Cleantech For English Majors

"Strong technical skills are a must," reads the jobs page of one promising solar startup. "High tech background desirable" makes the qualifications list for a marketing position at another cleantech firm. A prominent fuel cells company goes so far as to require a "Bachelors or Masters in [a] technical discipline" for a sales position.

In a sluggish economy with high unemployment, clean energy is hiring, scooping up talented engineers and scientists to develop the next great tech sector. But there's also strong demand for business analysts, marketing professionals, government relations gurus, and more -- provided applicants aren't afraid to get technical.

So what if I graduated with a degree in business, policy or the liberal arts? It's a question worth asking for the countless non-technical grads aspiring to careers in a growth industry with major social significance.

"The energy field is all about the development and deployment of technology," Mitch Tyson, chairman of Advanced Electron Beams, which develops energy efficient technology for industrial manufacturing, told me over email. "There's no way to get around that."

But that's no reason for the non-technical crowd to despair. "The energy issue is very complex and is as much a societal issue as a technical issue," Tyson said. "A student that majors in chemistry, for example, has only one piece of the puzzle."

The key, according to Tyson, is for aspiring cleantech professionals to develop a bare minimum of technical knowledge and familiarity with the sector. Thanks to the Internet, climbing the technical curve has never been easier.

"The first step is admitting what you don't know -- at least to yourself," said Kevin Doyle, principal of Green Economy, a consulting firm specializing in green workforce issues. The fastest way to figure out what you don't know is to start reading industry news, according to Doyle. If your core interest is energy policy, start following updates from Capitol Hill. If you're interested in a specific sector like solar or wind, try the relevant trade association's blog or news feed. If your dream is to work for a startup, read blogs by cleantech entrepreneurs and VCs.

Instead of cracking a textbook, which can be overwhelming initially, keeping up with the latest news in the sector can introduce technological developments in context. The cleantech sector has more than its fair share of jargon, so Doyle recommends keeping track of terms or concepts you don't recognize and then looking them up online.

Once you've gained some confidence and become familiar with some of the industry jargon, it's time to get back to basics. This is when Doyle recommends picking up a textbook. (He recommends Sustainable Energy: Choosing Among Options; for those with a preference for free online materials, Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air comes highly recommended.) The U.S. Energy Information Administration's Energy Explained series, also free and online, is another good introductory resource.

So what subjects warrant the most attention? There's no single checklist, but Tyson offered the following suggestions: a strong understanding of energy units and conversions; some familiarity with how a power plant works; an understanding of discount rates, life cycle costing, and utility rate structures; a basic understanding of major renewable technologies including how solar panels convert sunlight into electrical energy, how different energy storage technologies operate and how they compare, etc.

"Be able to calculate how many wind turbines are needed to power the state of Indiana or how long a hybrid car must travel before it saves as much energy as it took to make it," Tyson said. "These aren't trick questions but they do require a fundamental understanding of the energy flows and the economic balances."

A rudimentary understanding of familiar technologies along with the ability to make basic back-of-the-envelope energy calculations should make it easier to speak intelligently about the sector when trying to get your foot in the door. But it's just a beginning. The more comfortable you become with the technologies, the more successful you will be in clean energy. And there's no shortage of online resources for any competency level. Increasingly, universities are publishing lectures and syllabi online, including great resources on energy. So read up. Just don't be afraid to get a little technical.