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We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive. --Albert Einstein
Environmental Careers--An Introduction
Some people believe that conservation, environmental protection and creating a sustainable future are our most important tasks for the 21 st century. The issues that environmental workers are addressing are numerous and diverse. Among them are global climate change, habitat destruction, toxins in the environment, species extinction, air and water pollution, urban sprawl, loss of wetlands and agricultural land, and energy conservation. Over $400 billion is spent worldwide annually on conservation and environmental protection, supporting hundreds of thousands of interesting and challenging jobs.
Some of the efforts of the past few decades have included raising environmental awareness, reversing pollution and creating public and private organizations dedicated to environmental protection. Although progress has been made in our ability to understand, protect and restore the environment, the next generation of environmental professionals faces challenges that are more difficult. Their work is to not only control pollution, but to prevent it; to not only slow the rate of habitat and soil loss, but to reverse it; and to not only regulate unsustainable activity, but to create a sustainable way of life.
The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that more than 70,000 companies, organizations and governmental agencies have environmental agendas. Career opportunities in the environmental sciences are at an all-time high. With so much to be done, there is literally something for everyone. There are careers for scientists, engineers, journalists, business people, activists, social scientists, accountants, computer specialists, educators, attorneys, health professionals and more.
Computer professionals, such as programmers, website designers, database technicians, geographic information systems specialists are all in demand. Professionals from law, finance, business, accounting, management, public administration, and insurance have important roles to play. Planners, architects, landscape architects and designers will help create an environmentally sound world. Teachers (from kindergarten to college professors) and journalists from every medium are crucial to environmental education, protection and conservation. Social scientists and people from the humanities are also found in environmental careers everywhere. In addition, elected officials, activists and citizen volunteers are a critical component of the environmental work that is needed to be done.
I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise what is there to defend?
~Robert Redford, Yosemite National Park dedication, 1985
Employment in Environmental Careers
Recommended education and training
The environmental field is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. Although there are certainly entry-level job opportunities for those with a bachelor degree, employers are frequently requiring their workers to have some form of graduate training. The complexity of environmental problems and level of technological and organizational sophistication necessary to solve the most pressing environmental problems make those with a graduate education and a willingness to continue to learn, the most attractive job candidates.
While some careers, such as law and medicine, have clear educational paths, the requirements necessary to pursue environmental careers are less clear cut. There are many educational paths to an environmental job. A quick review of undergraduate majors held by professionals at the Environmental Protection Agency includes a major in almost every field including the humanities, social sciences, business, natural science, and engineering. Although it is true that the environmental job market remains open to a variety of academic disciplines, it is also true that there are more people with specialized education, advanced degrees and practical experience competing for jobs.
Employers are looking for people who have a substantive understanding of technical issues, as well as people who can develop creative solutions and clearly communicate those solutions, making candidates with liberal arts degrees highly desirable. In addition to their analytical thinking and ability to communicate effectively, those with liberal arts degrees are seen as desirable because of their well-rounded educations.
Another quality that employers are looking for are people who have combined expertise in more than one area. For example, in the sciences, people who combine a science degree with another course of study, such as law or business, are in great demand.
The job search
Your job search will be most effective if you have done your research and know what kind of job you are focusing on and what organizations are doing the kind of work that you would like to do. It is also extremely helpful if you have built up some skills and internship experiences, made a few contacts, and have motivation and passion. The environmental field is exciting and diverse, which may require more creativity and persistence than a job search in another field.
Environmental professionals cite a winning attitude as a key factor in breaking into the environmental field. The following advice comes from Melissa Everett, author of Making a Living While Making a Difference:
If you don't have a full-time job right now, make sure that you are doing some kind of active professional work. Musicians don't stop being musicians between gigs. You shouldn't let the lack of a job keep you from your calling. Read environmental publications, participate in associations, talk to professional colleagues, take classes, work on challenging projects, even if you have to volunteer or take on a poorly paid ‘consulting' assignment. The difference in your attitude, and how you come across, is remarkable. On a purely tactical note, you'll have an interesting answer when people ask: What are you doing now?
All of the organizations listed below have information about employment and internships on their sites.
www.sierraclub.org Sierra Club
www.audubon.org National Audubon Society
www.nwf.org National Wildlife Federation
www.foe.org Friends of the Earth
www.nature.org The Nature Conservancy
Employers of environmental jobs
Environmental jobs can be found in all levels of government – federal, state and local, as well as in the private industry, the not-for-profit sector, the international community, and academia.
The government is a major employer of environmental scientists and technicians. The following federal agencies hire many environmental workers:
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to consolidate the environmental activities of all of the other government agencies. Its basic purpose is to carry out federal laws to protect the environment, especially air and water. It has 17,000 employees, 5,700 of them working at the EPA's headquarters in Washington , D.C. The EPA hires about 1,000 new employees annually, many of which are at entry level positions. A little more than half of all new employees have training in the environmental sciences.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has more than 120,000 employees, making it the largest single employer of environmental professionals in the federal government. Within the USDA, there are four services that hire a large number of conservation scientists: Forest Service, Agricultural Research Service, Extension Service and Soil Conservation Service.
