Eco-polymaths, illustration by nik harron

The Genius of the Generalist

Why Environmental Studies is essential to the workforce we need now.

Predicting the best career options for the next four years, or the next 20, seems next to impossible these days. Today’s postsecondary students are overwhelmed with choice, anxiety and the worst job prospects in three generations. The current youth unemployment rate for Canadians ages 15 to 24 was 13.2 per cent in July 2014. That number doesn’t include the rampant underemployment that sees educated young Canadians stuck in down-market service jobs well after graduation. At the same time, companies are complaining about skills shortages.

Predicting the best career options for the next four years, or the next 20, seems next to impossible these days. Today’s postsecondary students are overwhelmed with choice, anxiety and the worst job prospects in three generations. The current youth unemployment rate for Canadians ages 15 to 24 was 13.2 per cent in July 2014. That number doesn’t include the rampant underemployment that sees educated young Canadians stuck in down-market service jobs well after graduation. At the same time, companies are complaining about skills shortages. It’s no wonder that Canadian students (and their parents) are frustrated and uncertain about how to approach this rite of passage into adulthood and acquire employable skills.

Overwhelmingly, science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM disciplines – lead to the best-remunerated professions for new postsecondary graduates. According to PayScale Inc., an online compensation information company, the average salary for a computer software engineer in 2013 was $65,885 per year, while a mining or petroleum engineer could expect to make $79,068 and $85,188, respectively. In contrast, graduates in environmental disciplines could expect to make comparably less straight out of school, if they can find employment at all. The average salary for an environmental consultant last year was $51,038, while environmental scientists made $50,749. This pattern is reflected south of the border as well; a July 2014 issue of Forbes reported that the highest paying jobs in the US in 2013 were in drilling, petroleum or mining engineering.

The educational biases of our time continue to accelerate outcomes that are dire yet predictable.

We can’t intensify our extraction of resources while also hoping to rely on technology to innovate us out of our planet’s ecological mess. The educational biases of our time continue to accelerate outcomes that are dire yet predictable. We certainly need technologists and other specialists. But our societal focus on specialized education to the exclusion of other disciplines exacerbates a distressing imbalance.

It was not always this way.

In Western classical antiquity, a well-rounded education was considered essential to participation in civic life. Those fortunate enough to receive an education would learn multiple languages, musical instruments, poetry, mathematics, theology and philosophy. Such individuals were referred to as polymaths, Greek for “having learned much,” and they could draw on diverse bodies of knowledge to solve problems.

Prominent Renaissance author Baldassare Castiglione described the idealized human of his time as broadly articulate and ethical courtiers, who benefited their fellow citizens by bringing their fluency in a variety of subjects to civic debates and diplomatic engagements. This polymath ideal contributed to a wealth of scientific discoveries over the centuries following the Renaissance – the printing press, pocket watch and telescope, among others. But as knowledge grew, information expanded exponentially, and specialized knowledge and skill areas also increased. Universities splintered into silos of specialized faculties. In the 20th century, organizations including corporations also evolved to have departments like marketing, finance and manufacturing, all operating as distinct entities. As organizational structures became compartmentalized, thinking became compartmentalized. Over the same time period, our planet’s ecology became dirtier, hotter and increasingly imbalanced.

The drive to rebalance priorities compels many to study environmental disciplines.

“I have found peace and connection in nature since I was a child,” says Caitlin Langlois Greenham, who waded into the job market in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Biology and Technology from North Bay’s Nipissing University and a joint diploma in Environmental Protection and Compliance from Canadore College. “Unfortunately, my courses at school gave me an apolitical view of nature, where people were perceived as separate. I wanted to learn about the reality of the integration between nature and the people living within it.”

Greenham’s desire for a more practical integrative experience led her to work for several years in environmental education with community groups, and later compelled her to return to continue an environmental education. To honour her desire to see environmental problems through various lenses (including a political one), she began a Master of Environmental Studies and a post-graduate diploma in Environmental Education at Toronto’s York University in 2010.

We live in a specialized society, but we need generalists – bridge-people – who can make connections between community and business, health and the environment.
– Caitlin Greenham

“My master’s integrated people with nature for me, through a focus on permaculture, food justice and popular education,” says Greenham. “The participatory education projects I was able to engage in were wonderful.” Putting her education into practice included participatory permaculture design with Toronto’s High Park Children’s Garden and contributing to the Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative, an organization that strives to empower low-income and communities of colour through sustainable and local agriculture.

