The best Government Job Source

Environmental Scientists and Specialists

Significant Points
  • Federal, State, and local governments employ 44 percent of all environmental scientists and specialists.
  • A bachelor’s degree in any life or physical science is generally sufficient for most entry-level positions, although many employers prefer a master’s degree.
  • Job prospects are expected to be favorable, particularly for environmental health workers in State and local government.
Nature of the Work

Environmental scientists and specialists use their knowledge of the natural sciences to protect the environment by identifying problems and finding solutions that minimize hazards to the health of the environment and the population. They analyze measurements or observations of air, food, water, and soil to determine the way to clean and preserve the environment. Understanding the issues involved in protecting the environment—degradation, conservation, recycling, and replenishment—is central to the work of environmental scientists. They often use this understanding to design and monitor waste disposal sites, preserve water supplies, and reclaim contaminated land and water. They also write risk assessments, describing the likely affect of construction and other environmental changes; write technical proposals; and give presentations to managers and regulators.

The Federal Government and most State and local governments enact regulations to ensure that there is clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and no hazardous materials in the soil. The regulations also place limits on development, particularly near sensitive parts of the ecosystem, such as wetlands. Many environmental scientists and specialists work for the government, ensuring that these regulations are followed and limiting the impact of human activity on the environment. Others monitor environmental impacts on the health of the population, checking for risks of disease and providing information about health hazards.

Environmental scientists also work with private companies to help them comply with environmental regulations and policies. They are usually hired by consulting firms to solve problems. Most consulting firms fall into two categories—large multidisciplinary engineering companies, the largest of which may employ thousands of workers, and small niche firms that may employ only a few workers. When looking for jobs, environmental scientists should consider the type of firm and the scope of the projects it undertakes. In larger firms, environmental scientists are more likely to engage in large, long-term projects in which they will work with people in other scientific disciplines. In smaller specialty firms, however, they work more often with business professionals and clients in government and the private sector.

Environmental scientists who work on policy formation may help identify ways that human behavior can be modified in the future to avoid such problems as ground-water contamination and depletion of the ozone layer. Some environmental scientists work in managerial positions, usually after spending some time performing research or learning about environmental laws and regulations.

Many environmental scientists do work and have training that is similar to other physical or life scientists, but they focus on environmental issues. Many specialize in subfields such as environmental ecology and conservation, environmental chemistry, environmental biology, or fisheries science. Specialties affect the specific activities that environmental scientists perform, although recent understandings of the interconnectedness of life processes have blurred some traditional classifications. For example, environmental ecologists study the relationships between organisms and their environments and the effects of factors such as population size, pollutants, rainfall, temperature, and altitude, on both. They may collect, study, and report data on air, soil, and water using their knowledge of various scientific disciplines. Ecological modelers study ecosystems, pollution control, and resource management using mathematical modeling, systems analysis, thermodynamics, and computer techniques. Environmental chemists study the toxicity of various chemicals, that is, how those chemicals affect plants, animals, and people.

Environmental scientists in research positions with the Federal Government or in colleges and universities often have to find funding for their work by writing grant proposals. Consultants face similar pressures to market their skills and write proposals so that they will have steady work.

Work environment. Many entry-level environmental scientists and specialists spend a significant amount of time in the field, while more experienced workers generally devote more time to office or laboratory work. Some environmental scientists, such as environmental ecologists and environmental chemists, often take field trips that involve physical activity. Environmental scientists in the field may work in warm or cold climates, in all kinds of weather. Travel often is required to meet with prospective clients.

Researchers and consultants might face stress when looking for funding. Occasionally, those who write technical reports to business clients and regulators may be under pressure to meet deadlines and thus have to work long hours.

Environmental Scientists and Specialists GS-0028-09

Illustrations:

