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Sustainability Director/Coordinator Interview

Meet Amy Short, a sustainability director for the University of Minnesota.

Please share your name, title, and a description of your job duties and responsibilities.
My name is Amy Short. I am the sustainability director for the University of Minnesota's University Services department. My job is to be a sustainability point person for students, faculty, staff, departments, and campus groups on the Twin Cities' campus and help guide our sustainability efforts. A large part of my job the past year was to work with faculty, staff, and students to develop system-wide sustainability goals and measurements. I answer questions and communicate about sustainability efforts to the university community, general public, and media. I also work with university operations staff to identify how to share best practices across departments and help identify projects that can be used in education. There are opportunities for me to co-sponsor forums and events with student groups. I work with experts in sustainability and environmental research and policy, as well as with the experts in operations who manage our facilities and energy programs. In my role, I am a catalyst — a change agent. It is wonderful to be a part of this exciting push to make our institution more sustainable.

What is a typical day like at your job?
My typical hours are between 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m., sometimes earlier or later depending on events and meetings that day. My hours vary depending on the time of year, because in the summer there are fewer student activities. I meet with student groups in the evenings or work on student events or community events during the weekend. As long as I am accessible by phone and Internet, I can get many parts of my job done. There's some flexibility to work from home if I need to. During a normal day, I meet with a variety of people — from large committee meetings that I staff to informal student meetings. I also speak to classes and other groups.

Since I am fairly new to the job, I spend a lot of time learning about everything going on at the University. I often read and e-mail in the evening. I also learn new technical information. For example, trying to learn about B3 energy standards compared to LEED. I benchmark schools and their policies in transportation, dining services, purchasing, etc.

How did you get started working in this field?
I have only been in this job for a few years, but I worked in the environmental field for 17 years in the manufacturing industry. In those jobs, I focused on regulations or integrating environmental health and safety aspects into business decision processes. My technical background is helpful in the operations portion of the job since I understand the structure and systems behind operations that can help make the university run more smoothly.

A couple years ago, I wanted to refresh my environmental knowledge and was interested in learning more about current issues like climate change. I looked into classes at the university and found this newly-formed position. It was a fortunate accident. To take this new job meant a pay cut. One thing important to understand about "green jobs" is if you're trying to get into a new field, taking a pay cut might be a choice you have to make. I decided to take this job because it was unique and not one that would open up very often. I liked the challenge of a new role. I was also motivated by the opportunity to help integrate life cycle into learning opportunities.

What sort of training or education do you have?
I have a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. I received my master's degree in environmental engineering from the University of Minnesota. One of the reasons I was a good candidate for the job was my regulatory and environmental health and safety experience in operations and product development. My past jobs required systems thinking. I worked with teams that were cross-functional. Interdisciplinary thinking is a large part of problem solving in sustainability — looking at issues from numerous perspectives for solutions to complex problems. Training has been on the job for me, primarily through webinars and attending workshops and conferences.

There are more courses available to people interested in sustainability jobs today than when I was in school. The University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus has a minor in sustainability open to all majors and the College of Continuing Education is developing a professional certificate. There are sustainability programs in architecture, agriculture, and business. The Association for the Advancement in Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has resources for people interested in campus sustainability.

What sort of tools, machines, or equipment do you use regularly?
I mostly use a computer, e-mail, telephone, presentation software and equipment, and e-meeting technologies. I do some driving when I visit the other campuses, but we're trying to be more "green" by less travel. Social networking is on the list of tools to use more as we move forward.

What skills or personal qualities are good for this job?
People and strong communication skills, along with the technical skills and knowledge are helpful for working in this field. My engineering background helps me understand some complex technical issues. I have an understanding of business practices and organizational management, and use those skill sets by bringing people together into ideas and engage them in actions. I rely on many people, and collaboration is important. It helps to be pro-active and willing to circumvent many barriers. Everyone I need to work or talk with is busy, so sometimes I have to get in peoples' faces — politely! Being able to listen is important. I hear many opinions about what the university needs to do or not do, and how quickly. In this type job, you have to be a self-motivator. I'm pretty introverted personally, so sometimes it's a push for me to be in front of people all day. I try to connect the dots between groups. Other times I bring people together and just get out of the way. The size of the university creates huge challenges. Culture change at a place like the university can move very slowly, so I need to be patient!

