a shot at defining your own job and title depending on where you end up.
Finding a Specialization to Fit Your Interests in Sustainability Management
But the level of expertise required in some of those niches makes specialization inevitable for many sustainability professionals.
The many ways public administrators can contribute to a more sustainable future have only begun to be explored. One of the most exciting things about public administration jobs in sustainability management may be the very fact that they are still being defined.
You may choose to chart your own course with an MPA in sustainability, or focus on one of the sub-specializations that already exist:
Urban Sustainability and Dense Development – Urban density is a key part of designing cities around sustainable living. But from economic and social perspectives, it’s also one of the hardest designs to get right. Specialists in sustainable urban design and management are experts in construction, city planning, civil and environmental engineering. They also have the public administration chops to deal with a raft of different interest groups and diverse cultures that must come together to make smart, green cities work.
Renewable Energy and Efficient Design – Renewables are a big bright spot in the sustainability world, but they come with a range of challenges related to everything from integration to transmission to storage. Specialists in renewable energy design and implementation are the ones working out the details of how the world must shift to take advantage of long-term sustainable energy sources.
Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems – Food security is crucial to the social equity piece of the sustainability puzzle. Yet agricultural pollution along with environmental pressures from drought and crop disease are creating a confluence of challenges when it comes to sustainable agriculture. Experts in this field bring a strong knowledge of agricultural science together with an understanding of everything from EPA farming regulations to water resource rights with the goal of meeting future demands while maintaining healthy soil and abundant water supplies.
Water Sustainability – Water shortages are already a grim reality for millions globally, even in high-income countries such as the United States. Experts in sustainability need more than knowledge of the hydrological and climatological factors involved in managing water sources. They must also command the legal and administrative role that water accounting and distribution systems will play in dealing with shortages equitably.
While cities are a key to efficient natural resource usage, increasing urbanization is also likely to lead to water shortages for an estimated 2.3 billion people in 2050 according to Nature Magazine.
Climate Hardening – It’s common knowledge among climate scientists that the point of no return has been passed for warming to the 1.5-degree level, with all the attendant tipping points that suggests. That means no matter how strenuous decarbonization efforts are pursued, sea-level rise, more violent weather systems, and drought are baked into the human experience for generations to come. The engineering and social preparation to maintain habitability in some of the most populous areas is the goal of climate hardening. Sustainability experts in public administration are vital in every aspect of preparing governments and populations for the new normal.
Pollution and Environmental Protection – Although pollution controls often take a backseat these days to more emergent threats, pollution hasn’t gone anywhere. Experts are still needed to monitor pollution sources and levels in order to craft and enforce legislation to protect the environmental resources that remain. With the impacts of climate change all-but-certain, it’s more necessary than ever for public administrators to step up and help maintain the untainted resources that we still rely on.
All these aspects of sustainability have significant elements that can only be addressed through public administration and governance.
Looking at Salary Ranges for Sustainability Management Professionals in Public Administration
As you would expect with a new and evolving field, there is no source of consolidated salary data specific to sustainability management yet. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the government agency responsible for collecting and analyzing salary data on all American jobs, is aware of the gap, at least.
More than ten years ago, they put together an overview of the professions that they do track that are most closely aligned with sustainability work. That doesn’t mean that all jobs in these fields are engaged in sustainability, or that the salaries attached to them reflect those of sustainability managers. But it does give you some idea what the ballpark figures might be for positions in sustainability management.
Among management professions, BLS identified these roles as sometimes containing sustainability professionals:
- Chief executives – More companies have been creating roles like chief sustainability officer or chief environmental officer. They align corporate values with the needs of surrounding communities, rather than the other way around, and oversee all impacts a company has on the environment and society.
- General and operations managers – Operations managers handle the gritty details of taking sustainability policy developed in board rooms and turning into sustainable practices out in the real world. They are the front-line supervisors and managers working under the executive level to implement changes within the organization.
- Transportation, storage, and distribution managers – Logistics professionals are often among the earliest jobs connected to sustainability efforts since they have a command of the nuts and bolts of some of the most carbon-intensive and wasteful elements of company operations. They are responsible for finding more sustainable supply chains and developing shipment and storage methods that reduce waste across the board.
These positions exist at every level of government and in corporations of all sizes.
With as broad an interest as there is in sustainability management today, it’s hard to narrow any of those jobs down as the most likely destination. Those jobs will eventually emerge almost everywhere. Government and NGO work is a natural place for MPA graduates, though many find their home in private industry too.
In 2021, the average annual salary for general and operations managers in government was $104,730. But BLS also sub-categorizes those jobs by level of government, so you can compare what sustainability managers are likely to make in different positions:
- Local government – $112,060
- State government – $105,950
- Federal government – $139,090
Surprisingly, BLS found that local government represented the top employment sector for chief executives in 2021, paying an average annual salary of $141,410. State government rounded out the top five major employment sectors for chief execs where the average was $125,720. The few working in water transportation earned considerably more at $239,200 or more.
Transportation, storage, and distribution managers working for the executive branch earned $114,260 on average that year.
Anyone jumping into public administration professions in sustainability management will be getting in on the ground floor of a field that is on the tipping point of growing demand.
It’s hard to over-state the impact that such jobs will have on future generations. Taking on the most tenacious challenges to long-term sustainability and solving them may be more than just a professional obligation. Your contribution to the future could mean carving out a legacy for the generation that took meaningful action.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Top Executives, Industrial Production Managers, and Transportation, Storage and Distribution Managers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed May 2023.