Over the holidays USA Today had an article talking about the sudden rise of green-oriented minor and major programs at universities. According to Paul Rowland, Executive Director of Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, two factors are driving the surge: students want the courses, and employers want the trained students.
When I give talks on our book "Citizen Engineer" at universities this topic always comes up. In specific, we discuss what employers are looking for in these students.
The first point is clear from the article: energy is a "sweet spot". The examples at Illinois State, MIT and UC Berkeley all centered on energy. For the first time in decades there is a wave of innovation in this sector, and not only in companies that generate energy, but also those that depend on it for their operations or products. We certainly fall into this latter bucket at Sun, and more of our engineering jobs come with a requirement of understanding electrical energy and how our electricity infrastructure works in real life.
The second point relates to general sustainability degrees. While these were barely mentioned in the article, we are starting to see some students come from programs with majors in sustainability, and I hear of many universities considering adding such a degree.
My feeling on this has become pretty clear cut: a minor degree in sustainability is a wonderful idea, a major is not. We need more awareness of environmental needs and solutions in all of our roles in business: our engineers, chemists, lawyers, business people and operations teams. But the key is that these are all highly specialized roles, and the people need to be able to do these first. I want the major to be in these areas, and will highly value a minor in sustainability.
The proof, of course, is in the pudding. At Sun we have no sustainability generalists, and I don't anticipate that we would ever hire one. In every real-world case we've always needed someone with training or experience in a specific expertise.
To sum up, my advice to universities is always the same: energy is a great major or minor, but be careful of majors in general sustainability. Be world class in the things you already do, and layer in sustainability minor to make those folks even more marketable.