  • At a field office that receives and disposes of excess items from several military installations, the specialist ensures that hazardous property is received, handled, stored, inspected, documented, and manifested/disposed of in compliance with applicable environmental regulations and safety requirements. The specialist inspects storage areas; provides technical guidance to personnel involved in the handling and disposal of hazardous materials and wastes (e.g., paints, varnishes, lacquers, solvents, fuels, and pesticides); and prepares required reports. Where items are disposed of through commercial contractors, the specialist may act as the contracting officer's representative.
  • The specialist evaluates and recommends action on permit applications for projects that involve routine changes (placement of structures or dredging or filling) to waterway or shoreline use. He/she conducts site inspections to make wetland determinations and gather information on conditions and potential mitigation measures; conducts public interest reviews (prepares public notices, responds to questions, coordinates public hearings); coordinates activities with other Federal and State agencies; and recommends issuance or denial of permits.
  • The specialist performs site inspections at hazardous waste disposal, transport, or storage facilities where the problems typically are easy to identify and conventional in nature. He/she evaluates work practices, determines compliance with applicable laws and regulations, and recommends changes to control or eliminate potential or existing hazards or violations.
  • The specialist investigates routine violations of pesticide laws and prepares enforcement actions. He/she gathers and examines evidence of violations; prepares warning letters, civil complaints, administrative orders, etc; and assembles case files for civil and criminal actions.
  • The specialist negotiates and monitors State assistance grants and oversees program activities for a well-established State program to regulate underground storage tanks (USTs). He/she identifies basic program needs; provides assistance to State and local agencies on routine matters pertaining to the development, establishment, and continuance of program activities; participates in the development of project plans and specifications; analyzes documentation for conformance to requirements; and conducts portions of on-site assessment visits.
  • The specialist performs a variety of activities involved in the development and implementation of relatively routine changes to regulations restricting the land disposal of hazardous wastes. He/she evaluates the feasibility and probable effects of proposed regulations; develops position papers, issue papers, workgroup materials, and briefing papers for higher-level managers; develops preamble language for proposed and final rules; and assists in developing policy guidance to implement the various provisions of environmental standards.
Environmental Scientists and Specialists GS-0028-11/12

Illustrations:

  • The specialist manages the asbestos abatement, underground storage tank, solid waste management, and water and air quality management programs for a complex, multi mission military installation located in a rapidly expanding urban area that is beginning to legislate environmental issues. He/she develops and implements plans to accomplish program goals, modifies policies and procedures to comply with frequent changes to applicable laws and regulations, provides technical advice and assistance to installation managers, conducts studies and surveys to identify problems and recommends modifications to operations or obtains and oversees outside contractors to complete projects, and develops and/or reviews all environmental documentation relating to assigned program areas.
  • The specialist serves as an environmental auditor and audit team leader to accomplish on-site surveillance of disposal contractors, purchasers of hazardous property, and facilities for the temporary storage of hazardous property throughout a multi state area. He/she obtains information on contractor, sales, and storage facility operations and processes; determines compliance with environmental regulations and policies, permit requirements, contract clauses; evaluates the effectiveness of hazardous property management systems; and identifies practices that may subject the Government to potential for liability.
  • The specialist coordinates the preparation of environmental impact documents for complex water and land projects (e.g., large dams, roads, aqueducts) in operation or under construction, on Government-owned land. He/she assembles and evaluates environmental and planning data (including biological and cultural resource studies prepared by subject-matter experts); prepares or coordinates the preparation of planning and environmental documents (environmental impact statements, environmental assessments, executive summaries, public involvement documents, and working papers); participates in public meetings, workshops, and hearings; and conducts inspections of construction, operations, and maintenance activities to insure compliance with applicable environmental documents.
  • The specialist coordinates Clean Water Act compliance activities for all projects associated with a major agency water resource development project. He/she determines when permits are required, prepares or coordinates the preparation of the applications, resolves any problems to assure that permits are obtained at the right time, represents the agency in negotiations involving mitigation plans, and provides expert advice on Clean Water Act and related compliance issues.
  • The specialist plans, coordinates, directs, and evaluates an environmental quality program to protect and conserve tribal resources in a multi state area. He/she provides technical oversight to environmental coordinators in field agencies that administer to the tribes and/or pueblos in the area; reviews or coordinates preparation of environmental documents for any project or activity that may impact on trust resources (e.g., new road or dam, waste incinerator, landfill, agricultural development, irrigation project, housing development, timber sales on land adjacent to the reservation, sand/gravel pit restoration, fertilizer plant, bingo hall, commercial development); develops procedural manuals and in-service training programs for agency and area personnel; advises agency and tribal officials on complex environmental issues; and monitors compliance activities.
  • The specialist administers State pesticide enforcement and applicator certification grants in accordance with statutory requirements, national guidance, and regional priorities. He/she provides technical assistance to assigned States, reviews grant applications, negotiates work outputs with State officials, and provides program/compliance oversight and guidance. Assignments may include conducting investigations, inspections, and laboratory data audits.
  • The specialist investigates and prepares complex cases of environmental violations and negotiates settlements or pursues enforcement actions. He/she conducts investigations; analyzes findings; proposes appropriate enforcement actions and settlements; coordinates with scientists/engineers, management officials, and others; and prepares necessary documentation.
  • The specialist assists in developing complex regulations and operating guidance to implement Superfund programs (e.g., remediation standards and procedures, guidance on health/environmental risk assessment and remedial and removal management techniques).
  • He/she writes portions of regulations, advises regional offices and others on implementation policies and procedures, evaluates effectiveness of regional programs, and prepares reports identifying management problems and recommending substantial changes.
Environmental Scientists and Specialists GS-0028-13/14

Illustrations:

