The Workforce for a Sustainable Future

This information was compiled in 2013 by Karin Kirk and Monica Bruckner, SERC, informed by the Geoscience Workforce in the 21st Century workshop

The Multifaceted Role of Geoscience in the Workforce

Geoscience is represented in the workforce in numerous ways. Traditional geologists often find themselves working in oil and gas exploration, mining, resource management, groundwater remediation or environmental compliance. However, the need for geoscientific expertise is broadening as a growing human population, a need for clean energy and the protection of environmental health all present large challenges where insights about Earth's processes are essential. Professionals with geoscientific knowledge and experience today are immersed in a diverse array of occupations like hazard mitigation, community organizing, science journalism or managing sustainability efforts for large corporations. This series of pages contains descriptions of various aspects of the geoscience and environmental science workforce, and examines traditional pathways as well as emerging opportunities.

Information throughout these pages is gathered from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American Geosciences Institute, the National Academies and other informed sources. Nonetheless, it is not straightforward to capture all the ways geoscience, environmental science and sustainability are present in the workforce. This page begins with a summary of employment of geoscientists, environmental scientists, hydrologists and atmospheric scientists today and goes on to explore future trends in employment. Forecasts of job growth are based on the best available data and analyses, but are still subject to unforeseen changes. Environmental regulations, emissions agreements, carbon management, the growth or shrinkage of government agencies (such as NOAA, NASA, UGSS, or the National Weather Service), and the emergence of new technologies are all large variables that can affect the course of the geoscience and environmental workforce. The accuracy of such forecasts in the past (Bezdek, 1986) indicate the need for caution in interpreting these findings.

Employment Statistics from 2010 to 2020

Information in the following sections is largely derived from data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American Geosciences Institute (AGI), and from a National Academy of Science report, Emerging Workforce Trends in the U.S. Energy and Mining Industries: A Call to Action .

Some highlights from Bureau of Labor Statistics data are below. Note that BLS data does not count academics within the fields described below. College faculty are categorized as postsecondary teachers and faculty from all fields are lumped together in one category.

  • 33,800 geoscientists employed in 2010
  • 89,400 environmental scientists and specialists
  • 9,500 atmospheric scientists
  • 7,600 hydrologists
  • The most prevalent employment sectors for geoscientists are architectural, engineering and related services; oil and gas extraction and management; and scientific and technical consulting services. (See also: The Industries of Geoscience Graduates' First Jobs by Degree Field from the American Geosciences Institute, 2014.)
  • A data visualization from the US Census Bureau shows where college graduates work, with a focus on STEM. This interactive infographic uses data from the 2012 census and shows that only a minority of STEM majors are employed in STEM occupations.
  • 17,100 geoscience jobs and 16,700 environmental science jobs expected to be added in the next 10 years.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 21% increase in geoscience jobs between 2010 and 2020. This outpaces the national average of 14%.

  • For environmental scientists, job growth is expected to be 19% between 2010 and 2020. "Most employment growth for environmental scientists and specialists is projected to be in private consulting firms that help clients monitor and manage environmental concerns and comply with regulations." (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • For geoscientists, the largest increase of jobs will be in scientific, management and technical consulting. Perkins (2011) describes this trend as "driven both by increased demand in the private sector and by the US government's increasing inclination to outsource work rather than hire new employees." Perkins, 2011
  • Job growth in atmospheric science is only expected to increase by 11% over the next decade, which is slightly less than the overall average for all occupations. The BLS expects a competitive environment for atmospheric science and meteorology positions, with more graduates than available jobs. In part this is due to budgetary and hiring constraints by government agencies such as the National Weather Service. The strongest area of hiring is expected to be private industry.
  • Government jobs are not projected to increase as fast as private sector jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a 7% increase at the Federal level and a slightly larger increase of 8.7% in state government (Perkins, 2011 ).
  • The American Geosciences Institute reports that approximately 1,500 graduate degree recipients in the geosciences are expected to transition into the workforce each year.

