Amid the hanging gloom of recession there are occasional shafts of optimism. One of these is the evidence that careers in the environmental sector are showing some resilience in the downturn.

This is due in part to an acknowledgment of the business case for healthy environmental practices. Senior figures in the sector also point out a clear political lead coming from Whitehall, which is consistent with their own optimistic view. "The Government's low-carbon strategy sends the message that the new green economy will help move the UK out of recession," says Martin Baxter, deputy chief executive of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), whose 14,000 members work as environment professionals across industry.

Evidence of the Government's priority in this area came when Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary, announced a £2bn package of support for the British car industry, a key element of which was earmarked to help manufacturers develop cars with engines consuming far less carbon, or even none at all. In making the announcement, Lord Mandelson made clear his belief that this component will be key to the industry's future: "The steps we are taking will help companies speed their way to becoming greener, more innovative and more productive. This is the route to securing jobs for the long term."

The NHS, which employs one-and-a-half-million people, also recently announced a major campaign of carbon footprint reduction, which will be designed and driven by in-house and contracted environmental professionals.

These major public sector commitments bolster Baxter's own optimism, which stems partly from the knowledge that IEMA, as a body, continues to thrive. "We are still growing as an organisation, with 650 new members joining since January," he explains. Of these new recruits, about 80 per cent work for commercial businesses or are consultants operating in the sector, with the balance in the public sector or at academic institutions.

Of course, Baxter concedes that the credit crunch has hammered new capital developments and delayed numerous infrastructure projects, which in turn has radically reduced the amount of environmental assessment work required, such as cleaning up contaminated land.

"However," he says, "any lack of activity in this area is being offset by much more demand for climate-change and carbon-reduction services." Baxter has noticed more firms looking at carbon reduction down their supply chains, and ensuring that new products are resilient and relevant in the low-carbon market.

"Overall," he concludes, "the sector is performing well compared to other parts of the economy."

And this analysis is confirmed by those trying to place people in jobs. "There isn't as much of a downturn in the environmental sector as in most other markets," explains Adam Whitney, a partner of Evergreen Resources, one of the longest established recruitment agencies specialising in the sector. Among the categories of job where Evergreen continues to see a strong recruitment demand are renewable energy – marked growth in the last year or so, says Whitney – and positions demanding knowledge of sustainability issues for the building sector.

Here, Evergreen is seeing increasing demand for people with relevant sustainability qualifications and knowledge of the entire life cycle of a building. Among the most commonly sought-after qualifications are those allied to the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, which is gaining currency in the property development and management field.

Another specific growth area observed by Whitney is for people with up-to-date and detailed knowledge of how to minimise the harmful environmental impact of electrical and electronic goods. Since 2007, new laws – enshrined in the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive – place fresh demands on business. These regulations impact on almost every single employer, given the ubiquity of electronic equipment, and, for large organisations, it makes sense to have a dedicated in-house member of staff carrying the responsibility.

Other recruitment firms, however, are more cautious about the degree to which the environment sector is coping with the recession. Chris Kiernan, from Cobalt, the recruitment firm that operates in the UK, Germany, Middle East and Australia, identifies a "significant negative impact" on the environmental jobs market resulting from the slump in property development and company mergers. But he does see an area where recruitment remains healthy: "It is the legal and compliance environmental work that remains strongest where employers are making sure that corporate activity, whatever its nature, remains within the environmental boundary guidelines."

Many of these jobs are driven by the arrival of, or tightening up of, legislation originating in the EU. An example of the growing number of businesses benefiting from this development is Westlakes Scientific Consulting, based in Cumbria. Around half of its 70 scientists and technicians work within the environmental sector.

Westlakes works with and for businesses and public organisations in a range of areas, including monitoring of air and water quality, land contamination and gas emissions from landfill sites. At a current air quality project in Birmingham, for example, working as a consultant to the local authority, Westlakes has installed measuring equipment in the city centre that transmits real-time data on air quality back to Cumbria, where experts carry out and analyse detailed modelling of future air conditions. Conclusions based on this modelling are then sent back to Birmingham to be used in planning applications – a new factory or main road, for example, where effects on air quality are a factor. The company provides similar services to large industrial complexes, which can be comparable to small towns and where air quality, for employees, visitors and neighbours alike is of growing importance.

Westlakes has taken on six new junior staff this year – at graduate or Masters level – on the back of the firm winning two new large pieces of work involving the long-term monitoring of industrial sites.

Steve Bradley, chief executive of Westlakes and a fluvial geomorphologist by academic discipline, displays qualified optimism about the employment picture when looking at the sector as a whole. "Right at the moment things are holding up," says Bradley. He also endorses the view that devoting manpower and resources to sustainability-related projects will likely contribute to bringing about an economic upturn: "It's right and proper to get the best long-term value out of any capital investment, so I can see a lot of merit in focusing on green jobs."

Bradley's view is echoed by smaller operators in the field, such as Janet Shepherd, an IEMA member and principal consultant at EcoAgility, the environmental consultancy. She says she is yet to feel any adverse effects from the recession: "Demand is not reducing. In fact, it would appear that, as small- and medium-sized businesses are keener to get value for money, they are turning to smaller, independent consultancies with lower overheads and lower charges."

'I feel I am contributing to the solutions'

Lucy Candlin is a director of Future Perfect, an environmental consultancy. She is a chartered environmentalist and IEMA fellow. Candlin has a degree in botany and ecology, and a Masters in landscape management. She set up the firm, together with her two co-directors, five years ago. Candlin has a background in local government, NGOs and technical consultancy.

"I do a range of strategic risk management for a variety of organisations. I recently did a waste electronics compliance review at a small recycling company with three or four employees; but we also work with companies of the size of BP and Shell.

On a typical site visit, for climate-change accounting considerations, I might look at what emissions the firm is declaring and how they are ensuring the declarations are right and that they keep to agreed levels. We check that gas flow meters are calibrated properly, look at the process by which they take gas samples, how they analyse the samples and interpret the results.

I enjoy the work because I come from an ecological, conservationist background, and I believe in the need for sustainability, and the need for mankind to live within the capacity of the planet; I feel that I am contributing to the solutions through increasing awareness and controls.

Are sustainability concerns becoming embedded in corporate thinking? I'm open minded, but like to err on the positive side, because I think there are some really good companies out there who understand that risk management must encompass non-financial issues. Failure to consider corporate social responsibility and sustainability can come back and bite you further down the line."

'My job is to focus on the real challenges'

Dr Ben Vivian is head of communication and corporate social responsibility at Aggregate Industries, the building materials and road surfacing firm. He has an academic background in geography and has worked in a number of roles, including a period as a technical advisor for a law firm's environment team.

"I don't come from a communications background. I see myself as a physical environmental scientist who is keen to be heard, and working in this role is an exciting opportunity because I have the authority to take communications on environmental issues in a certain direction.

I have responsibility for the staff magazine, the website and the intranet. I am also one of the main points of contact between Aggregate Industries and the outside world.

My job's about being an environmental professional in a position to focus on the real challenges and take us forward as a society, rather than focusing on the negatives. People don't like being told what to do, and even less what not to do.

The firm is trying to shift from being a purely extractive industrial business to being one which promotes better construction methods, and a better built environment, which lasts longer and uses materials more efficiently.

We try to show our customers what they can achieve if they do things differently. For example, if they use what we call 'thin-surfacing' – a layer of asphalt on a road surface, manufactured to a high specification – the environment will benefit because less raw material will be used and the road will be a quieter one. Although it is more expensive, the gains are worth it."

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