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Sector by Sector Snapshot of Environmental Careers Today
What is the current status of "green" employment in the United States? As we've seen, the movement for a more sustainable economy has begun to reach beyond traditional conservation, environmental protection, and natural resource management institutions. The basic ideas of sustainability, however, are still far from being fully incorporated into our mainstream society. With this in mind, where are the jobs today for people who want to combine ecological and social goals? The overview below provides a snapshot of current trends at some leading public and private environmental employers, and suggests directions for job seekers and career planners.
From the 1970s through the early 1990s, the federal government was clearly a primary source of national environmental progress. Since that time, environmental concerns seem to have slipped from the top of Washington's priority list. Congressional leaders appear to be skeptical about (if not hostile to) the expansion of environmental regulatory power and the purchase of new public lands. Moreover, the federal conservation workforce is not as big as it used to be.
Even in its somewhat diminished state, however, the federal government remains the largest single employer in the world of environmental careers. Over 200,000 people worked in full-time, permanent positions for federal environmental and conservation agencies in 2004, most of them at the small collection of well-known agencies detailed in Table 1.
The sheer size and authority of the government, coupled with the huge amounts of money it spends on state and local government, nonprofit groups, and private contractors, guarantee a prominent role for Washington on every sustainability issue. It's the U.S. government, after all, that owns and runs the national forests, wildlife refuges, parks, and other protected areas. Congress ultimately controls the direction of national policy on air, water, climate, toxics, agriculture, and energy issues. Federal priorities in environmental science dominate research funding for scholars and graduate students. And, in a global world, it's important to note that only Washington can commit the nation to critical international environmental and trade agreements.
Finally, it makes sense to examine the federal government's environmental workforce at length because much of the nation's public and private eco-employment has grown up in reaction or as a complement to the federal role in environmental protection and natural resource management. Understanding the federal workforce is a window into environmental career opportunities everywhere.
Environmental Protection Agency
Through rule making and regulatory enforcement, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assures that business, industry, and government agencies comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (for hazardous waste management), Toxic Substances Control Act, and Pollution Prevention Act, among others. In this role, the agency often sets the standards that become our national environmental goals. Since much of this authority for on-the-ground pollution control work has been delegated to the fifty states, the EPA's role is often one of management and oversight.
In addition to responsibility for enforcing major laws, the EPA is also charged with running the "Superfund" program to clean up the nation's most toxic sites, and it has major responsibilities for environmental education, environmental justice, and brownfields redevelopment. Finally, the EPA conducts and supports scientific research.
Although the agency can be thought of as a "national cop on the environmental beat," it has shown a strong interest in additional methods for improving environmental quality. A 2004 EPA report entitled Innovating for Better Environmental Results reviews a long list of initiatives involving experimental technologies (such as nanotechnology), integrated environmental management systems, "sector strategies" that target the unique environmental concerns of specific industries, voluntary programs, and market-based incentives for pollution prevention. The search for innovative and less costly methods that produce improved results will certainly continue under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Environmental scientists, engineers, and lawyers make up the vital core of the EPA workforce, for obvious reasons, but that has been changing. Information technology specialists are in very high demand now, as are economists, businesspeople, financial analysts, and talented managers for complex public-private partnerships.
National Park Service
One of the nation's best-loved agencies, the National Park Service operates hundreds of national parks, from well-known treasures like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone, to tiny properties that attract only a handful of visitors. Because many parks are simultaneously nature reserves, sites for scientific research, and outdoor recreation areas for millions of people, pressure is always on park professionals to balance public access with the need to protect the natural bounty that inspired us to protect these areas in the first place. Maintaining that balance has been made even more difficult in recent years by the need to deal with a serious backlog of needed improvements that will require millions of additional dollars beyond current budgets.
The core of the National Park Service workforce is its cadre of park rangers, a growing number of whom are unfortunately required to handle law enforcement issues along with environmental education and conservation science. Although the familiar park rangers are perennially overburdened and underpaid, the service still finds plenty of applicants for its jobs, and the appeal of a career in the National Parks remains strong.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) maintains a national network of 542 wildlife refuges and 3,000 small waterfowl nesting areas totaling ninety-six million acres—the result of a huge national investment in habitat protection. The USFWS is also in charge of a fisheries system that contains seventy hatcheries and a variety of laboratories. It carries the primary responsibility for enforcing the Endangered Species Act—one of the nation's most important, and most controversial, ecological laws. This role makes the agency a frequent target of lawsuits from environmental activists, state and local government, business interests, and property rights advocates.
The USFWS is a big employer of fish and wildlife biologists and technicians, both directly and through grants and contracts with government and academic partners. Over the last decade, the service has become a strong voice for ecosystems management approaches to wildlife protection and an important supporter of the emerging field of conservation biology. In fact, many offices of the USFWS have made a conscious shift towards employing more scientists with the management-focused education advocated by the Society for Conservation Biology, at the expense of more traditionally trained biological specialists.
U.S. Geological Survey
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is a nonregulatory, independent science and information agency with nearly 400 offices across every state, and also in some foreign countries as well. Perhaps best known as "the nation's mapmakers" and for its expertise on mineral resources and natural hazard risks like earthquakes and floods, the USGS also provides data, analysis, and original research on water resources and biological diversity.
