The New Climate Jobs

August 4, 2023
The New Climate Jobs

At Voyager, we speak frequently about the novel technologies and inventions that will move the world off fossil fuels, but the foundational story of climate stabilization is and will be a story of human capability. That capability exists at the highest levels of abstraction: imagination and genius, creativity and vision, inventors, scientists, and founders. It is also capability in the terms of the daily work of building companies; installing and maintaining infrastructure; and producing energy, food, and modern essentials. Building a world that doesn’t run on fossil fuels requires ingenuity at global scale, as society mobilizes as much as $200 trillion in investment funding for decarbonization in the next three decades. Equally importantly, it implies the global shift to an economy run by new climate workers, in new climate jobs.

Voyager believes that today’s founders and tomorrow’s climate company-builders can collectively create the next great industrial, business, and capital allocation model. Decarbonization is a big idea: it means not just reimagining how businesses make and sell their products, but how energy is harvested and distributed around the world, how human civilization grows its food and makes its clothes, how buildings are built and operated, and how billions of people move within cities and across countries every day. Climate tech can be the next Silicon Valley, but it can – and needs to be – much more than that, touching and remaking every sector of the global economy. And the new climate economy will need to move at greater speed and at greater scale than Silicon Valley ever has. Work on Climate’s own theory of change and roadmap to making climate work mainstream suggests what the next Silicon Valley should be: both much bigger, and much faster, than what we have now: 

It took 40 years before the famously fast-growing software industry grew to 25M people – with climate, we have 7-10 years to grow to ten times that size. We need to build the climate workforce an order of magnitude faster than any industry in history has built a workforce.

This letter examines the landscape of work in climate, the social structures foundational to climate company-building, and the opportunities for skilled and driven professionals dedicated to global decarbonization. Alongside our analysis of these structural shifts, Voyager intends for this letter to remind climate entrepreneurs and company-builders that you are neither too late, nor too early.

Defining Climate Jobs

How should we define a “climate job”?  A highly constrained view would limit climate jobs only to those personnel and roles with direct climate impact in climate-focused companies. That narrow view would include scientists, but not salespeople; CTOs, but not CFOs. We believe this view falsely excludes millions of current and future climate workers. Instead, Voyager’s definition includes anyone working within a company or an organization where decarbonization as a process and a company goal are clearly-defined and where their role is a meaningful part of that process. This includes a much wider range of people within companies: strategic planners, building managers, fleet managers, purchasers, supply chain experts. Importantly, this view also includes people outside the private sector: city planners, policymakers, regulators, academics, representatives of the international community. This view is less about the nature of specific roles, and rather about the impact that they can have. We see climate jobs assembling into familiar cohorts:

  • Technology: Technology: engineering, design, programming
  • Operations: plant and facilities, supply chains, logistics
  • Revenue: sales, product, go-to-market strategy, pricing, growth, scaling
  • Finance: company finances, modeling of product unit economics today and in the future
  • Policy and Regulatory: governmental processes, regulatory operations, and experience with policy-driven or policy-determined corporate outcomes

Climate tech companies are companies like any others. Some roles with some companies will require particular technical aptitude or a highly-tuned understanding of regulatory nuance, but – to succeed at scale – all climate tech companies will require a workforce skilled in the conventions of business-building.

Yet even with this imperative, and with so much evident interest from both new graduates and experienced workers to begin working in a climate job, cognitive blocks remain. Some of those are technical, but many are perceptual. By presenting hiring data within climate tech, we hope to illustrate the demand for new climate workers with every type of skill attainment.

Climatebase recently provided insights pulled from over 46,000 climate job posts from more than 1,500 organizations. The results should hearten anyone seeking a climate job: the most in-demand roles on its platform are already jobs familiar across many industries. Software engineering is the most popular posting, but sales and business development are right behind, and marketing and communications are also in high demand. For all that electrical engineering will be essential for deep decarbonization, it occupies roughly half as many jobs posting as software. The jobs boards of Voyager’s portfolio companies reflect this mix of desired experience, as do the more than 4,500 open climate jobs currently posted on Climate Draft.