Like others of the so-called Generation-Y cohort, Greenham cobbles together a living through several jobs – urban farming, community organizing and teaching permaculture practices. She is the co-founder of Sage Rising, a decentralized urban herb farm comprised of shared yard spaces in downtown Toronto, and she also works with the North York Harvest Food Bank, where “we invite people to garden together and share the harvest while they wait to access the food bank.”

Asked about the value of being an Environmental Studies graduate, Greenham says, “we live in a specialized society, but we need generalists – bridge-people – who can make connections between community and business, health and the environment.” Being a generalist diversifies your portfolio of employable skills and strategic problem-solving abilities. “If you return to the ecological metaphor, animals that are generalists, like squirrels and raccoons, are the ones who have prospered in urban spaces!”

Using different lenses and frameworks often leads to creative solutions, especially when harnessing the power of community and social justice.

“My environmental education has provided me with an understanding of how important connections – of trust and respect – made at the grassroots level are key determinants of social, environmental and political change,” explains Rolie Srivastava, also a graduate of York’s Master of Environmental Studies program. “The value you bring is in your understanding of multiple systems, your ability to connect between them, and then to apply your knowledge and skills as required.”

Originally from Winnipeg, Srivastava’s master’s research in the early 1990s focused on biodiversity conservation. She worked for the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) during her degree, and later examined the illegal trafficking of flora and fauna, eventually setting up an international medicinal plants network and database accessible to partners across continents, organizations, researchers and traditional healers.

Srivastava is currently a social networks researcher at the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. She helps enable linkages and information sharing between local, regional and provincial organizations working in food security and distribution. She says her education taught her how to establish sound, meaningful personal relationships to organize change, whether face-to-face or virtually.

Environmental education teaches how to be in the world…how to synthesize disparate worldviews and consider innovative possibilities as solutions.

Cam Collyer, a program director at the national advocacy and empowerment organization Evergreen, also highlights the value of an integrative systems approach when tackling environmental challenges. “One of the things I liked about Environmental Studies is that I was able to learn about a variety of issues – energy, biology, policy, to name a few. I studied the great nature writers. It helped me gain a range of perspectives and experiences which I still use to this day.”

Collyer works out of Evergreen Brick Works, the NGO’s multi-use conservation complex in Toronto, directing children’s programs including camps, weekend activities and school visits. He also manages the Toyota Evergreen Learning Grounds, a national greening effort. Collyer studied at Trent University in the 1990s before completing a postgrad degree at Queen’s University specializing in Outdoor and Experiential Education. “I encourage students to explore a range of topics within Environmental Studies so that they can understand the issues: the natural sciences, the levers of change, the policy mechanisms, the history of ecological issues, the on-the-ground perspective.”

He also tries to channel his former professors’ highly motivating activist natures. “It’s not merely an academic path that changes the world,” he says. “My education was a direct background for my career, but it also taught me engagement and network building.” And Collyer believes those networks offer both career and personal resilience. “Engagement in society provides us with perspective and builds empathy and compassion. A sense of engagement, coupled with strong social networks, helps us navigate life’s highs and lows, create opportunities and stimulate our development.”

Just as a liberal arts education is said to be a rock in the foundation of liberty in democratic societies, so too has an environmental education become a core element of resilient societies. A common narrative emerges from conversations with Environmental Studies graduates from the 1980s, 90s, 2000s and 10s. Environmental education teaches how to be in the world, how to connect and partner with others to achieve a goal, how to synthesize disparate worldviews and consider innovative possibilities as solutions. This is a modern take on a classically integrative education. 

Julie Forand started her adult life as a ski racer but in 2006 she began pursuing a diploma in fashion at Vancouver’s Art Institute. After six years of working in the fashion industry in Montréal, she yearned to make a more positive social impact and enrolled at Ontario College of Applied Design (OCAD). “I went to OCAD for Industrial Design with a minor in Sustainability in hopes of working to make supply chains more environmentally and socially responsible,” says Forand. “The people I met in and out of the classroom were a source of energy for me.”

Forand became heavily involved with the Sustainable Design Awards, a student-led initiative to inspire a grassroots postsecondary focus on ecological, social, cultural and economic sustainability. In 2013 she started a business as an extension of her OCAD thesis; Sprout Guerrilla is an eco-packaging and design company that aims to encourage urban sustainability interventions. The company’s DIY moss graffiti kits have become a popular way for customers to green their interior and exterior spaces.