  • Over the next 10-15 years there is expected to be an additional boost to hiring as current employees retire. The majority of geoscientists in the workforce are within 15 years of retirement age and the number of younger employees is only half of the number of those approaching retirement. Estimates for the petroleum industry indicate an expected shortfall of 13,000 unfilled jobs by 2030. Read more about the aging workforce.
  • Representation of women and minorities in the geoscientific and environmental workforce is very low. Attracting and retaining women and minorities can expand the reach of these fields and encourage participation by a wider audience with diverse skills and perspectives. Moreover, reaching out to a broader demographic may be one solution to the predicted shortfall of workers in the coming decade. Read more about increasing diversity in the STEM disciplines.

Major Sectors of Employment are Extraction and Environment

The areas of oil, gas, mining and environmental work are the dominant fields of employment for geoscientists. When viewed by the type of work that geoscientists do, environmental work is the major employer, with 34% of geoscientists expected to be employed in the environmental sector by 2018 (BLS, see chart at right).

When employment data is viewed by the type of industry that hires geoscientists, the extractive industries represent the largest share, with oil, gas and mining totaling 58% of the workforce (AGI, see chart below). Why is there an apparent difference in the size of the environmental vs extractive employment?

In some cases a worker may be doing environmental work, but they do it under the employ of an extraction company. For example, hydrologists manage wastewater at hydraulic fracturing sites. These workers are performing environmental services but are employed by the natural gas industry.

Thus, the extractive industries are doing most of the hiring of geoscientists and environmental scientists, but much of the actual work being carried out falls under the category of environmental work.

Energy and Environmental Employment Expected to Grow

Roger Bezdek, president of a Washington, D.C.-based economic and energy research firm, explains that "the future of geoscience jobs depends on the future of energy industries" and asserts that the future energy mix will continue to be dominated by oil, natural gas, and coal. As a result of the ongoing and strong demand for fossil fuels, Bezdek explains that management of carbon dioxide will at some point become imperative and carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration on massive scale will become critical. "Worldwide, carbon capture and sequestration will require trillions dollars of investments, generate millions of jobs, and have profound impacts on the geoscience workforce" (Bezdek, 2013). For more information about jobs in this industry, see the Outlook for Emerging Energy and Sustainability Jobs.

Terri Bowers, president of Gradient, a Cambridge, MA consulting firm, also points to climate, environment and energy as she describes the current and future drivers of geoscience hiring. Bowers believes that climate change will drive the need for geoscientists to work on problems related to costal erosion and water resources and agrees that interest in carbon sequestration will produce employment for geoscientists who will be needed on teams that determine not only where and how sequestration will proceed but also to understand sequestration impacts on water resources and the potential for induced seismicity. She sees an ongoing need for geoscientists to contribute to investigations of contamination to understand what contamination is occurring where as well as to bring their understanding of fluid and chemical transport to an expanding array of environmental challenges. Geoscientists will continue to play critical roles in earthquake and volcanic hazard prediction as these services become more critical in population centers and to mitigate impacts on travel. Lastly, there is no reason to expect that the need for geoscience expertise in litigation will not continue to grow.

As the global demand for energy continues to increase, there will be a corresponding need to mitigate the environmental and societal hazards associated with energy extraction and use. These arenas require geoscience and environmental expertise of many forms, with demand stretching decades into the future. Today's graduates are not only moving into an active and growing job market, they can also anticipate working on important societal challenges.

The Workforce is Aging and a Shortfall of Employees is Expected

"An adequate supply of capable and creative scientists and engineers from universities is an essential component of any strategy to ensure that the United States remains an international leader in technology. Scientists and engineers provide much of the innovation from which high-quality products and jobs can develop to keep the U.S. competitive in the global marketplace. Currently, the United States is failing to meet this challenge."

