Sustainably minded Maine millennials juggle multiple jobs to make a living
Sarah Wineburg graduated from College of the Atlantic in 2013 with a degree in human ecology – as do all undergraduates at the Bar Harbor college – and she still calls herself a human ecologist. But here are some other descriptors Wineburg has had in the last year: oyster farmer, seaweed harvester, Montessori school teacher, captain of a sailing lobster boat, sailing instructor, and program director for the educational programs on the schooner Harvey Gamage.
And then there is her most recent gig, working with Harvest Moon catering in Waldoboro.
She just turned 27. She’s in love, with her boyfriend and with Maine, and with what she calls “a really beautiful life,” one geared toward tackling the world’s sustainability issues, rather than adding to them. But sometimes?
“Sometimes I wish I had a job somewhere that was really stable and where I knew how much money I was going to make,” Wineburg said.
That is a refrain often heard throughout professional circles in Maine, a state crawling with people with necessary side gigs, whether they involve snow plowing in winter or picking up restaurant shifts in summer. But among Maine millennials working within the field of sustainability, quite often at nonprofits, it’s a particularly common phenomenon. And sometimes it goes beyond the single side gig to three or four part-time jobs that together, pay the rent, the student loans and not much else.
“You really have to want to do this,” said Sandy Gilbreath, who works 20 hours a week at Maine Food Strategy, an initiative to advance collaboration in Maine food systems. She’s pursuing her passion for local food issues, but since May, when funding cuts meant going part time at Maine Food Strategy, she’s also been working part time as a bartender at the Riverside Grill at the Portland Golf Course. She holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Southern Maine in environmental planning and policy and a masters from USM’s Muskie School in Policy, Planning and Management.
She’s devoted to improving Maine’s food systems, from promoting connectivity between local foods and Mainers to cutting back on food waste. And so are many of her friends, which tends to mean they’re putting in resumes for the same few job openings. In July, Gilbreath spoke at an event sponsored by Portland Global Shapers Hub, a leadership group initiative of the World Economic Forum, Attendees had come for a discussion about how to make it in Maine, and they shared in Gilbreath’s dilemma; making the world more sustainable is not exactly economically sustainable on a personal level. “The theme for all the speakers was that everyone had a side hustle,” Gilbreath said.
“Everyone is overqualified,” she added. “We all do it for the mission.”
The mission is to make a better, more sustainable world and there are many ways to do that. For Gilbreath, it’s through food policy, for others it might be promoting clean energy, working in sustainable fisheries or agriculture, education, forestry or wildlife biology. None of these are get-rich-quick fields.
OYSTERS AND OCCUPATIONS
On a day in early summer, Wineburg led the way through the fields at the Great Salt Bay Farm & Heritage Center in Damariscotta. It was time to check on her fledgling oyster farm, something she does every week or every few weeks, depending on her busy work schedule.
“I have like six jobs,” she said. “I love all of them, but…”
Most have something to do with being on the water and while she wishes this weren’t the case, some of her gigs are tied to the tourism industry. She worries she’s selling out her lifestyle. Like her summer gig hauling lobster traps from a sailboat, showing tourists how the old timers did it.
“Like my way of life is someone’s quaint vacation,” she said, “when in reality I can barely pay my taxes.”
There’s also the seasonal factor; tourists tend to depart after Labor Day and so do their dollars.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do this winter,” she said later, as she flipped through oysters, checking for mortality (she’d only lost a few) and growth (good). This is less like a farm than a garden, actually, since it’s not yet commercial; Wineburg is enrolled in a two-year oyster gardening program intended to introduce students to the aquaculture movement. She gets to eat a lot of oysters, and, a side bonus for a young woman whose friends are partnering off for weddings on a regular basis is that she can gift them with oysters.
The sailing trips she leads, or crews on, some from Rockland Harbor, some Down East with Sail Acadia, are touristy too, but they go into the fall, and she feels as though they are “meaningful” because she’s introducing people to the beauty of Maine’s coast and natural resources. “And hopefully getting them to think about conserving it.”