However, the hardest-to-fill jobs on Climatebase’s platform do trend more technical. The hardest-to-fill jobs are in data science and analytics, and software engineering. Closely grouped after that are human resources and mechanical and electrical engineering. On average, these roles take more than three months to fill, and data science roles frequently require nearly four months.

It is worth noting that in-demand jobs have a high degree of plasticity across sectors. For mobility, carbon removal, and food and agriculture and land use sectors, software engineering is the most common job posting category; for energy and buildings, operations roles are the most common. Reshaping the global economy is a growth industry offering career mobility across specific sectors.

As a climate unicorn founder confided to Voyager recently, his company’s talent hunts include highly technical roles but also “I just need people who know Salesforce”.  That invocation is telling, too, because it hints at two forces necessary to create and support a global base of climate jobs.

The first force is tacit knowledge, which helps define much of China’s dominance of clean energy supply chains today, as Robinson Meyer recently noted in the New York Times. Tacit knowledge is taught, but more importantly it is learned from a network of talented and focused workers through collaborative effort and workplace experience. Tacit knowledge is applied, rather than theoretical; human, not academic; and exponentially valuable for building global companies.  

Tacit knowledge is not just for technical skills in the physical world. It exists at every stage of company formation and will be essential for building quickly and building durably. Tacit knowledge presents an incredible hiring opportunity for employers and employees who value experience in building teams, creating and implementing strategy, and navigating policy and regulation. Climate companies will need employees who know how to black-start a chemicals facility just as they will need employees who can efficiently parse local, state, national and international regulation or just as quickly stand up an enterprise software sales team.

Much of that skill is global, but it does concentrate in key regions. That leads to the second force to create climate jobs at scale: Silicon Valley itself. Silicon Valley is essential to the climate workforce not just for the world-leading companies that it has nurtured for decades, but also for the global model of networked innovation that it has created. Voyager believes that building a sustainable global economy will require renewing the Silicon Valley model with the organizing principal of decarbonization.  

The New Silicon Valley

By the US Census’ narrow definition, Silicon Valley (the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara conurbation) is a $400 billion-plus economy. Take a more expansive view of the entire Bay Area, and it is a $1.4 trillion economy, the third largest in the US behind New York ($2.4 trillion) and Los Angeles ($1.5 trillion). It is an economy built on innovation and science, the combination of hardware and software, and the intersection of both with business models that enable fast growth and return value to shareholders. It is possible to quibble with what parts of Silicon Valley optimize for, but it is hard to argue with its creative capability, scale, or impact.

In some aspects, Silicon Valley has already pioneered a path that climate companies can follow and demonstrated the hyper-growth that climate companies can achieve. It has also developed the types of jobs that climate companies will also need across software, hardware, and much more, and has already trained and developed a large, ambitious workforce that climate companies can hire. And – because this is Silicon Valley – it has also generated a workforce that can be intensely entrepreneurial, on the lookout for the next opportunity that incumbent firms (perhaps even their own employers) do not grasp. In the past four years, we have observed the accelerating influence of the Silicon Valley model in climate tech, as networks of successful founders and leaders from prominent tech companies collectively turn their ambitions to company-building in climate.

So far, climate technology is mapping to Silicon Valley and its homegrown versions in other states and countries. According to CTVC data, as of the end of 2022, nearly a quarter of the approximately 1,500 climate tech companies it tracks are headquartered in California. Silicon Valley is doing its best to stay at climate tech’s forefront too, thanks to institutions such as the Stanford Doerr School and the Bay Area’s universities, laboratories, investors, and entrepreneurs.

