Like most aspiring high school graduates, Molly Shannon wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her professional life, though she enjoyed science and talking business with her father.
But whether Molly, 17, goes into public health, brand management, or veering off a path as yet unimagined, she’s certain of one thing: Climate change will impact her career, even if it’s too early to say exactly how.
Rising global temperatures, which are causing changes in weather patterns, “affect more than just the environment. There’s politics, there’s farming,” said Molly, a senior at Orange High School in Lewis Center, Ohio, near Columbus. “No matter what a student’s career choice is, there will be something related to climate change that they should consider.”
Her colleagues are increasingly recognizing this reality: More than a quarter of the more than 1,000 teens surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center in October said the threat of climate change was impacting their career plans. And 1 in 5 said it influenced what they wanted to study in college.
High school students like Molly think ahead of their school district. Typically, the pressure to reshape career-oriented education starts with employers, moves to post-secondary education, and eventually to K-12, said Meena Naik, associate director at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that concentrates on education and the workforce. . alignment.
With climate change, that has been reversed: The urgency is coming from students.
“Kids pushed us not even because they looked at the work and said, ‘I knew that was not going to be there for me,’” Naik says. “They saw the world explode before their eyes.”
In fact, 30 percent of students recently surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center said they wanted to learn more about job opportunities related to sustainability and climate change, while only 22 percent of teachers said they talked to students about those careers.
‘We are talking about imaginary people for this job’
There has been no widespread national push to help high school students—and eventually, students even younger than that—explore how climate change might affect their choices, let alone gain work-based experience in rapidly growing areas, such as solar energy and manufacturing with recycled materials.
But that needs to change quickly, says Kyle Hartung, vice president at Jobs for the Future.
“We are ultimately talking about imaginary people for these jobs unless we build real ongoing systems to start engaging kids from the middle grades on career exploration and coherent pathways to skills and credentials that lead to good jobs in sectors that are is currently developing,” said Hartung. .
There are some clear jumping-off points for that conversation, said Taj Eldridge, director of climate innovation at JFFLabs, the nonprofit’s innovation unit.
The electric vehicle is ready to take off. Plant-based agriculture will gain new advantages, as meat and dairy production depletes increasingly scarce resources. And well-known companies are already turning to alternative, more environmentally friendly materials to manufacture items such as clothing. Nike, for example, has a line of eco-friendly sneakers made from recycled materials.
And that may just be the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg.
Students like Molly are right when they say that almost every job will be affected by climate change, Naik said. “Everyone should have an awareness of green needs,” he said, although the specifics would depend heavily on the sector, he added.
While some jobs can easily make sustainability changes, others can change more significantly. Gas station workers could hook up cars to electric power instead of fuel, for example. Areas of the economy that are unable to adapt to new realities—such as coal production—may be shifted entirely, making talk of new industries and job retraining especially important for the coal community.
Perhaps most importantly for high school students today: “You’re going to have this whole new category of work that you never would have imagined,” Naik said.
Students ‘waiting for us all to catch up’
For now, it’s largely up to individual teachers—including Molly’s AP Environmental Science teacher, Jessica Timmons—to help students consider how their path through the world of work can be shaped by a rapidly changing environment.
It’s something Timmons has woven throughout his course, even as he encourages students to be prepared for the AP exam, which can earn college credit. He talks about jobs in the burgeoning wind energy sector, for example.
“If we know that the western United States is known as Saudi Arabia from wind energy, how are we going to upgrade our infrastructure?” he would ask the students.
“There will be lots of jobs available,” he said. “We just have to find a way to let the kids see the possibilities.”
His school district, the Olentangy school, recently started partnerships with local businesses, including Chase Bank and Worthington Industries, a steel producer, to show students that “we have all the big companies in this area, and you have job options,” Timmons said. . “But not much about environmental science.”
Her students are hungry for information about those types of careers, she says.
“They grow up with natural disasters after natural disasters that can [be tied] to climate change,” he said. “They’re not stupid. They know things have to be different. They’re just waiting for the rest of the education system to catch up.”
When Timmons students inquire about careers related to their interest in environmental science or fighting climate change, he or she will sit with them after school or during study rooms and research possibilities, including which colleges might offer particular specializations. The school counseling office is also a resource for students.
Timmons can tell current students what their alumni are up to, for additional inspiration.
Bonnie Burns, who graduated from Orange several years ago and is now studying in Florida, loves creating lighting for theater productions. He thought he might want to devote at least part of his career to helping get the carbon foot down from the performing arts. Another former student, Jackson Schiefelbein, is earning an advanced degree in social entrepreneurship, with the goal of helping businesses become sustainable.
Dan Shefali Sinha, now a sophomore at nearby Ohio State University and a first-generation sophomore, originally studied environmental law. But now he’s thinking he wants to do something more practical for the environment, though he’s still figuring out what work might be.
Sinha recalls how Timmons sat down with him and talked about potential careers, then sent him links to articles and information about environmental law. He is still grateful for the help. But he didn’t think his teacher should go out of his way to find those resources.
“I really feel that so much burden is placed on teachers without enough support,” said Sinha.
Still, the work that Timmons and his colleagues across the country are doing with their students could ultimately lead to the kinds of changes that will help career education—and perhaps the rest of the economy—adapt to the realities of climate change, said JFF’s Eldridge.
“This future of innovation will emerge through the conversations today’s children are having with their teachers,” he said.