The USGS houses and updates a network of remarkably complex Geographic Information System (GIS) databases that are supported by satellite imagery, remote sensing, and people on the ground. Policy makers and scientists depend heavily on USGS for unbiased data to guide environmental decisions.
Not surprisingly, the agency's workforce is overwhelmingly technical and scientific, with earth scientists of various stripes dominating the payroll. A look at the agency's structure shows departments for mapping, water, and geological and biological resources, with the water unit employing the greatest number of professionals. Strong GIS skills are an absolute necessity for new recruits to be competitive.
Bureau of Land Management
Often invisible to people in the eastern half of the country, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is huge, well known, and sometimes bitterly attacked in the western states. The bureau manages 262 million acres—nearly one-eighth of the land in the United States—and 300 million additional acres of "subsurface mineral resources" as well.
Perhaps more than any public land agency, the BLM struggles to find a balance among ecological protection, outdoor recreation, economic uses (grazing, forestry, mining, and drilling), and preservation of archaeological and historical sites. Overcoming a reputation as the bureau of "logging and mining," BLM leadership has worked hard over the last fifteen years to establish ecological protection as a central priority. Current agency issues include management of off-road vehicle use, dealing with nonnative plant and animal species, responding to a rancorous debate about possible expansion of mining and drilling exploration, and handling land use conflicts in areas where BLM land abuts sprawling western cities and towns and/or Native American communities.
Although "range managers" are the historical professional core of the BLM, hiring over the last decade shows an increase in cultural resource specialists, biologists, ecologists, water resource managers, land use planners, and outdoor recreation professionals.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service employs 30,000 people—more than any other environmental agency. The Forest Service is also hiring more new permanent and temporary workers than anyone else. These people are needed to manage the National Forest System, an extensive network of 600 ranger districts in 155 national forests and 20 grasslands covering 191 million acres—an area the size of Texas. The agency is also involved in assisting private and urban forests, and even has a unit for international forestry.
Although logging and forest sales are still critically important, they have declined dramatically as a priority for the public forests, while ecological and watershed protection and outdoor recreation have increased. In fact, some Forest Service leaders have suggested that the agency's future may look more like the National Park Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, both in mission and staffing.
Managing forest fires is a central concern for the Forest Service, and policy debates are fierce about how best to deal with the issue. A series of disastrous fire seasons have put the issue front and center, and fire-related hiring (including postfire restoration) is quite high.
Just as the NPS has its park rangers, the USFWS its biologists, and the BLM its range managers, the dominant job titles at the Forest Service have traditionally been those of forester and forest technician. Hiring in these professions remains strong, although the profession of forestry is more ecological than in the past and the daily activities of foresters are somewhat different than they were a generation ago. The service is also seeking ecologists, hydrologists, planners, outdoor recreation specialists, and information technology professionals.
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Also part of the Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) evolved from the former Soil Conservation Service and inherited its central mission—the protection and restoration of agricultural lands, watersheds, and communities. Although all twenty-first-century conservation agencies are dedicated to achieving results through partnerships, the NRCS has the longest history of meaningful involvement with its central stakeholder groups—farmers and rural communities. Because NRCS is charged with conservation of resources that are not owned by the federal government, it has developed deep connections with local people through hundreds of county offices that offer technical assistance and shared science.
In keeping with its mission, the NRCS employs a large number of people with training in agriculturally related fields, such as soil science, agronomy, agricultural economics, and watershed management. Education in these fields has evolved to include increased attention to managerial and communication issues, in response to employment signals from agencies like the NRCS.
U.S. Department of Energy
The public face of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) "environmental" responsibility has been focused on the past. The agency is spending tens of billions of dollars to clean up sites contaminated by over forty years of atomic weapons production and has been relentlessly seeking a place to dispose of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Although this is work that must be conducted (with a mission that provides lucrative contracts for many environmental firms), forward-thinking environmental professionals will probably be more interested in the DOE's policy, scientific, and technical work related to better energy use, alternate energy sources, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
The department's network of twenty-four national laboratories and technology centers, for example, houses world-class facilities where over 30,000 engineers and scientists perform leading-edge research. The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy division—though smaller than it should be—is a fertile place for the study and promotion of hydrogen, fuel cell, solar, wind, and biomass energy sources. And even those who are concerned about fossil fuel dependence will find major scientific, engineering, and social scientific research opportunities designed to make these energy choices less environmentally damaging.
Even more than most federal agencies, the DOE pursues its mission through private contractors and formal relationships with university researchers. Therefore, many of the agency's direct employees are contract managers and administrative personnel.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Many people are surprised to find the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) listed as an environmental agency, given its lead role in the past: damming, dredging, channeling, and filling of so many American rivers and wetlands. But the USACE has serious pro-environment responsibilities, and a scientific, engineering, and management staff to match. The Everglades restoration project, for example, is largely led by USACE managers, as are innovative projects to remove dams and allow rivers to run free again. And the USACE is responsible for managing the nation's "404" permitting program for the protection and restoration of wetlands.
It's no coincidence that the agency is called a corps of "engineers." Environmental, civil, geological, and hydrological engineers dominate the agency, and engineering projects remain "job one." Still, the USACE requires a significant number of people with ecological (especially wetlands) backgrounds, as well as attorneys, project managers, designers, planners, public financing administrators, and professionals with strong negotiation capabilities.
Excerpted from The Eco Guide to Careers that make a Difference by Environmental Careers Organization. Copyright © 2004 Environmental Careers Organization. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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