That said, Silicon Valley’s past successes are not a perfect recipe for success in the decarbonized economy ahead. This new climate jobs-dominated network will need to also import key capabilities from outside the valley. There is immense tacit knowledge in the world’s existing energy and petrochemical firms, its financial services providers, and its governmental policymakers and regulators. These firms know how to build massive infrastructure from drilling fields to refineries to pipelines, finance multi-billion-dollar projects, and work closely with national and local governments, all of which has been critical to their success over the past 100 years. Silicon Valley has to some degree learned from petrochemical firms’ expertise in government relations, but climate companies will need to bring that capability further into strategic planning. An understanding of finance, policy, and regulation will not be a bolt-on feature for success in building big businesses in decarbonization; it will be fundamental.

And, Silicon Valley has healthy competition in climate tech, given the emerging clusters in other US cities including New York and Houston, and in technology capitals around the world. The climate opportunity surface is definitively global. While China is the workshop for much of climate technology’s supply chain, nearly every developed nation has its own incubation and support capabilities for decarbonization activities, and capital flows everywhere. The geopolitics of resource security and climate risk compel the formation of multiple regional ecosystems for innovation and business-building. Decarbonization is the biggest industrial opportunity of the century – a possibility recognized worldwide.

You Are Not Too Early

In writing this letter, we hope to enable both climate founders and driven, curious people of every level of professional experience to recognize their role in building a decarbonized, stable future. You are not too early to approach a fundamental climate challenge with a business lens.

A decade and a half ago, though, you probably were too early to start on a few climate endeavors, for several reasons. Either the science was too nascent, or global policy and financial commitment were thin, or the offtake landscape was non-existent, or there was not yet a sufficient network effect of devices and services.  A few sectors come to mind that were too early to scale in 2009: carbon dioxide removal, cost-competitive decarbonization of steel and cement and aluminum, carbon-neutral battery metals and chemicals, highly networked and dynamic vehicle charging models, and cellular agriculture. Having started our own careers in climate more than a decade ago, we can each attest to the friction in scaling the first wave of cleantech companies.

Today we can safely say that almost no company with a meaningful decarbonization potential is too early. The global imperative to stabilize the climate system is clear and is growing only more urgent – and with net zero emissions as the prerogative, any significant approach to any carbon-intensive sector will be useful.

And as this letter emphasizes throughout, this is a call for every variety of expertise needed to build the climate companies of tomorrow. Successful climate companies will require unparalleled technical capability, rock-solid product-market fit, a deep understanding of policy, regulation, and finance, and world-class execution capability. Not only will every skill be welcome – every skill will be essential.

You Are Not Late

Just as you are not early to build the next global climate company, you are also not too late.

Nine years ago, the longtime Silicon Valley observer and theorist Kevin Kelly wrote a short essay entitled “You Are Not Late”. In it, he imagines a contemporary entrepreneur looking back three decades to the mid-1980s and realizing that everything in today’s internet technology was either non-existent, or utterly wide open for exploring and creating. His c. 2014 entrepreneur might well have thought, “Oh, the definitional technologies are established, the land grabs have come and gone, and there is not much left to do”.

But Kelly then jumps ahead three more decades, to another imagined entrepreneur looking back at the mid-2010s and saying “Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 2014? It was a wide-open frontier!” He then gives a few prescient examples which still apply today (“You could pick almost any category X and add some AI to it, put it on the cloud”). More importantly, he captures a spirit of progress, innovation, and opportunity that Voyager believes to be true of climate today: you are not late.

There has never been a better moment to create a climate technology company. Key power generation and storage technologies have proven themselves at global scale and are already the foundation for billion-dollar decarbonization businesses. An entire ecosystem of climate-focused equity investors and asset financiers has established itself over the past decade. Global policy is more constructive than ever, and so too is corporate action in most sectors and most geographies. As ever, of course, more of everything is warranted: more invention, more innovation, more capital, and more deployment – but we view this as a call for more climate companies and more climate jobs too.

That company could be hard science or it could be an as-a-service model; it could be software, hardware, infrastructure, or platform. Society’s recognition of our climate imperative has never been greater; capital has never been more interested in deploying at scale; founders and company-builders have certainly never been better-trained or more determined in changing our climate future.