Outlook for Environmental Consulting Jobs
Information compiled by Karin Kirk, SERC and informed by the Geoscience Workforce in the 21st Century workshop
Although this page primarily addresses environmental consultants, similar work is performed by scientists and technicians at government agencies such as state-level departments of environmental quality. These employees are involved in environmental monitoring, sampling and planning and oversight of remediation projects in addition to permitting and adherence to environmental regulations and standards. Moreover, companies that own the properties or facilities that are being monitored may also have environmental professionals on staff. So the overall effort of environmental monitoring and cleanup is carried out by a three-way partnership consisting of the regulatory agency, the client and the consulting firm. There are related workforce opportunities in each of these sectors.
Professions within the Environmental Consulting Field
Environmental Scientists and Specialists earned a median annual wage of $61,700 in 2010. Most environmental scientists have bachelor's or master's degrees; these degrees can be from a range of disciplines. The BLS considers the entry-level degree for the field to be a bachelor's degree.
The BLS reports that 89,400 environmental specialists were employed in 2010 with growth of 19% expected between 2010 and 2020. This is a similar growth rate as the average for all occupations. Steady growth is expected due to numerous environmental regulations that companies must navigate, along with strong public interest in environmental issues and hazards. The government is a major employer of environmental scientists, with 43% of environmental specialists work for the federal, state or local government; the bulk of those are employed at the state level.
Hydrologists earned a median income of $75,690 per year in 2010, with the highest average salary earned via employment of the federal government ($84,540). The entry-level degree is a Master's degree. Currently 7,600 hydrologists are employed in the US. Job growth over the next decade is projected to be 18%, with an increasing emphasis on public water supplies, managing the impacts of climate change on water resources, as well as flood hazard mitigation and water quality concerns. Half of all hydrologists are employed by the government, with the largest fraction of them (30%) working at the federal level.
Graduates with an Associate's degree can have a related career as an Environmental Technician. Median pay in 2010 was $41,380 across 29,600 jobs. Growth of 24% is expected between 2010 and 2020, indicating that the environmental technician workforce is growing faster than the environmental science or hydrology workforce. Environmental technicians perform work such as collecting field samples, servicing monitoring and remediation equipment, and performing laboratory analyses.
Future Trends for Environmental Consulting
Rick Wardrop of Groundwater and Environmental Services, shared some of these perspectives about the prospects for this industry. Learn more in Rick's employer profile.Environmental assessment and cleanup is driven by government regulations. For example, in the 1990's, regulations requiring replacement of underground storage tanks at gasoline stations spurred years of work by the industry to remove leaking tanks and clean up the resulting spills. While many of those sites are cleaned up, much future work remains in the areas of Brownfields, Superfund sites and other areas with persistent environmental damage. As new environmental threats are identified and regulated, such as pharmaceuticals in groundwater, new work will result to address the problem.
The resurgence of domestic energy production will drive further environmental work, as drilling sites will require baseline assessments, wastewater management, and ongoing monitoring. Some of this work will be performed by the exploration companies, and some will be done by external consultants and regulatory agencies.
In general, the productivity of the environmental field is linked with overall economic productivity. During times of high productivity, various industries are active in manufacturing, mining, drilling and other activities. Each of these industries is required to operate in compliance with environmental regulations, thus environmental professionals are in higher demand. Between the current growth in the US economy and the expansion of shale gas drilling and extraction, the future demand for environmental consulting appears to be strong.
Competencies for Environmental Consulting
Rick Wardrop of Groundwater and Environmental Services, and Terri Bowers of Gradient described important skills and competencies for environmental consultants.
Anyone working on the site of an environmental project needs OSHA Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response training. This certification requires a 40-hour training course followed by an 8-hour refresher course every year. For graduates seeking employment in this field, it can be advantageous to have the certificate prior to seeking employment because most new employees will need the training immediately upon hiring. Thus a company is taking some risk by supporting training for an unproven candidate. The OSHA training course is taught as an elective at some college programs, and there are many private firms that offer the training.
Certification as a Professional Geologist or Professional Engineer can accelerate one's career path and lead to further opportunities. Certification requirements vary by state. For example, in California the Professional Geologist Certification requirements include an undergraduate degree in geological sciences, professional experience, written professional evaluations, and three written examinations.
General skills and competencies
These skills were listed by employers as attributes that contribute to the success of environmental consultants.
- A strong foundation with core courses that develop thought processes foundational to work as geoscientist
- Data analysis, including the ability to synthesize data from numerous sources
- Strong writing and presentation skills
- Ability to collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds including clients, regulatory agencies, drillers and other field crews, and community stakeholders
- The flexibility to accommodate different clients wanting different approaches and different presentations of material
- Ability to travel and work in the field, including the possibility of working long hours or weekends
- Field skills and observational skills
- Problem solving, especially with approaches that can span multiple disciplines
- Project management skills, including managing the people, timeline and budgets relating to the overall scope of the project
- Ability to make decisions in the face of less-than-perfect information
- Computer skills including spreadsheets and database management as well as familiarity with GIS software
- The ability to manage proprietary information in an age of social media and widespread information sharing
- A strong desire to adhere to corporate and client health and safety protocols
- Self-starting mentality
- Attention to detail
- Efficient multi-tasking
- Good character and a strong work ethic.
For more about attributes that make candidates successful in their careers, see preparing students for the workforce.
Bootsma, M. and Vermeulen, W. (2011), Experiences of environmental professionals in practice, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, v 12: 163-176.
Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlooks
Environmental consultant: Job description Written by Jill Freeman, Staffordshire University. Published online May 2012
Case studies for work in environmental and conservation careers. Although these profiles are from employees in the UK, they illustrate useful case studies within a broad range of careers, ranging from exploration geology to sustainability adviser to community ecologist. The profiles illuminate the connections between experiences gained in academic work and how they apply to a professional career.
OSHA FactSheet, Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (pdf file). This fact sheet briefly describes the types of training required for employees working in environments that may contain hazardous wastes.