Interview with Kevin Doyle: Trends in Environmental Jobs and Employment

Interview with Kevin Doyle: Trends in Environmental Jobs and Employment

Kevin Doyle is National Director of Programs for the Environmental Careers Organzation (ECO), a national nonprofit environmental careers development organization. Mr. Doyle is the editor and primary author for ECO's The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century, which is currently in its third edition. With ECO for almost 20 years, he has been a key player in the creation of an environmental internship program that matches college students and recent graduates with environmental and conservation projects throughout the nation.

Let's dive right in. How is the market for environmental jobs weathering the downturn in the US economy right now?

The market for environmental and conservation jobs is reflecting the economy rather than rising above it or being dragged under by the national sluggishness. The number of environmental job openings is down in rough proportion with the general economy. Having said that, there is still a steady demand. Also, there are trends on the horizon that tell me it's getting better, and when it does it will get notably better.

One of the trends is the coming retirements of a large percentage of the current environmental and conservation workforce, especially in federal and state government agencies. The federal government environmental work force is just under 200,000 people, spread out over the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, etc. Somewhere between 30-50 % are eligible for retirement within the next five years. That doesn't mean they'll all take retirement, but these agencies - as well as the consulting firms that support them and the corporate environmental units that must comply with their regs - are all very concerned about where the next generation of conservation workers are going to come from.

In fact, a major conference on this subject is being held in Washington, DC on October 28-29, 2003. It's sponsored by the US Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USDA Forest Service, Renewable Natural Resources Foundation, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and it should produce some fascinating results. Look for information about the event's findings on the foundation's website at sometime before the end of the year.

A second trend pointing toward a lot of new hiring in the not-too-distant future is the huge need to replace and repair much of the environmental infrastructure in the United States and the world. This refers to everything from water and wastewater systems to national parks, national forests and wildlife refuge systems, transportation systems, etc. All of these things will take huge amounts of money in repair and restoration and that will also be reflected in jobs. The U.S. water system alone will require over $200 billion over the next 10-15 years.

A third favorable factor is the very rapid growth of the green or alternative economy - things like organics (not just in agriculture), recycling, alternative energy (especially wind energy), conservation work, fair trade and green investments, products from sustainable forestry practices, eco-tourism, etc... All of these are elements of an economy built on sustainability principles. And even though it's small right now, it is growing by leaps and bounds, which is presenting some very interesting opportunities in employment.

Fourth, there is a growing need for changes in the basic regulatory regime that helped create environmental jobs in the first place. We're not going to be able to go on forever without some significant changes in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, possibly even the National Environmental Policy Act. Changes to the traditional regulatory regime have been big drivers in the creation of new environmental employment in the past. Changes that pour new federal and state dollars into environmental protection create more and different jobs - and even though the substance of these changes may or may not be approved by the environmental community, change itself can often generate employment.

The last major trend to be aware of is a category that can be referred to as "smart growth." There are still places that are going strong, well beyond maintenance and restoration. Any place that is growing in terms of housing, population, transportation and general development is creating environmental pressures and, therefore, environmental employment.

There is one big thing, however, that has not happened: We're not moving in a dramatic way in the direction of a sustainable economy. That would mean putting into place a policy goal of consciously moving toward an economy based on ecological health, social justice and economic security. Sustainability continues to be the big hope for explosion in the environmental field, but although the conference circuit is cutting down forests of paper talking about it, it is not really happening like it should, and that is very unfortunate.

For those who know they want a job in the environmental field, how do these trends change things for them?

The three most important things for any new person entering the environmental field remain the same as always:

1. Figure out what difference you want to make, what result you want to achieve
2. Identify a community of practitioners that share that same passion and focus
3. Get started, get working

If you're working creatively with the people that matter on something important, you'll never have to worry about finding work. The people who do have to worry, especially in this economy, are the people who are just looking for a box called a job without bringing to it a focus on what results they can achieve for their employer and the environment and the community. Overwhelmingly, the environmental field is looking for people who can achieve results on the issues of the day: global climate change, water quality, smart growth, biodiversity protection, ecological economics, and so forth.

