Environmental careers

What jobs for the environment? If you've ever wondered how to find a job in the environment ... you've come to the right place.

David Bainbridge, Environmental Studies Coordinator, United States International University
he environmental challenge: ev- ery day the papers and TV news provide further evidence of the importance of environmental studies, eco-technology, and the many opportunities for people to work to protect and restore the environment. Whether it is an oil spill in the bay, a sewage spill closing a beach, contamination of drinking water with diesel fuel from buried tanks, loss of endangered species, or the more challenging problem of providing enough water or food, the work ahead is clear. We have to learn to do things more efficiently, more economically, more cleanly and in a sustainable manner.

The jobs: who's paying

There was a time when most environmental jobs were in the government sector. This is changing as we begin to realize that the government can't do everything. And, corporations are realizing that wastes are undiscovered resources. Improved enforcement of environmental laws has increased the cost of failing to comply with environmental regulations (although costs still are far below the real costs in almost every arena). The social and environmental costs of electricity for example, equal the current retail price. Companies increasingly need workers capable of dealing with a wide range of environmental issues and making the links that are needed for profitable implementation of the new science of industrial ecology.

The closure of military bases with a legacy of environmental contamination from before environmental laws were enacted will also provide work for thousands of people. The growing recognition of border region environmental problems and the enormous challenge of environmental contamination in developing countries will provide opportunities for multilingual environmental specialists.

The growing appreciation of the benefits of environmental restoration has also created a growing movement for environmental repair work. This requires a range of skills and experience and many tens of thousands of skilled field workers and team leaders. It is among the most satisfying work in the world and is needed everywhere we look. Only about 2 percent of the stream miles in the United States and less than 10 percent of the range and forests are in good condition. Improving these degraded lands and waterways and recreating wetlands and native grasslands can improve the nations economic balance sheet and provide work for thousands of people. Many jobs will be for private groups like the Nature Conservancy, which is managing and restoring natural areas across California and the United States.

Hot tips

Experience is desirable and internships and volunteer work are important to create the contacts to find work in environmental fields and provide on-the-job training. Locally, groups like the Wildlands Recovery Team in Santa Ysabel, the "friends organizations" that protect and maintain public lands, the Sierra Club and others provide opportunities to develop field skills. Programs like Earthwatch, the School for Field Studies and other international programs can provide hands-on experience while making a difference on critical global environmental problems. Join at least one organization that represents the type of environmental work you hope to do the Society for Ecological Restoration, the Nature Conservancy, Association of Environmental Professionals, and many others are good candidates - and attend the annual conferences. Environmental Career Opportunities (202-861-0592) lists a wide array of opportunities every month.

What employers are looking for

As someone who hires many workers, mostly students but also staff, I look for five things:

  1. Literacy and ability to communicate verbally and in writing, with experience in math and elementary statistics. This is the key to success in most jobs, and includes the ability to speak to groups. Computer literacy and worldwide web skills are increasingly important. You should be very effective in using the library and guides to find needed information.
  2. Interest and commitment to the environment and creating a career.
  3. Hands-on experience and willingness to work, from collecting samples, to working in the lab, to planting plants and installing equipment. The more you know about tools and equipment the better.
  4. Willingness to accept responsibility and ability to work unsupervised. Lean corporations and shortages of people make self-starters a primary resource.
  5. Technical grounding and training .

The jobs are out there, around the United States and the globe. The most recent issue of Environmental Career Opportunities lists more than 400 jobs; many require advanced training, many do not. This issue also lists more than 40 internship opportunities.

Opportunities in San Diego

United States International University provides a unique BS degree in Environmental Studies. This program meets the needs of potential employers, the local community, and the global environment. It is unique in combining five factors. Some of these are offered in other programs, but none combines all five:

  1. An international and multicultural flavor, covering environmental solutions for all countries, not just the United States.
  2. An emphasis on the relation between environment and society, and the critical contributions of the social, cultural, and behavioral sciences to protecting and restoring the environment. Much emphasis is placed on environmental economics, counting the full costs of manufacturing, using and disposing of products.
  3. The systems behavior and interdisciplinary requirements for environmental problems solving.
  4. A "hands-on" emphasis, which establishes opportunities for students to relate classroom material to environmental practice in the context of classes, field study, and internships. This is essential to provide nonspecialists with career opportunities. The sustainability of the campus itself is a continuing project.
  5. An emphasis on environmental problem solving, developing students ability to analyze environmental problems and work with people toward solutions. Many ES programs are more concerned with environmental preservation, not sustainable resource management and environmental restoration. The small classes and access to faculty at USIU make this especially effective.

The Environmental Studies major prepares students for managerial and policy positions in various sectors of industry and business, such as land development, environmental consulting firms, universities and associated research institutes; non-governmental groups that deal with environmental issues, like the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and Audubon Society; and governmental jobs dealing with environmental protection and remediation. Other career areas include: entrepreneurship in green businesses, information dissemination, environmental mediation and negotiation services, eco-tourism, urban and regional planning, careers within national and state park systems, and indigenous peoples' organizations.

The major also prepares students for graduate work in environmental areas and combines well with a minor in international relations, multimedia communications or business.

For further information contact: Admissions, USIU (619) 635-4772, or David Bainbridge, Environmental Studies Coordinator, Department of Liberal & Interdisciplinary Studies, 10455 Pomerado Road, San Diego, CA 92131-1799.

Recommended reading:

Bainbridge, D.A. 1985. Ecological education: time for a new approach. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 66(4):461-462

Bradshaw, A.D. and M.J. Chadwick. 1980. The Restoration of Land. U.C. Press.

Hawken, P. 1993. The Ecology of Commerce. Harper.

Makower, J. 1992. The e Factor: the bottom-line approach to environmental responsible business. Tilden.

McKibben, B. 1996. Hope, Human and Wild. Little Brown.

Mitchell, S. and D.A. Bainbridge. 1991. Sustainable Agriculture for California: A Guide to Information. University of California, Oakland.

Moore, C. and A. Miller. 1994. Green Gold: Japan, Germany, the United States and the Race for Environmental Technology. Beacon Press.

Papanek, V. 1995. The Green Imperative: Natural Design for the Real World. Thames and Hudson.

Steen, A. and B., D.A. Bainbridge, and D. Eisenberg. 1994. The Straw Bale House. Chelsea Green.

Willig, J.T. 1995. Auditing for Environmental Leadership. Wiley.