Skip to main content
Home » Environment » Careers in Sustainability » Q&A with Helen Watts
Careers in Sustainability

Q&A with Helen Watts

What inspired you to pursue a career in sustainability, and how did you find your path to become a leader in the field?

It’s difficult to draw a line to when I first sparked passion for sustainability work – I remember getting really into animal rights and starting the first Endangered Animals Club at school around Grade 7, a club of one member (me) giving impassioned talks about the future of the Vancouver marmot to a pretty uninterested classroom of 13-year olds. I went to my first climate protest at 19-years old while interning at the UN, and incidentally this would end up being the largest climate change march in history, the People’s Climate March, where I marched with 300,000 people.

Inspiration really took hold when I started to understand the interconnected nature of sustainability with the world around me, rather than as a standalone topic, and sustainability’s connection to the other fields I had started to engage in through university-based youth organizations such as human rights and social justice. When I was 20 something clicked where I saw how geopolitics, human rights, our daily lives were all interconnected, and part of the greater climate, nature, and energy ecosystem. That really drove me to seek out work focusing on deep systems-change.

Building my career at Student Energy snuck up on me, as the product of hard work and growing passion for the work we were doing. My first job at Student Energy felt accessible for me to apply to because it was a youth organization, run by young leaders, and almost entirely by women. I never intended to stay past the one or two year mark, but I loved the work we were doing and really felt and saw the impact we were having on other young people starting their careers and launching projects in clean energy. I stayed, and continued to challenge and push myself to do more with the organization, which has paid off as I’ve become more confident in advocating and driving the theory of change behind our work and more effective as a leader in the space in my own right.

As someone recognized for their achievements in sustainability, what do you believe are the most pressing challenges and opportunities in the field today?

A just and clean energy transition that closes the energy access gap is a critical and complex challenge that will take years of sustained work, but seriously including young people in this work is still not happening at the scale it needs to. I want people to recognize that empowering this generation of over two-billion young people to care about and work on solutions throughout their lives is one of the most powerful strategies we have for climate and energy action.

By 2027 I want to see us in a place where we’ve mobilized millions of dollars for youth-led climate and clean energy projects and inclusive capacity-building programs, equipping our generation with everything they need to take action now. In my role at Student Energy and in my networks I plan to keep pushing for meaningful and inclusive youth engagement because it’s something I still don’t see happening, too many institutions still rely on tokenistic engagement which erodes the ability of youth movements to get traction and influence in spaces where decisions are being made. There is credible research, dating back as early as 2003that supports the value of youth participation in policymaking and decision-making, but youth are still widely left out of these spaces. Over the next five years I’ll be pushing organizations to commit to:

  1. Engaging with youth perspectives and participating in intergenerational collaboration,
  2. Actively seeking out and valuing diverse experiences and sources of knowledge (i.e. local knowledge, community knowledge, lived experience), and
  3. Creating transparency and accountability mechanisms for their youth engagement process.

There are specific tactics I also believe to be really critical to how leaders respond to the climate emergency and energy transition over the next five years, so I’ll be pushing for those on my own platforms and in opportunities where I have the chance to speak on these issues. These include pushing for planning for societal and behaviour change transformation, climate action as a non-partisan priority that extends beyond political cycles, and accessible finance for climate and energy initiatives particularly led by frontline communities.

How do you see technology and sustainability shaping the future of careers in this field?

Data from IRENA, the ILO and IEA, tells us that the growth of jobs and roles driving a.clean energy and green jobs transition are in the tens of millions, and we’ve seen this bolstered by commitments from governments and philanthropy to generate 150 million+ green jobs by 2030. Our big challenge to prepare for this positive disruption is to ensure our we have a generation of young people, and importantly, a diverse and representative group of young people, prepared and supported to move into these jobs

To share some data behind the green jobs transition were in, LinkedIn and the Green Jobs Pact have done great work breaking down the numbers. The share of green talent in the workforce increased from 9.6% in 2015, to 13.3% so far in 2022 (a growth rate of 38.5%). In 2022, 10% of job postings requiring skills have explicitly required at least one green skill, such as Ecosystem Management, Environmental Policy and Pollution Prevention. This data also shows us, concerningly, that demand for green talent will soon outpace supply as the hiring of green talent is accelerating faster than overall hiring.

At Student Energy we did some research though the Energy Transition Skills Report, in partnership with Ørsted, to better understand what young people are motivated by when seeking out careers in sustainability and what their real and perceived barriers are to accessing work in the field. We surveyed thousands of youth who clearly stated that purpose of work, salary and compensation, and opportunities for growth were their top three priorities when looking for a job. The most commonly selected barriers included a clear lack of awareness about existing job opportunities (47.6%), lack of available entry-level positions (46.0%), and lack of access to skills training (44.9%).

The majority of respondents (64.8%) believed skills building programs would help them learn the necessary skills to pursue energy transition jobs. The second most common answer was internships, co-ops, or work-learn opportunities (54.8%).

At a sociocultural level, we need to build awareness of opportunities in the space, and get young people excited and valuing their own skillsets they bring to green and sustainable jobs.

The outcomes when supporting youth to access careers in sustainability are significant, and measurable: you get high-impact, localized projects deployed at scale, you invest in a pipeline of talent who will build the next utility scale or join existing, growing projects in the space, you grow a base of citizen trust and policy support as young people get and stay engaged and bring their peers and communities into the work their doing, and you achieve multiple co-benefits like gender inclusion, social equity, and energy sovereignty as yong people time and again prove these are core values they hold as equally important as decarbonziing our systems

Next article