What's a sustainability coordinator do? Allentown among 1st to hire manager for environmental initiatives
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Maria C. Ocasio had three words in response to the city advertising to hire a dedicated sustainability coordinator: “I am delighted.”
“I'm flabbergasted. I still can't quite believe it,” said Ocasio, Lehigh Valley field coordinator for Conservation Voters of PA and PennFuture, as well as chairwoman of the city’s Environmental Advisory Council.
“We’re very fortunate to have a hard-working Environmental Advisory Council, who has been pushing for this, and also to be working with PennFuture and Conservation Voters of PA to help push this and promote this.
“It's just amazing to see that joint effort and have this come to fruition. I am just excited.”
After a tumultuous budgeting process, Allentown is among the first in the Lehigh Valley to carve out a position for a dedicated sustainability coordinator to oversee environmental initiatives and bolster community engagement.
While the position is only budgeted for one year, advocates said a successful candidate will illustrate how necessary the position is going forward for the commonwealth’s third-most-populous city.
“Some of the benefits that having a sustainability manager can bring include lowering energy costs for both the city and its residents,” Ocasio said.
“Having this position is instrumental in addressing pressing issues like lead contamination in homes and the formulation of effective climate action plans.
“Also, this position tends to pay for itself with the grant opportunities that are established. I think that there is definitely room to have this — and that is the sincerest hope — to have this go beyond the year.”
City spokeswoman Genesis Ortega said about a dozen people have so far applied.
During Mayor Matt Tuerk’s third State of the City address Jan. 10 to the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, he said he would hire for the position in the coming months.
The speech followed a storm that dropped record-setting rainfall across the region.
“That coordinator will help us to determine where we stand with regard to environmental sustainability and help identify resources that will improve our position,” Tuerk said.
“The flooding that we experienced [yesterday] and the extreme heat that we experienced last summer are a sign of things to come.
“The resources are out there to help us reduce emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change, and this position will give us the ability to be more sustainable.”
‘The person I have in mind’
Responsibilities listed for the position, posted to an online job board and the city’s website, include “overseeing the development, implementation and management of sustainable initiatives in all city departments and functions,” as well as “collaborat[ing] with various stakeholders to develop and implement sustainable strategies and programs” and other tasks.
Qualifications include a bachelor's degree in environmental science, sustainability or a related field, as well as at least five years of experience in conservation and sustainability.
The salary is listed at $66,977, and the deadline to apply is Feb. 10.
While Ocasio said she’s not opposed to having a candidate from outside the city, it’s important for the new coordinator who is familiar with the Valley and the needs of its residents.
“I would look for somebody who definitely has the background, years of experience in sustainable development — that’s a given. Somebody who's worked in urban areas and low income areas would be a plus. Maybe a former grant writer with some engineering background.Maria C. Ocasio, Lehigh Valley field coordinator for Conservation Voters of PA and PennFuture, as well as the chair of Allentown's Environmental Advisory Council
“I would look for somebody who definitely has the background, years of experience in sustainable development — that’s a given,” she said.
“Somebody who's worked in urban areas and low-income areas would be a plus. Maybe a former grant writer with some engineering background.
“That might be a bit lofty, but in my ideal world, that's the person I have in mind.”
Allentown City Council in mid-December adopted a 2024 budget that included no new taxes. Duringthe same meeting, but in a separate vote, the governing body unanimously added a sustainability coordinator to the budget.
The vote came after a September letter-writing campaign aimed at pressuring the city to hire someone to oversee and address environmental justice issues.
The letter, with the subject, “Please hire a dedicated sustainability manager,” included several paragraphs of arguments to answer why the position is so sorely needed.
The city’s EAC also submitted comments to council arguing for the position to be funded.
“Based on our own member experiences, and the experience of other cities that have such a position in place, we are confident that the sustainability coordinator will help the city to lower its costs through implementing more sustainable practices and through bringing more money to the city in federal, state and county grants as well as philanthropic sources,” according to the comments, which are posted on the EAC’s website.
During his campaign, Tuerk’s “Sustainability Plan” included hiring a “Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) with responsibility for plan management. The CSO will employ an interdisciplinary approach by engaging a broad range of city departments and external partners.”
‘Faster than the average for all occupations’
Over the past year, the Valley’s residents have seen the affects of climate change first hand.
A July storm that flooded parts of Berks County also caused more than $7.5 million worth of damage in Northampton County. A month before, Canadian wildfire smoke inundated the Valley, choking its residents and giving the region the worst air in the nation for a short time.
Results from Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion’s National Surveys on Energy and the Environment, released in September, show Americans want to prevent future global warming, but also believe adaptation to climate change will require major lifestyle changes.
“I'm in talks with Sarah Peelman, who works for the city of Erie. We have the city of Reading that has this position. The city of Harrisburg has a position. We are in close proximity to areas that [have a sustainability coordinator] and I think we need to take note.”Maria C. Ocasio, chairwoman of Allentown’s Environmental Advisory Council
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have an entry for sustainability managers in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, the agency’s data does show expected growth in environmental jobs.
“Employment of environmental scientists and specialists is projected to grow 6% from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations,” according to the bureau.
“About 6,900 openings for environmental scientists and specialists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.”
Demand for sustainability professionals is strong in corporate settings, too, according to GreenBiz Group’s "State of the Profession 2022." Officials there have described it as “The Great Expansion.”
“The Great Expansion is reflective of a mounting climate crisis that requires increasingly bold action,” according to the California-based business, technology and sustainability firm’s report.
“CEOs are more engaged, more companies are expanding their sustainability efforts and the size of their teams, and more commitments are being made to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions.”
While Allentown will be one of the first in the Valley, there are other major cities throughout the commonwealth that have hired a sustainability coordinator, Ocasio said, and they’re thriving.
“I'm in talks with Sarah Peelman, who works for the city of Erie,” Ocasio said. “We have the city of Reading that has this position. The city of Harrisburg has a position.
“We are in close proximity to areas that [have a sustainability coordinator] and I think we need to take note.”