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Panel Prepares Undergraduates for Sustainability in Careers

Panel Prepares Undergraduates for Sustainability in Careers
Students listen to professor.

Students listen to professor.

For undergraduate business students curious about how an interest in sustainability can lead to a future career, the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business (“Center”) joined Center-affiliated faculty Ravi Subramanian in presenting “Sustainability in your Career.” The April 12th panel, held in Subramanian’s class, MGT 4803: Business Decisions for Sustainability and Shared Value, hosted George Halow (Global Investment Efficiency Manager, Ford Motor Company), Michael Oxman (Center Managing Director), and Steve Tochilin (General Manager of Environmental Sustainability, Delta Air Lines). Speakers discussed their career paths and offered guidance for the next generation of business leaders.

“None of us here had sustainability as a choice for a career when we were getting out of school,” said Tochilin. Rather, the panelists came to their current sustainability-focused positions by way of diverse career trajectories. Oxman, who majored in Russian Studies and has a master’s degree in international political economy, spent over 25 years working at the intersection of international business, sustainability, and risk management. Through his experience in the energy industry and large capital projects, he recognized the value of sustainability (i.e., managing environmental and social issues/risks) to the bottom line. Now at Scheller College, he teaches business sustainability courses, facilitates industry outreach, and implements educational initiatives. Tochilin, on the other hand, has a science background, including 39 years of experience in environmental health and safety. At Delta, Tochilin champions efforts to reduce environmental impact and to engage employees and customers in environmental initiatives. Halow, who described himself as having the most “conventional” career path, has 30 years of experience at Ford Motor Company in multiple capacities, primarily in engineering, manufacturing, and product delivery. The “inflection point” of his career occurred when he became chief engineer of global interiors at the same time that staunch environmentalist Bill Ford was driving zero waste to landfill (ZWTL) in many of its facilities.

The panelists stressed the value of acquiring work experience in core business functions, especially early in one’s career. However, they also said demand is growing for employees with training across a broad range of sustainability topics. As a case in point, Oxman highlighted an increasingly prevalent exercise among corporations: the materiality assessment. Even a company with high standards for the environment, employees, and communities it serves does not have the resources to solve every problem in the world. A materiality assessment helps companies prioritize among a multitude of issues, such as carbon footprint, global workplace diversity, and alternative fuels. Stakeholders and business representatives are asked to rank various issues, and their answers provide companies with insight into which issues matter most. Oxman said, “It takes a certain set of skills and competencies to solicit perspectives in a way that supports the business in a meaningful way.”

So, assuming a student has developed the necessary competencies, how might one capitalize on these in order to make the right match between career and sustainability interests? Oxman introduced a “three lanes” concept to help students visualize a possible career trajectory. First, an employee in a traditional lane serves a core business function that may or may not have an intersection with sustainability. Second, a role in the hybrid lane is more or less in a core business function but has more direct connections with sustainability. And third, in a focused lane, the vast majority of an employee’s work involves coordinating or executing the company’s most material sustainability issues. Oxman noted, “You may start off in a traditional role and over time move into something that is more focused on sustainability. The reverse can also be true, but overall the linkage to both can be both personally enriching and add value to the employer.”

Tochilin joked that the analogy of career lanes brought up one of his pet peeves: “People almost never use turn signals anymore when they’re changing lanes! They just turn, and you’re magically supposed to know they’re going to do that!” Proper rules of the road apply to career journeys, as well. He said, “If you’re in a traditional role, and you want to move over, you need to tell people that you’re interested. And don’t just tell them. Volunteer when an opportunity presents itself. You need to be signaling your interest in sustainability before you change lanes.” Halow suggested, “Look at what you are doing day to day, and see if you can drive sustainability in your role.” He also dispelled the myth that to have an impact on business sustainability, you have to be in a sustainability-focused role. He said, “You can have major impact just staying in a traditional role if you consider how your core function can satisfy the needs of the community or a target recipient.”

Tochilin agreed with Halow, describing how very few jobs at Delta—maybe two or three—have the word “sustainability” in their title. “However,” he stressed, “we have thousands and thousands of people who undertake sustainable initiatives. For instance, we have mechanics who make the planes fly more fuel efficiently and flight attendants who collect in-flight items for recycling because they know it raises money for causes like Habitat for Humanity.” Across the board, the company employs people who are passionate about sustainability, so Delta tries to create opportunities to allow them to contribute in that space. Recently, Delta launched an environmental Business Resource Group called “Green Up.” Within the first few weeks of the group’s existence, more than 1000 employees signed up to take part in employee-engagement projects such as planting for Trees Atlanta or researching whether Delta offers enough electric car charging stations to meet demand.

Halow said that almost everybody he knows in the Sustainable Business Strategies office started off in traditional roles. He said, “You will have far more credibility and can actually be much more effective driving sustainability in an organization if you are familiar with the operating elements of the business and how they function.” Panelists urged students to gain critical experience in core business roles first, and then to try to move towards a sustainability-focused role. Oxman said, “You need to translate how sustainability is going to contribute to the bottom line. If you can do that, that’s a really valuable skill.”

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