Universities are adding – and students are demanding – graduate courses focused on sustainability and clean technology. But it remains to be seen whether the new crop of newly minted MBAs will help to address the clean tech talent gap.
Plenty of lip service has been paid to the shortage of experienced talent in clean technology related industries and to a lesser extent people with experience working in sustainability. At the same time, students pouring into business schools are seeking out classes and curriculum focused on these areas and universities are responding in kind. But it’s unclear whether an MBA in sustainability, for example, will give graduates the education they need to help companies that will be grappling sustainability challenges if they aren’t already.
David Finke, a managing director at executive search firm Russell Reynolds who leads the firm’s technology sector, points out that the clean tech industry has slowed somewhat from a few years ago when it was booming. But when it was in full swing, there was often a mismatch at senior levels. People either had customer experience and knew how to sell to utilities or energy companies, or they didn’t have the requisite technology background, or vice versa.
“It was a clash of two worlds,” says Finke. “We weren’t always finding people that had enough experience across both [areas.]”
But now, Finke says studying sustainability, for example, can’t hurt especially at a top-tier business school that lends cache from its name. But, there’s still no substitute for building a great track record at a company.
At the same time, students are pushing for an education in the areas of sustainability in particular and clean technology as a way to pursue careers in related industries.
Net Impact’s 2013 Business as Unusual guide reports that 85% of its survey respondents want to learn about social and environmental business issues while they’re getting their MBAs.
Net Impact annually publishes the guide, which provides profiles of 100 business schools with social and environmental focuses in their curriculum. From 2012 to 2013, half the schools in Business as Unusual added or modified courses to include the subjects, and there’s been a reported 171% increase in the number of traditional MBA programs offering up sustainability classes in the past half decade.
In addition to MBAs with sustainability and clean energy bents, continuing education certificate programs have grown in prevalence. Schools such as University of Colorado Boulder (an online program), Penn State and Boston University recently launched new programs and Stanford, Harvard, Cornell and MIT have had them in place for some time.
However, it’s unclear how well universities are meeting the demand in sustainability and clean technology. Net Impact asked students to rank their programs’ in various areas, including sustainability and energy and clean tech. Environmental sustainability received a 3.73 aggregate ranking out of 5, while energy and clean tech received a 3.57 ranking.
Peter Adriaens, a professor of environmental engineering and entrepreneurship strategy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, explains that while sustainability has made guest appearances in sciences and engineering and literature courses at universities over the past two decades, it is just now transitioning to become its own individual program or curriculum. But at this point, it’s unclear whether such a degree will meet the demand that employers will have. Will employers want someone with a sustainability degree? Or will they want someone with a chemical engineering or business degree with layered knowledge on top?
“What is the core competency that’s going to be required in the workforce that employers would be willing to pay for and hire and that’s the question,” says Adriaens. “And I think the question is wide open at this point.”
Despite the fact that it’s unclear what the demand from companies will be, some universities are now offering focused MBA programs with experiential learning alongside veteran industry practitioners as faculty.
Bard’s MBA in sustainability is one of the most recent programs to be announced.
Eban Goodstein, director of the program at Bard, says a lot of the graduate courses in sustainability offered at universities now are more to meet the demand from students and less to actually give students a solid education in building businesses whose missions are to solve social and environmental problems in a financially viable way.
He saw an opportunity at Bard and now he says the program is one of only a handful that fully integrates sustainability into an MBA. In addition, the school’s proximity to New York City, which he says is a hotbed of activity for sustainability, is a boon for the program.
“There are a lot of people who get this, but who weren’t trained in it,” says Goodstein.
He says 90% of the sustainability chatter is greenwashing and 10% is real, and Bard’s goal is to take the 10% and grow from there.
“Everybody’s trying to figure [sustainability] out,” says Goodstein. “How do [companies] act responsibly at the first level, but more more aggressively… in reorienting their businesses around actually doing some social or environmental good as the core element of the mission.”
As a recent graduate from a sustainability program at ASU Tempe, I have to say that the program has prepared me and my fellow classmates well. ASU had seven tracks in sustainability at last count, sustainable business, sustainable engineering, MS and MA in sustainability and a PhD program in sustainability. I graduated near the top of my class in the Energy, Materials Science and Technology track. I added a minor in Geology, and I have been accepted into a program at Johns Hopkins whiting school and am applying to USC Viterbi, Stanford, and Yale. I interned at the state's largest utility as a Renewable Portfolio Management Intern, did my research in nanotechnology in defense and energy, and did my capstone practicum in energy and environmental policy design under John Hofmeister. ASU has brought in executives in residence and tenure track professors from some of the biggest energy and telecommunication companies in the world. These people were literally a short walk down University ave or Cady Mall, and were more than happy to chat or let you audit a class. THey also took their classes on multi-day trips to tour some of the worlds largest coal mines, power plants and hydroelectric dams, and put it all in perspective by having us sit on discussions and public hearings related to the sociocultural impacts these massive infrastructure and environmental systems have on the region. My work couldn't be happier with my preparation, and I have been assigned the lead in a number of complex technical projects developing emission inventories for areas not attaining national ambient air quality standards. My interdisciplinary background has also trained me well. I was offered positions at the state energy commission and at the state department of environmental quality. In addition, I have been assigned as lead staff on researching considerations in program design and compliance with future carbon dioxide standards under section 111 (b), (d) of the clean air act. By the way, I graduated in December 2012, and I have only been on the job since March. While this is my story, it is not unique. We have two sustainability interns in my unit (sustainable business, and sustainable ecosystems) other sections and divisions have gone on and hired classmates of mine from the same graduating class and previous ASU sustainability classes. A number of my friends from my School of Sustainability undergraduate class have gone into politics; energy, environmental and engineering fields; founded start-ups with the help of our Edson entrepreneurship lab, and gone on to top tier graduate or professional programs across the country. I agree that not all programs are alike, but I can say from first hand experience and knowledge that sustainability and similar interdisciplinary programs at places like ASU, Columbia, Cornell, UCSB, USC, Stanford and a number of others are doing more than lip service to green technology industries. These schools are in-fact graduating some of the brightest minds prepared to tackle some of the toughest issues that companies, governments, and organizations will face.