HIGH VALUES, LOW INCOME
Emma Burnett volunteers with Portland Global Shapers Hub and helped organize the making it in Maine event where Gilbreath spoke in July. Burnett is a native Mainer who returned to the state after working in San Francisco; she came back with digital credibility and is able to work in digital communications on a national level, remotely. She feels lucky she’s not racing around for multiple gigs, working for nonprofits, like many of her friends. The Maine economy presents a particular challenge for those working in sustainability areas like food systems, Burnett said.
“We have a lot of young people who want to have meaningful work lives,” Burnett said. “But there are so many problems with it, salary being just one. Basically only people with family wealth can support a life on those salaries.”
By family wealth, Burnett doesn’t mean Kennebunkport seaside mansion style money; she means a parental safety net, often associated with white privilege. She considers herself in that category.
“I have got parents who are from around here who can pay my cell phone bill for 10 years,” she said. “I lived with them for six months when I moved back home. I can ask them if I need to put down a deposit on an apartment.”
She’s struck by the irony of a situation where nonprofits trying to do good are paying so little.
“You are trying to help communities grow their own food, and you are forcing a white person with inherited wealth into the position because they are the only person who can afford it,” Burnett said.
HIRE ME! (OR MY FRIEND)
There’s steep competition for these nonprofit jobs too.
“If there is one job opening it is like, everyone knows about it,” said Olivia Dooley, who has been piecing together an income in sustainability work in the last two years in Maine, including temping, grant writing for Wolfe’s Neck Farm, a stint on the Mayor’s Initiative for a Healthy and Sustainable Food System (now the Portland Food Council) and an AmeriCorps gig that placed her with the Good Shepherd Food Bank. “Everyone is like, ‘Have you seen that? Have you applied for that?’ So you end up competing against friends.”
Dooley recently landed a full-time job as the Northeast field organizer for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a job that will take her as far as New York but allows her to live in Maine. She’s not from the state but after she finished her master’s in public affairs at the University of Washington and her boyfriend finished medical school, he landed a residency at Maine Medical Center. She’d been in Maine two full years before getting this job. In the early days in Maine, when she compared the local listserv with the one she was still getting from Seattle, the prospects for local employment seemed bleak.
“Just the quantity of options on a daily email listserv… it was a stark contrast,” Dooley said. “But at the same time, the quality of life in Maine is pretty hard to beat,” she added.
THE JUGGLING GAME
Abby Barrows is from Stonington, so the limited job opportunities in Maine were never a surprise to her. In her early 20s, she left the state she loved, heading to the South Pacific to work in seahorse research. She planned a career in science education, and her path there included painting houses, substitute teaching and in the winters, traveling for research gigs in South and Central America, working with everything from sea turtles in Costa Rica to pumas in Bolivia.
“I was traveling with a purpose,” Barrows said. “To build my resume so that when I came back to Maine in the summers I’d have more experience to share.”
“I was feeding my mind, but needing to do other things to feed my belly,” she said of “the juggling game.”
Back in Maine, she lobstered a few days a week and taught science immersion in a youth program at the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, shifting gears between two pretty different worlds.
“You just really have to wear very different hats and have a different face on,” Barrows said, laughing about her fear that the salty language of lobstering could seap into to the classroom. “Your brain is not stagnant, that’s for sure.”
Then one of the guest speakers she’d invited showed the young students how to check ocean water for microplastic contamination, of which, even in the Blue Hill area, there was plenty. “A light bulb just went off in my head,” Barrows said. She’d been seeing evidence in the South Pacific of plastics contamination, like sea turtles entangled in plastic bags or plastics inside the bellies of dead sea creature. Here it was at home.
