Two small, isolated Maine colleges that focus on sustainability and the environment know they aren’t for everyone.

Students have to work in the local community, where they experience the real world and reflect on how they can apply that and their book learning to impact the future of the world.

“Everything we work on is involved in the community. It isn’t theoretical, but real,” said Spencer Gray, a fourth-year student from Woolwich who is working within College of the Atlantic’s new Community Energy Center, which matches students with solar and other sustainability efforts in the local community. Many students like Gray self-direct their studies, and there are ample opportunities for collaborations with other students and the one-on-one interactions with professors that small colleges afford.

That may seem a lot for young students to shoulder. But they make a deliberate decision to study in the heart of Maine’s farm country at Unity College or at the edge of the ocean in Bar Harbor in College of the Atlantic, preparing for a careers as sustainability professionals, an emerging specialty that cuts across multiple industries.

“COA was founded in 1969 with three goals: recreate higher education entirely; seed the world with bright, entrepreneurial thinkers for the environment; and use the coast of Maine to define what we do as an institution,” said President Darron Collins, whose college has only one major – human ecology. “It draws people here or sends them running. You don’t randomly apply to COA. You make a definitive choice.”

College of the Atlantic, a private college, caps total enrollment at 350 and students create their own majors in art, science, humanities and other disciplines with the goal of making the environment and world better, Collins said.

“No matter what you do, you impact the environment,” said Melik Khoury, president of Unity, which was founded in 1965. “Any career our students go into, they differentiate it.”

Both Collins and Khoury said the sustainability and environmental focuses of their schools represent a turnaround from the time when those disciplines were only a niche program or major within a large university.

Melik Peter Khoury, president of Unity College, stands with Unity House in the background. Unity House is a net zero house that generates more electricity than it uses. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

And the colleges are graduating students into a workforce where sustainability has become a desired focus, especially within science, humanities and business fields.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics generally defines sustainability professionals as people who promote environmental protection, social responsibility and profitability. In early April, 57 sustainability jobs were listed on Indeed.com in Maine, ranging from scientists to financial analysts to educators and salespeople while LinkedIn listed a total of 27,100 sustainability jobs across the country.

More than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies have chief sustainability officers in their ranks, according to Maureen Hart, executive director of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, a trade association that sets professional certification and credentialing standards for sustainability professionals. The organization itself has seen its membership climb from 50 in 2008 to more than 1,000 today, with a LinkedIn network of 150,000, up from 100,000 two years ago.

“The number of businesses worldwide that are adopting sustainability practices has grown exponentially in the past decade, creating a need for more professionals with the expertise to guide them,” said Hart. “Higher education is recognizing this and adding sustainability both as separate programs of study and a components of existing programs. This is important since sustainability needs to be integrated throughout all aspects of an organization’s operations.”

HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE

At Unity, recent graduates Kimy Chavez and Clark Crawford, both of whom came to Maine from out of state, found jobs in their profession here and decided to stay. About 74 percent of the college’s graduates find work in their field.

Behind Unity President Melik Peter Khoury is a pellet boiler silo at Clifford Hall. The building is heated with wood pellets. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

A 2014 graduate of one of Unity’s most popular programs, captive wildlife, native Oregonian Kimy Chavez now is general manager at Avian Haven in Freedom.

It rescues injured birds and reptiles and treats them with the goal of releasing them once they’re healthy. There aren’t many jobs in her field, she said, so she was glad to get a position in Maine.

“I came to Unity in June 2011 and found it was small and close-knit. Everyone had a different perspective,” Chavez said. “Back home people were narrow-minded. They think you graduate, marry and have babies.”

She said the small college enhanced learning.

“Myself and most classmates learn better with hands-on experience, so we didn’t just hear how to treat a goat, but were in a barn donning gloves and working,” Chavez said.

Clark Crawford, an Ohioan who graduated in 2015, said he liked the small campus, the one-on-one with professors and the hands-on experience. He now is an operations specialist and service coordinator for ReVision Energy’s office in Liberty.

“I visited Unity my junior year in high school and it had a really good community feel and small classes,” he said. “It was a good draw, plus the sustainability aspect of the campus facilities.”

GOING GREEN

In 2011, the last year the BLS measured sustainability careers, there were 3.4 million jobs in sustainability goods or services, accounting for 2.6 percent of total U.S. employment. That reflected a 7.4 percent increase in sustainability jobs compared with 2010. The BLS stopped measuring green jobs because of budget cuts.

But the importance of embracing sustainability both as an operating principle and a field of study is growing.

Many universities are upping their profile of environmental and sustainability studies. Colby College in Waterville recently received a multi-million-dollar donation from Sandy and Sissy Buck of Cumberland Foreside to set up the Buck Environmental and Climate Change Lab, which aims to place students from diverse academic backgrounds in work and research internships in Maine and elsewhere.

Colleges are even being ranked for the greenness of their campus. For example, in 2016 the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education named eight New England colleges to its list of the 39 greenest colleges that have classes, majors and a campus building mission of sustainability. Of them, Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, was second overall and first in New England. Colby and Unity also made the list.

COA topped the Sierra Club’s magazine 2016 “Cool Schools” list as the greenest college in the country, with the school jumping up 15 spots to take to top slot by a landslide, the magazine noted. COA plans to be fossil-fuel free by 2030.

Collins, of COA, said education should be one foot in the library and one in the wider world, the community. That’s one reason the school just founded the Community Energy Center on campus, which supports students working on projects within the community.

COA student Gray, along with fellow fourth-year student Laura Berry, said their experience working with Community Energy Center is augmenting their book learning in a way that will impact their future work. Both plan to continue studying for higher degrees.

Gray, who has been helping businesses conduct energy audits, for his senior project is designing a sustainable building for one of the farms the colleges uses. He said the project is the equivalent of three classes totaling 450 hours.

Berry transferred to COA from Middlebury College in Vermont, where she focused on environmental policy.

“I transferred to COA to get interdisciplinary, hands-on education along with an academic component,” she said.

Her senior project will focus on sustainable energy policy, so she will study Samsø, a Danish island that in 1997 won a government competition to become a model renewable energy community, and now derives all of its electricity from wind power and biomass.