Layoffs at big tech a boon for climate change firms

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Layoffs are ruining Silicon Valley. Tech titans like Twitter, Amazon and Facebook are laying off thousands of workers as job cuts and hiring freezes rock the industry.

Many software engineers, programmers and data scientists are out of work, looking for what’s next. But climate technology companies have a compelling message: Come work with us.

These companies offer a wide range of jobs. Some companies create software to better measure greenhouse gas emissions. Others create materials like cement and steel without using carbon.

Record-breaking fundraising in previous years and renewed government support have put the climate tech sector in an enviable position: recruiting talent while high-profile Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are hemorrhaging.

Now, climate-tech companies — which once struggled to compete with the pay packages and stock options that social media companies could offer — are seeing their inboxes filled with once-impossible resumes.

Some climate leaders are skeptical, arguing that more chemical engineers and scientists are needed, not coders and project managers. But others say the influx of talent could help tech companies that have often struggled to reach their lofty goals.

In many ways, as other scholars have added, this is simply history repeating itself, which shows that innovation often comes during or after a crisis.

“It’s a really big secular push,” said Phil Budden, senior professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School. “Suddenly, engineers are available all over the world. … There is greater hope for climate technologies to take off.”

Silicon Valley layoffs mark the end of an era in Big Tech

In the past week, tens of thousands of tech workers have lost their jobs. On Monday, Amazon announced that they would be laying off 10,000 people. A few days before that, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it would lay off 11,000 workers, or 13 percent of its workforce. Twitter has laid off more than 3,700 employees, led by Elon Musk.

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Things are different in the climate technology sector. Climate technology funding is cooling, but after record highs. As of Wednesday, $16 trillion has flowed into the sector this year, nearly double the $9.3 billion raised in 2019, but less than the $30.4 billion raised in 2021, according to PitchBook.

Climate Draft, a coalition of climate technology companies, has a job board offering more than 4,000 jobs across about 360 companies. Another job portal, Climatebase, has over 6,000 postings.

Job fairs are being planned for next week and after the Thanksgiving holiday to promote climate technology openings. Many tech workers on messaging apps and community message boards are asking their laid-off colleagues to consider climate change. Laid-off workers get a 33 percent discount on 12-week climate change courses that typically cost about $1,499.

Apoorv Bhargava, CEO of climate artificial intelligence company WeaveGrid, said he has noticed a difference. Typically, his company fields about 80 job applications a week. This week: 800, according to company statistics.

His company, which uses artificial intelligence to help electric vehicles charge without overloading the grid, raised $35 million on Tuesday and needs to quickly double its workforce.

Before, he’d be pestering the brightest software programmers and data scientists to give up Big Tech salaries and stock options to work for his company. But now, his inbox is full of laid-off people looking for a job. “My LinkedIn is a disaster,” he said.

Now that funding and staffing seem less of an issue, Bhargava is more confident about expanding his company’s products to more cities. He is also brainstorming how to expand his business to corporate fleets such as Amazon’s delivery trucks, which require analyzing large amounts of data.

“That’s going to be something I think we wouldn’t be able to do if we weren’t excited to move this talent pool into something like the climate,” he said.

Eugene Kirpichov, ex-Google The software engineer, who spent more than two years helping to found the non-profit group Work on Climate, said the influx of talent fueled by the layoffs could be a boon for the climate industry.

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Many workers don’t realize that their skills are easily transferable to climate companies, Kirpichov said. The misconception, he said, is that workers need a doctorate in climate-related studies, when all they really need are the skills they already have. They have to use them to solve different problems, he said.

Evan Hynes, founder and CEO of Climatebase, said the shift to climate tech partly reflects a decline in enthusiasm for Big Tech companies.

“A lot of people at the beginning of technology 2.0 – like in the days of Facebook – had a feeling that you could change the world for the better,” he said. “But as these companies grew, it was like being a cog in a big machine.”

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Working on climate change isn’t just for scientists or engineers, Hynes said. Historically, the top three job openings at Climatebase are business development and sales, communications, and software engineering.

Quinn Hawkins, who was vice president of product management at real estate technology brokerage Redfin, says he closed his unit at the company this month. As a result, Hawkins, who also worked on startups at Microsoft, is looking for a project management job, preferably in climate technology.

He said his interest stems from an experience he had last September when he visited a friend in the Sierras near Los Angeles.

“The air was just smoke,” he said. “There were hand painted plywood signs in front of the farms saying ‘Pray for rain’ or ‘God bless our firemen.’ It was apocalyptic.”

After 10 years in the real estate industry, Hawkins hopes to spend the next decade helping with project management at a company that is trying to address the climate crisis and work toward a better future for her 8-year-old son.

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“Even if everything I worked for didn’t work out,” she said, “I would be very proud to say, ‘I’m sorry the planet is as messed up as it is, but your dad tried. He devoted time and passion to make the world a little better for you.'”

Not everyone agrees on how helpful this overstaffing will be.

Jonathan Strauss, CEO of Climate Draft, said that no matter what climate companies do, software is key. “They need the software to develop that product, get it to market, get it up and running,” he said.

Cody Finke, CEO of Brimstone, which makes decarbonized cement, disagrees. Companies that focus on hard-science innovations, rather than pure software solutions, will do more harm than good, he said. Chemical engineers and metallurgists would be more valuable to his company than coders and product managers, he said. “Basically, software can’t solve the climate problem,” he said. “You need the hard sciences.”

Some tech workers who already switched to the climate sector say it’s worth it. Yin Lu vividly remembers the day he decided to leave education technology and enter the climate.

It was the summer of 2020, and the air in Northern California was thick with wildfire smoke, turning it orange. His daughter wanted to play outside, so Lu put a respirator on her and they went to the park.

Watching her daughter play, “I thought, ‘What am I doing with my career?’ he said I had this “come to Jesus” moment where I thought, “I need to stop working on anything but climate.” “

Lu quit his job and began reading everything he could about climate change, looking for ways to leverage his background in early-stage growing startups. He is now a partner in My Climate Journey, a climate collective and venture firm.

“Now, I wake up every day knowing that I spend time doing my daughter’s work [life] better — there is no better antidote than that,” he said.

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