What do you enjoy most about your job?
I like being in this role of coordinator and being part of setting a direction for the university to be more sustainable. Sometimes, it's still an information overload, but it's a great asset to be able to learn and have access to the work and research of faculty experts at the university. I like being in the middle of these changes and the focus the university researchers are bringing to critical issues of our world.

I enjoy working with the operations team — we have a sustainability steering committee — and their expertise in running our university. It's great to help make stronger connections between these very busy people and fill the communications gap between departments. When I started, the energy engineers were doing great work but they were trying to fill energy job openings and didn't have time to develop a market campaign about what they are doing. There were many people involved in getting the "It All Adds Up" energy conservation campaign underway. There is now more cohesion amongst student groups working on these issues. The energy campaign helped make unique connections and focus efforts.

How does your job benefit the environment?
My job is very involved in energy topics. I'm not doing physical work to make a building more efficient, but I bring ideas to energy management, share information, and find ways for people to get involved with our conservation programs. I helped coordinate forums between energy staff and students to hold conversations with students wanting to get involved.

Are there any common misconceptions about this type of work?
Some people think sustainability is not definable, that it is vague. We are working to define and measure sustainability. Our efforts to show what works (and what doesn't) will hopefully help the public be more informed.

Another misconception is sustainability always costs more and is not practical or that you aren't being fiscally responsible. Reducing energy use and waste can be big costs savers and are first steps to create more sustainable operations. Terminology is important. For many people, when they hear "green," they may assume you have a radical political agenda. Not everyone does. Some people in this field are simply practical problem solvers. Another challenge is misinformation and "green-washing." I hope the university can play a role to help the public wade through information.

There's also controversy of the words "green" and "sustainability" and applying them to things that have happened for years. Regulatory jobs are now called green jobs. Other people think sustainability is a "flash in the pan" and wonder whether it will be around long-term. Making decisions that take into account future generations and life cycle concepts isn't simple, but I think there will always be people working on these issues to get the job done whether or not they are "popular."

What changes in this field do you expect to see in the future?
What won't be changing? It's very dynamic. Minnesota is at a different place than other states. It's more active on many sustainability-related issues. Jobs could shift to other parts of the country that are just starting to think about sustainability. I think we'll see shifts in jobs based on research and political support. Minnesota will play an important role in our energy future.

Other institutions are working on sustainability too. Hospitals are involved and working on this through their credo of "health care without harm." Businesses have been focused on environmental issues for years. For several years, there has been a shift towards sustainability and the triple-bottom line. Interdisciplinary research and education help bring more holistic approaches. On campus, student interest drives a lot of changes. The Internet is linking students to global ideas and solutions. It's a shift that people of my generation don't always fully appreciate. As these students enter the workforce and become consumers, they will be looking for responsible companies that are being innovative in their solutions. With Minnesota resources, our workforce has an opportunity to prepare for future jobs.

What is your advice to someone interested in this field?
Give yourself more future options by sticking out the tougher math and science classes. Find out which classes you need to get into the field you think is interesting. It can be a challenge to pick up classes later if you don't have a good foundation. Volunteer in your community or check out student internships. Getting involved in student groups that work on sustainability is a good start too. For instance, on campus we have a student group Engineers without Borders. They work on global projects and look for people (other than engineers) to be part of the team. The Solar Decathlon team included students from across disciplines, from design, architecture, and engineering. The Active Energy Club conducts energy audits. MPIRG is politically involved. You can learn good skills in student groups like these. Students show a lot of interest in these topics. On campus, we had students at forums talking about energy and wanting to be involved. Conversation at these forums revolved around what students could do. Now they are involved in re-commissioning buildings by measuring energy use, and putting up "Turn off the lights" reminders on switches. You can put those things on your resume.

Sustainability is so broad. There are many ways to integrate it into whatever field you are interested in, whether it is food services, transportation systems, farming, etc. There are also many opportunities to become a sustainability coordinator. At the start of your career, if you aren't ready for a big University of Minnesota-sized organization, you can still get involved on a smaller scale at small college or community.