We've gone beyond a focus on diagnosis or simply going through the maze of environmental review and permitting processes. We're so much more focused on the environmental bottom line - clean air and water, greater justice, healthier ecosystems, reduced energy use, serious decreases in greenhouse emissions.

What types of environmental professions are hiring?

There are a few things in demand:

1. Conservation biology - This refers to "results-focused" biology. It's biology that is focused not on answering questions about what is the problem, but on restoring nature, protecting habitats, and slowing down the rate of destruction. Look at the Society for Conservation Biology web site to learn more. There are opportunities for leading-edge conservation biologists throughout the governmental and conservation world, in the natural resource industry, in forestry companies, in electric utilities, agriculture, and the consulting firms that support them.

2. Industrial ecology - Industrial ecologists redesign systems and put new ones in place that achieve dramatic reductions (not just little ones) in emissions, the use of toxics, and other environmental damage. One way to think about it is that the field goes beyond compliance, but it also goes beyond pollution prevention and into dramatically new ways of looking at how we do things.

3. Almost anything related to Water and Wastewater - The fact is that water-related activities and the protection of water resources takes up the overwhelming center of environmental work in the US. Most people can see that playing out in their everyday life: Everyone uses water - every industry, every community, and every species needs clean, healthy water ecosystems.

4. Environmental monitoring - Largely a technological field, this includes things like new advances in sensing technology, satellite remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS), nanotechnology, global positioning systems (GPS), and so forth... All of these ways of monitoring the environment are being pulled together, and we can dream about the possibility of a relatively comprehensive system that can help us monitor the natural world and human interactions, almost in real time. Think about, for example, the way we can turn on the television and learn about weather happening right now anywhere in the world. Imagine the possibility of similarly monitoring global climate change, water pollution, biodiversity loss.

5. Environmental policy integration - We need a new generation of policy integration professionals. The previous policy regime has separated air from water, water from soil, different kinds of waste from one another, people from other species, and used political boundaries instead of natural ones. This approach has led to an implementation regime of environmental policy that is uncoordinated, too expensive, hard to manage, and not reflective of how people and the natural world interact with each other. From the international level to the community level, people now are looking for a more integrated way to protect the environment, and our environmental policies and their implementation need to reflect that.

How are cheaper and better global communications affecting the environmental profession?

I can't really speak to the issue of global communications, but the globalization of the economy has had a huge impact on enviromental work in several ways. First, international standards, certifications and trade agreements affect all corporations that want to do business globally - and, of course, that includes many, many American businesses. Second, the biggest markets for water, wastewater, emissions control, solar, wind, hydropower and other infrastructure contracts are in foreign countries, often developing ones. In fact, foreign environmental expenditures top US ones by more than 2:1 ,with the US market relatively stagnant and foreign ones on an upward curve. Finally, environmental companies from Great Britain, Europe, Japan and Asia are competing very effectively against American ones - a list of top 100 environmental engineering and consulting firms, for instance, shows a majority are not from the United States.

How great is the danger of jobs in the US being siphoned off overseas as other countries are graduating environmental professionals who can work remotely for a fraction of the cost?

Well, there are two issues here. One is the involvement of "in country" environmental professionals to handle work in places like Central America, South America, Southeast Asia, China, and so forth. It's an undeniably good thing that local people should work on local environmental and conservation projects, so as the number and quality of environmental workers grows throughout the world, this can hardly be perceived as a "siphoning off" of American work to people overseas. It was never our work in the first place.

The second issue is whether or not the environmental work within our boundaries can be shipped overseas, in the same way that manufacturing jobs can. Some information technology and data analysis work will be, I suppose, but for the most part the job of protecting air, water, soil, ecosystems and human health is a local activity. There's no factory or customer service call center that can be moved to, say, Bangalore.