“You don’t have to study something in particular to have an impact, you just need to be mindful, and create your own environmental education,” says Forand. “Get involved! Whether it’s extracurricular activities, volunteering – anything to help you create your path around the causes you are most passionate about.”

Extracurricular activities have flourished alongside the growth of environmental studies degrees. Initiatives have spawned across Canadian university campuses, including efforts to establish more pedestrian-friendly streets or green terraces and roofs, or healing gardens where students can help plant flowers and vegetables – or simply come to relax.

Environmental Studies graduates like Jonas Spring are also moving such ideas off-campus. Spring received a Bachelor of Sciences in Agroecology from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and a landscape design certificate from Ryerson University in Toronto in the 2000s. “What I learned about agricultural systems I now apply to the cultivation of natural urban systems,” says Spring.

After graduation, Spring started EcoMan, a Toronto-based landscape design company that reimagines the gardening business by embedding stewardship principles into every service it provides. “My professors taught me that urban ecologies are micro-ecologies,” says Spring. “I use a systems approach, aggregating specialized knowledge while taking a birds-eye perspective to come up with a strategy.”

EcoMan designed and maintained the green roof at Mountain Equipment Coop’s Toronto location. “On a green roof, you essentially have an island ecology, because it’s isolated from other ecosystems,” explains Spring. “You have to plan for and accommodate wind or bird-borne seeds that will rapidly colonize the green roof if they take hold. Something that might take 100 years in a forest may take only a few years on a green roof.”

We can’t solve ecological problems with the same technocratic thinking that created them.

Spring takes inspiration from nature and designs solutions with lifecycle management in mind, thinking ahead to how the urban environment will interact with the plants selected. His work highlights the idea that we can’t solve ecological problems with the same technocratic thinking that created them.

Innovation theorists say that governments, corporations and citizens need to be more balanced – right- and left-brained, integrative – in order to truly address the problems we face today. Canadian business philosopher Roger Martin writes that successful people use integrative thinking to creatively resolve the tension in opposing models and form entirely new and better ones. Martin argues that integrative thinking has always been an advantage, but especially in our modern era of overwhelming information and complexity.

An environmental education provides individuals with holistic problem solving and personal engagement skills. Noel Padilla, manager of sustainability at the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), has helped his organization achieve its recent sustainability targets by using his knowledge and stakeholder management skills. OLG has reduced its energy consumption and paper use, as well as established volunteer green teams to address office-specific environmental issues in partnership with non-governmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“I’m blessed in that my career is a direct extension of my studies and early career experiences in the Philippines,” says Padilla. “When I immigrated, I did not have to formally upgrade my education.” Padilla arrived in Canada in 2008 with three degrees from the University of the Philippines – an undergrad in Metallurgical Engineering, a Master of Public Administration and a PhD in Community Development.

“Mining is one of the dirtiest industries there is, but it opened my eyes and led me to seek out a job at the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in the Philippines,” he explains of his early interest in sustainability. “Part of my mandate was to develop the country’s natural resources, but also mitigate the pollution created through this activity.”

Padilla went back to school after almost a decade of working in the government, focusing his PhD dissertation on sustainable community development. “I wanted to close the loop, so to speak,” he says. “My undergraduate studies were focused on industry, my master’s was focused on government; therefore, I felt a need to have the perspective of the communities in which I worked, which are equal partners with industry and government in achieving sustainable development.” After graduating he worked with farmers in the Philippines to establish sustainable agricultural and forestry practices while meeting government goals for both industry and conservation – a challenging objective. He now applies his experience guiding communities, industry, government and NGO partners toward a common goal in Canada.

Padilla especially values the work experience that led him to deepen his knowledge and commitment to creating change. “Don’t confine your learning to the classroom – participate in outside initiatives,” he advises students. Environmental Studies students and graduates are passionate people driven by a noble goal, and Padilla encourages them to let employers see that energy. “Make sure your interest and enthusiasm come through when you are looking for work.”

With dismal employee satisfaction ratings across the corporate world, screening for enthusiasm and commitment in the recruiting process might be a remedy to a long-standing problem. According to a 2013 Deloitte study, “passionate” workers tend to view new challenges as opportunities to learn additional skills, and they have a drive, commitment and agility that makes them resilient to rapid change. Passionate workers also possess a strong connective disposition – as do the Environmental Studies graduates interviewed for this article.