From Emerging Workforce Trends in the U.S. Energy and Mining Industries: A Call to Action (2013), by the National Academy of Science

According to the American Geosciences Institute (AGI), "the majority of geoscientists in the workforce are within 15 years of retirement age," and the number of younger employees is only half of the number of those approaching retirement. Estimates for the petroleum industry indicate an expected shortfall of 13,000 unfilled jobs by 2030. Moreover, the aging of the workforce represents a potential for a critical loss of technical knowledge, skill and experience. AGI data indicates "about 12% of today's geoscientists are expected to retire by 2018, meaning that net job availability for geoscientists in the United States should have increased between 2008 and 2018 by around 35%" (from AGI Status of the Geoscience Workforce and Perkins, 2011 ). For more, see the AGI Currents article Explanation of the Predicted Geoscience Workforce Shortage.

The geosciences attract students with a wide range of skills and interests and geoscience programs support pathways to a variety of professions in the geoscience workforce. Not all students who pursue geoscience degrees end up geoscience careers. Data from the 2011 AGI report suggest that, in the past, only 35% of geoscience degree holders work in core geoscience professions. Only about 30% of geoscience Bachelor's degree holders and 68% doctoral recipients work directly in geoscience occupations, though the majority of the remainder of degree holders work within STEM fields (from AGI's Status of the Geoscience Workforce 2011 ). Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce presents data showing the overall need for STEM skills for the well-being of the global economy.

In a 2013 report on the energy and mining industries, the National Academies of Sciences reports that the current pipeline of students and workers with strong STEM skills will not be adequate to fill the needs of the workforce in these fields. The report cites that poor preparation of high school students in STEM disciplines, high dropout rates, and lack of alternative pathways to high school graduation are reinforcing the problem. A potential shortage of faculty underscores the risk of losing the capacity to train new students for careers in energy and mining (NAS, 2013 ).

Roger Bezdek, President of Management Information Services, concurs that workforce data points to an impending shortage of qualified geoscience workers. A combination of increasing job growth in the geosciences, an upcoming "retirement tsunami," and a graduation rate that is not increasing all contribute to a deficit of workers. Bezdek estimates a shortfall of over 150,000 geoscientists in the US over the next decade (Bezdek, 2013).

International growth is also expected to add to the need for qualified geoscientists. "Rapid economic expansion in India, China and the rest of the developing world is expected to boost international demand for geoscience graduates. Highly skilled geoscientists will be needed to help identify and develop oil, gas and mineral resources, as well as to help recognize and ameliorate natural and manmade environmental hazards in these developing markets" (Perkins, 2011 ).

Job Shortage or Job Glut?

While agencies such as the National Academies, AAPG and AGI indicate a coming shortage of workers in geoscience and other STEM fields, some studies have shown an excess of workers. Notably, a 2013 study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) made the following conclusions:
  • U.S. has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations
  • For every 2 students that U.S. colleges graduate with STEM degrees, only 1 is hired into a STEM job
  • Wages have remained flat, with real wages hovering around their late 1990s levels.
A rebuttal by Alex Copulsky pointed out why EPI reached a different conclusion than other studies.

One important difference is the definition for what constitutes employment in a STEM field. The EPI report was drawn from STEM employment data from the NSF, but the NSF definition of STEM fields is not consistent with the way EPI used it. For example, NSF data does not include workers in IT or health care, both of which are very large employers of STEM graduates. The focus of the EPI report was on the IT field, so it is notable that employment data did not count IT workers. Because the NSF numbers used in the study referred to a smaller subset of the STEM fields than EPI was analyzing, it appeared that there are fewer employed STEM workers than would be counted if a wider definition was considered.

Roger Bezdek adds that STEM wages are not flat, and in particular, salaries for geoscientists are increasing at rates well above similar fields (see figure at right). Higher wages are an indication of increased demand. Bezdek goes on to point out that the forecast for strong geoscience job growth and large retirement rates add to the expected shortage of qualified geoscientists (Bezdek, 2013).

References Cited