Is an anti-environmental administration, like that of President Bush, good, bad or neutral for the environmental job market?

I'm uncomfortable characterizing the current administration in any way - I'll leave that judgment to others. That said, there has been an overall negative effect on environmental employment, but mainly at the margins. For example, under the Bush Administration, we still have wildlife refuges, national parks, EPA, the Energy Department, and so forth. Most of the day-to-day activities of managing these large environmental responsibilities remains relatively unaffected by the political viewpoint of the current administration. Permanent federal employment was slow or declining under Clinton/Gore, and that's continuing under Bush II.

What is affected, though, is the prospect for future growth. For example, there is no employment growth inspired by new regulations, or by a priority placed on environmental improvement, or by expanded grants and loans to state and local government, or by increases in investments in new technologies and sustainable industries. These things are not happening under the current administration, and are not expected to happen - especially given the huge expenditures needed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Which sectors benefit, which suffer?

Politics definitely affects contributions to the nonprofit sector - usually positively. However, the nonprofit environmental community itself has different sectors, roughly called activism, management and education.

Activism receives a boost because "crisis" brings contributions and the Bush Administration policies can certainly be described in a way that inspires a desire to fight back by many in the enivronmental community.

Environmental management nonprofits find that there is no single pattern connecting politics and financial growth. The land trust community, for example, is doing pretty well in ways unrelated to who is in the White House. From The Nature Conservancy down to the smallest land trust, there are more people earning a living in these kinds of nonprofits. Certainly, the last few years of stock market downturn have affected nonprofit finances at least as much as the election results have. See the Land Trust Alliance web site for more detailed information.

Education is the third nonprofit sector, including nature centers, aquariums, zoos, arboretums, etc. These institutions are dramatically affected by downturns in the overall economy, and many now are suffering some serious problems.

What's your advice to young people with regard to getting an environmental education that will prepare them for the work force?

1. Don't be afraid of science and technology. Regardless of what path you take, whether you want to be a journalist, lawyer, eco-tourism guide, lobbyist, marine biologist or whatever, you will need it. Science and technology is crucial to effective environmental work.

2. Don't focus too narrowly on the professional field that you want to enter. Focus on the results that you want to achieve in the world. In other words, if your goal is to help affect a decrease in global pollutants, or to work for social and environmental justice, then this is what you need to keep in mind when you approach your education. Let your ultimate goals guide you to your educational needs, instead of the other way around. Don't ask, for instance, "what can I do with a geography degree?". Instead ask, "Is a geography degree a good preparation for what I want to do?"

3. The best new environmental professionals will combine complementary fields and degrees. For example, someone with a bachelors degree in environmental engineering and a masters in business administration; or a BS in biology with a law degree (JD); or a person with a joint masters in environmental science and public administration. These complementary educational paths dramatically increase people's employability, as well as their ability to make a difference in the world. The only place this would not be true would be in highly technical fields that are in demand unto themselves - for example, sophisticated remote sensing systems.

4. Don't steer clear of politics. The argument for sustainability seems so self-evident to many of us that we sometimes wish it could be imposed from on high through strategic plans, cadres of professionals, and rigorous codes. That's not how this country works. Just as non-technical people need to embrace the requirements of science and engineering types, so the consistently logical need to allow for emotion, special interests, grassroots organizing, negotiation, compromise and, well, democracy!

Closing Comment

View environmental work as a long-term career, and don't be waylaid from your ultimate career goals either by early job search difficulties or by early job successes. It may be just as easy to be pulled away from your goals by "golden handcuffs" as by unemployment.

More than anything - build and maintain your network with other creative people who are doing the work that you want to do. In times of trouble, your network of friends and colleagues will help you out more than anything else - and in the good times, you'll have more fun!

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about Environmental jobs and careers, see excerpts from ECO's book, The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century:

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