“I was always interested in the interaction between people and nature,” says Laurel Bernard, who credits her passionately naturalist parents with her early interest in conservation. Bernard was raised in Nova Scotia and went on to get a Bachelor of Science and Master of Biology from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Her thesis focused on the habitat and breeding success of Black Terns in the Saint John River valley. After graduating in 1999 she assisted her supervisor in the field, working closely with the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources. This experience led to a project assistant job with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), where Bernard now works as director of stewardship.

“Get as much experience in the field as you can because you need the practical skills as well as the education,” she says. A true environmental education provides this kind of integrative knowledge – an academic background combined with experience in nature and society. “Sometimes I meet job candidates who know how to identify so many birds and flowers because of their love of the outdoors and the practical skills they cultivated through hiking, canoeing and outdoor navigation. Somebody who is keen, self-directed and self-motivating is the kind of person that I look for.”

Few fields allow job candidates to boast about their favourite hikes and wildflowers in an interview. “You have to be pretty rugged for some of our field positions; it helps if you don’t mind being outside in all kinds of weather,” says Bernard. “We have employees whose passion for outdoor photography drew them to the outdoors – and resulted in amazing photos of some of our NCC properties.” 

The market now demands both theoretical capacity and applied experience, even in students’ first jobs out of school. With high competition for few job openings, the prospect of training a new candidate often leads employers to opt for those with the most practical skills.

Irena Stankovic completed a Master of Applied Science at Ryerson University in 2014 after receiving an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Economics. She entered her postsecondary degree with clear intent: to find work embedding corporate social responsibility into commercial real estate. “I needed an education in that context, so I researched and reached out to a handful of leaders in that area, asking for information interviews on how to differentiate myself on the job market.”

Stankovic found her dream job working as a sustainability coordinator for Triovest Realty Advisors in 2013, while completing her thesis about integrating sustainability in the Canadian commercial real estate and construction industry. “My willingness to learn how to integrate theory into practice made me stand out against other candidates,” says Stankovic. To keep up with the requirements of her chosen field, Stankovic became a certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accredited professional. This designation has helped her better understand the requirements for energy and waste management, water conservation and sustainable procurement in the construction and real estate sectors.

“Sustainability is becoming important to investors and tenants in commercial real estate,” says Stankovic, who now helps develop and apply strategies with positive environmental impacts that extend to the company’s stakeholders. “Triovest is joining the ranks of Canadian leaders who are seeing the value in integrating sustainability into day-to-day operations.”

Integrating environmental approaches with a strategic organizational direction is a growing priority in many industries. “We believe strongly in environmental education,” says Frances Edmonds, director of environmental programs for Hewlett Packard (HP) Canada. “I hire and mentor many students myself, including co-op students from Waterloo’s Environment and Business program. We are committed to bringing up the next generation of students and providing them work experience in the intersection between business and environment.”

HP has demonstrated a long-term dedication to sustainability. “We created the HP Eco Advocate program and champion the WWF Living Planet at Work program to educate not only our workforce, but those of other companies, even ones we don’t do business with,” Edmonds adds. “We take the environmental expertise we have, make it freely available via the web, and invite the employees of our customers and other organizations to green their own business.”

When polled in 2013, more than 90 per cent of HP employees said being a sustainability leader is important both to their business and their customers’ business. Because the majority of the company’s carbon footprint is created by customer organizations, everyone within HP is encouraged to become environmentally literate and work with their customers to reduce the collective environmental impact of HP’s products and services.

In preparing for a career in a company like HP, “it is really important to understand how business works and how to apply environmental principles to reducing footprint within the business,” says Edmonds. She envisions a future where sustainability is built into every job function.

“Sustainability is a team sport. We need people of all designations to be thinking about this, and collaborating, to move the needle forward as fast as we can.”  

Natasha Milijasevic is a Toronto-based management consultant whose practice focuses on projects, processes, data, and how organizations can measure these to improve their social impact.  Her past research and publications span group psychology to business strategy.  

Wife, mother of two and occasionally exhibiting artist, Milijasevic also loves school: she has a BSc, MBA, PhD, and is going back for another one in health care analytics. Her degrees and consulting experience have taught her how to think about complex organizational and technology problems, but the perennials and butterflies in her garden help her to stop thinking about them.