Ultimately, she partnered with a Montana-based group called Adventure Scientists to work on the microplastics issue. The director of that group persuaded her to get a graduate degree and Barrows enrolled at College of the Atlantic, where she will soon wrap up her masters work. She makes part of her living from the lab she built in Stonington, doing work like running water-quality assessments for private clients on a contract basis. She also has an oyster farm, which became commercially viable for the first time this year.
Once a week from May until Thanksgiving, she shucks and sells oysters at the indoor farmers market in Deer Isle. She hopes to set an example within her lobstering-centric community that there are other ways to make money.
At this point, those two “gigs,” along with a personal project that takes a lot of work, namely, building a house with her husband, is more than enough to put her where she wants to be, in “that conductor’s seat of the (career) train rather than be a passenger.”
That said, she sees value in those years of grabbing paychecks here and there. The juggling game helped her figure out what she really wanted to do.
“For a certain amount of time, having a diversity of jobs was good for becoming a global citizen, ” Barrows said. “It allows you to have different interests and it makes you have to think about things in different ways. If you are not just going in for one 9 to 5 job, you figure out time management pretty quickly. Or you lose gigs.”
The gig economy is helping Sarah Wineburg figure it out. By fall, Wineburg had picked up twice weekly shifts with Maine Fresh Sea Farms in Walpole and was starting to think about graduate school in aquaculture. She was intrigued by scallop farming.
She was also thinking about health care. Much to the relief of her parents, she’d signed up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. It was a basic plan, but her parents were willing to pick up the tab for a trip to the dentist. “Because my mom is having a prolonged panic attack thinking about my undentisted teeth,” she joked. But in September Anthem announced it was pulling out of the Maine marketplace, and that meant Wineburg was thrown back into health care uncertainty, along with a winter without sailing gigs to round out her income. “I have no idea how I am going to make ends meet this winter,” she said.
“I’ll figure it out,” Wineburg added. “I always do.”
“I’ve turned down more regular jobs so I can do what I want to do,” she pointed out.
Jay Friedlander, a professor at College of the Atlantic (COA), said young people interested in sustainability often end up participating in that gig economy in larger numbers than some of their peers, either because they’re interested in entrepreneurship or simply aren’t interested in corporate life. “People are looking for careers that bring together the professional and the personal,” Friedlander said.
So how do Maine colleges help their students prepare for it? At COA, one way is by fostering them through a program Friedlander runs called the Hatchery, which allows students with a business idea to explore it, for credit and with mentorship, full time for a 10-week term. Entrepreneurial students can test drive their idea before they graduate, and even if they’re bartending on the weekends while they start to make that idea a reality, they’ve got the comfort of a game (or business) plan.
“At a place like COA, you get a lot of students who are on the forefront of what is next,” Friedlander said. “As a result of that, they are out there, and they are establishing whole new industries, which can often mean that you’re putting it together.”
At Unity College, where the motto is “America’s environmental college,” a team of three supplies career counseling, from internships to full-time jobs to graduate programs. “Even though we have only 700 students,” said Melik Khoury, the president of Unity, slightly more than 90 percent of graduates are either headed to graduate school or have a job within six months of graduation. “We are very proud of our placement rate.”
But he’s just as proud of their values.
“We educate them to be environmental stewards, first and foremost,” Khoury said. “Money is a secondary motivator for most of them. And what we are finding is that students are more interested in working in jobs that mean more to them. On average, they do make a little less than I would say students from some of the Ivy League schools that are not focused on the environment.”
But surveys of Unity graduates point to strong job satisfaction, he said. Meaningful work is a choice.
Sandy Gilbreath, the bartender with the graduate degree who is working so hard to reshape Maine’s food system, would agree. Sure, it’s not always easy to spend weekend nights bartending when friends are kicking back and relaxing. She said she could go get a job “as a secretary at a law firm and it would be a stable 9 to 5 job.” But it wouldn’t be fixing the world, or at least, Maine’s food systems.
“You really do have to want it,” she said. “It is worth the hustle.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:
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