Think for a second about the phrase “green careers.” Did your mind go to solar panel installations? Geothermal energy? Recycling centers?
How about literature or art? Didn’t think about that, did you? That’s the point — there are more ways to have green careers than most people think, says Suzanne Kaplan, an English teacher at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South and owner of JobTalk4All.com, a website dedicated to connecting people to the right careers for them. Kaplan has put together a panel of professionals who will discuss green careers of all kinds, from the science/technology-based to the humanities-based. The free event takes place on Tuesday, January 22, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library, and is timed to coincide with the library’s annual Environmental Film Festival.
The panel will focus on careers that solve or educate the public about environmental issues and will feature Michelle Liu, a Princeton University student and president of its chapter of Engineers Without Borders; Savraj Singh, founder of Wattvision; Holly Welles, director of communication at the Princeton Environmental Institute; Kenneth Hiltner, a visiting English professor at Princeton University; and Tom Wright, an urban planner and executive director for Regional Planning Association. Visit www.JobTalk4All.com.
As someone who makes her living among young people considering careers and colleges for the first time, Kaplan is disheartened by the lack of interest she sees regarding environmental career choices. In fact, only one of her students from last year has gone to college specifically with an environmentally oriented career as the focus.
One of the issues Kaplan sees among her students, past and present, is the misconception that being an environmental professional means putting photovoltaic panels on roofs. “It’s not just all about solar,” she says. “Students don’t realize that solving environmental problems also involves architecture, urban planning, or writing.”
Being an English teacher, Kaplan is most interested in the last. In fact, her idea for the green panel emerged from in-class discussions and from the work of Kenneth Hiltner at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Hiltner has written extensively on environmental issues and is a proponent of the idea of using the humanities to further the environmental cause. “If you’re a writer, write a book, if you’re a filmmaker, make a documentary,” Kaplan explains. “The depth and breadth of careers is becoming really important.”
In the architecture and urban planning area, she says, environmental crises can be solved by looking at new ways to construct buildings able to withstand punishing attacks from hurricanes such as Sandy, or by finding new ways to reduce wasted materials and emissions from buildings and parks and streets. As the environmental movement has aged its researchers have discovered that it is not the cars and airplanes that are creating so much havoc with emissions as the buildings in which we live and work.
The green panel is to be geared toward young people, mostly college students, Kaplan says, but would certainly benefit people looking for a career change or a new direction.
Kaplan herself is in the process of changing careers. She started JobTalk4All.com in 2011 after several years as a career counselor and a teacher because she wanted to find “a way to move out of a teaching career.”
A graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School, Kaplan started college at the University of Vermont, then transferred to Arizona State University. She graduated in 1999 with a degree in religious studies, with an idea of going into academe, but decided that the “publish or perish” atmosphere of university teaching was not for her. She was an academic advisor at Rio Salado Community College in Arizona for a few more before coming home to her job at WW-P South. She earned her master’s in secondary English education in 2002 from Rutgers.
Kaplan, however, has found high school teaching to be no easier a career than college in some ways. She has had steady work, but has not found a tenure track position — a prospect that she says has become even dicier amid the policies of the Christie administration.
Two years ago she opened JobTalk4All.com to help others to find the right job. Her business life has been aided by her parents. Her father was the founder of JK Group, a Plainsboro-based firm that facilitates corporate giving, and her mother is a private practice therapist. Both, she says, have been cheerleaders and givers of practical business advice.
Practicality, incidentally, is the other part of the puzzle Kaplan is trying to solve when it comes to encouraging people to rethink what it means to have green careers. Especially among today’s 20-somethings (the “millennials,” a.k.a., Generation Y), there is a great fear of choosing an impractical job. “The kids are afraid of becoming obsolete,” Kaplan says. They have witnessed wave after wave of people, in sector after sector, be downsized or rendered impractical by technology, and they are afraid of following their hearts and becoming lost.
“A lot of them are saying, ‘I’m not going to go for passion,’” Kaplan says. “I think there’s still room for passion, but you do have to be realistic.” She cites UC-Santa Barbara’s English department that offers environmental studies as part of its major. There are other schools that combine humanities and environmental studies as well. The idea is to expose young people to practical jobs while following their hearts.
Kaplan is encouraged, however, by the emerging Generation Z, the kids who have barely known a world without mobile technology. These kids, she says, are more likely to talk about careers early, but also are more likely to follow their passions. They are willing to consider livelihoods that might not make them wealthy, but will allow them to live and be happy doing what they do.
As for the panel, Kaplan hopes that just by exposing adults to the idea that green careers can be anything designed to help the environment, people will start thinking of new ways to use their passions, gifts, and skills to help the planet. “The environment, I think, is the issue of the 21st century,” she says. “Hopefully, this panel will help get the word out that people can do something.”