The Department of the Interior (DOI) employs over 100,000 people. Its job is the protection and management of about 28% of the land area in the United States . Under the DOI are eight agencies:
National Park Service oversees the nation's 361 national parks, historic sites, monuments and recreation areas
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service http://www.fws.gov
The U.S. Geological Survey www.usgs.gov
The Bureau of Land Management http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en.html
The Bureau of Reclamation www.usbr.gov
T he Office of Surface Mining www.osmre.gov
Minerals Management Service www.mms.gov
Bureau of Indian Affairs http://www.doi.gov/bia/
The structure of state environmental agency work is about the same throughout the United States. Although the department names may vary, most states have agencies in the following areas: environmental protection, fisheries and wildlife, food and agriculture, parks and recreation, water resources, public health, public utilities, community and economic development, energy resources, and planning.
Local government work is often more “hands on” environmental work such as treating wastewater, writing and monitoring land-use plans, maintaining storm water runoff systems and managing community gardens. There is a lot of environmental work being done at the local level, in part because of “privatization”, where towns and cities contract out work to local businesses. More and more of the federal dollars for environmental work are going to the local level. To get an idea of the structure of local government where you live, look at the phone book, talk to local officials and go to the town/city website.
More than ever before, the private sector is a source of job and entrepreneurial opportunities for those who care about the environment. Environmental employment can be found in many companies throughout the private economy. Some large companies now have their own environment, health and safety departments that address concerns such as pollution prevention, worker safety, and risk management. The trend is toward integrating environmental concerns into the basic operations of the business. Other private sector environmental employers might include electrical utilities and manufacturers, service businesses (architecture, insurance, financial) and a growing number of “green” businesses aimed at ecologically aware consumers. Environmental law is another area in the private sector that is a growing specialty and will continue to have a strong employment outlook well into the future.
Within the not-for-profit sector, work is generally broken up into three areas – education, activism, and management. Environmental educators may work at local nature centers to teach the community about ecology and environmentally friendly living. Advocates working in political environmental organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation may lobby Congress on behalf of pro-environment legislation or organize grassroots political action. Environmental think tanks such as the World Resources Institute employ researchers to propose environmentally-beneficial government policies and economic strategies. Many state and local conservation groups, such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society, also offer career opportunities.
Many environmental issues are international in scale, and interested job-seekers will find many work opportunities. Professional careers with international organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are possible, but generally require an advanced degree. Entry-level positions may be available in nongovernmental environmental groups that work internationally, such as the World Wildlife Fund or Conservation International. EarthAction in Amherst , MA is an example of a smaller nongovernmental organization (NGO) with an international focus. Hands-on international development work is another option. Organizations like The Peace Corps usually offer an environmental specialization. However, many development jobs are volunteer positions.
With dozens of new environmental programs and majors starting up each year, employment for professors of environmental studies is on the rise. However, the academic workforce is made up of graduate assistants, part-time instructors, lecturers and other non-permanent positions, and securing a tenure track position in the environmental professions is very competitive.
To learn more about a variety of environmental employers and job descriptions:
When we heal the earth, we heal ourselves.
~ David Orr (environmental educator and author)
In order to learn the skills to be an environmental professional, you will need to get practical experience, outside of the classroom. Internships are the perfect way to do that. In order to find (or create) an internship that is right for you, you may want to begin by looking closely at leading environmental organizations to see which interests you. Many of these organizations have information about intern and volunteer opportunities on their website. You will also find many environmental internships listed on the Amherst College Career Center 's Experience database. You might also consider making an appointment to see a career professional at the Career Center who can help you customize your internship search.
Environmental Careers Organization's website features advice and internship listings
Environmental Internships and other opportunities from FIU
Student Conservation Association's link to jobs and internships
National Wildlife Federation's site listing jobs and internships
Environmental Protection Agency's student opportunities
National Council for Science and the Environment internships
Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.
~ Chief Seattle, 1855
Books (available at the Amherst College Career Center 's Resource library)
The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century by Kevin Doyle
Great Jobs for Environmental Studies Majors by Julie DeGalan and Bryon Middlekauff
Careers in the Environment by Michael Fasulo and Paul Walker
Saving the Earth as a Career: Advice on Becoming a Conservation Professional by Malcolm Hunter, David Lindenmayer and Aram Calhoun
Career Opportunities in Politics, Government and Activism by Joan Axelrod-Contrada (in the Government Section)
The Big Green Internship Book–available through Internships-USA --use "interns" for the username, and "learn" for the password, then select The Intenships Series Online, then scroll down the the BGIB.
Other online resources
Upcoming events in environmental sciences, ecology, sustainable development and related fields
Self-proclaimed to be Earth's biggest environment search engine
Selected science information provided by various federal government agencies including research and development results
EnviroLink is a non-profit organization working to provide comprehensive, up-to-date environmental information and news.
The struggle to save the global environment is in one way much more difficult than the struggle to vanquish Hitler, for this time the war is with ourselves. We are the enemy, just as we have only ourselves as allies. ~Al Gore