  • The specialist serves as environmental coordinator for a large military installation with an invasive mission (i.e., research, test, and development activities involving pilot plants and other test facilities and unique and untried combat systems, materials, and chemicals) located in an environmentally sensitive area. He/she manages/coordinates the hazardous materials and solid and hazardous waste management programs, environmental restoration, and other environmental programs to assure the installation is in compliance with all environmental requirements; develops an environmental master plan to document the status of existing projects and identify funding requirements for future projects; plans and implements a waste minimization program to reduce the volume and toxicity of wastes generated by testing activities; and resolves intractable disposal problems involving chemical agents, munitions, and ordnance-related materials about which little is known.
  • The specialist secures environmental permits and permit modifications for the construction and operation of prototypical chemical demilitarization facilities. He/she coordinates the preparation, review, and approval of various permit applications, working with other offices and commands, other agencies, Federal and State regulators, and local health and emergency response officials; participates in public meetings and hearings, and responds to public comments; conducts environmental audits and evaluates contractor performance; prepares reports, opinion papers, briefings, etc; and develops solutions to problems that are without precedent and that will be used as the basis for decisions as the program progresses.
  • The specialist serves as a staff advisor in an agency headquarters office. He/she reviews environmental documentation prepared by regional offices; manages the preparation of environmental documentation for programs that are highly visible or politically sensitive; monitors implementation of major agency programs such as the Chesapeake Bay cleanup initiative; prepares and reviews policy recommendations and technical proposals on environmental issues that are unusually controversial, precedent-setting, or very costly; and, as an authority in the area of environmental assessment and audit, formulates policies and guidelines relating to the agency's environmental audit program and coordinates reviews of reports by departmental auditors, regulatory agencies, etc.
  • The specialist develops a regulatory framework and strategy for a national program to control exposure to pesticides on farms. He/she drafts advance notices of complex rules that involve facets of several major programs (including programs of other agencies), initiates and chairs workgroups to resolve identified problems, and secures concurrence or approval on final documents; evaluates progress in implementing the program by regions, State agencies, local jurisdictions, and the private sector; identifies program deficiencies, imbalances, etc., and develops proposals to ensure agency objectives are met; reviews pending legislation for impact on the program; and prepares briefings and position papers for key agency officials.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

A bachelor’s degree is sufficient for most jobs in government and private sector companies, although a master’s degree is often preferred. A Ph.D. is usually only necessary for jobs in college teaching or research.

Education and training. A bachelor's degree in an earth science is adequate for entry-level positions, although many companies prefer to hire environmental scientists with a master's degree in environmental science or a related natural science. A doctoral degree generally is necessary only for college teaching and some research positions. Some environmental scientists and specialists have a degree in environmental science, but many earn degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, or the geosciences and then apply their education to the environment. They often need research or work experience related to environmental science.

A bachelor's degree in environmental science offers an interdisciplinary approach to the natural sciences, with an emphasis on biology, chemistry, and geology. Undergraduate environmental science majors typically focus on data analysis and physical geography, which are particularly useful in studying pollution abatement, water resources, or ecosystem protection, restoration, and management. Understanding the geochemistry of inorganic compounds is becoming increasingly important in developing remediation goals. Students interested in working in the environmental or regulatory fields, either in environmental consulting firms or for Federal or State governments, should take courses in hydrology, hazardous-waste management, environmental legislation, chemistry, fluid mechanics, and geologic logging, which is the gathering of geologic data. An understanding of environmental regulations and government permit issues also is valuable.

For environmental scientists and specialists who consult, courses in business, finance, marketing, or economics may be useful. In addition, combining environmental science training with other disciplines such as engineering or business, qualifies these scientists for the widest range of jobs.

Other qualifications. Computer skills are essential for prospective environmental scientists. Students who have some experience with computer modeling, data analysis and integration, digital mapping, remote sensing, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) will be the most prepared to enter the job market.

Environmental scientists and specialists usually work as part of a team with other scientists, engineers, and technicians, and they must often write technical reports and research proposals that communicate their research results or ideas to company managers, regulators, and the public. Environmental health specialists also work closely with the public, providing and collecting information on public health risks. As a result, strong oral and written communication skills are essential.

Advancement. Environmental scientists and specialists often begin their careers as field analysts or as research assistants or technicians in laboratories or offices. They are given more difficult assignments and more autonomy as they gain experience. Eventually, they may be promoted to project leader, program manager, or some other management and research position.

Employment

Environmental scientists and specialists held about 85,900 jobs in 2008. An additional 6,200 jobs were held by environmental science faculty.

About 37 percent of environmental scientists were employed in State and local governments; 21 percent in management, scientific, and technical consulting services; 15 percent in architectural, engineering and related services; and 7 percent in the Federal Government, primarily in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Defense.

Job Outlook

Employment is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations. Job prospects are expected to be favorable, particularly in State and local government.

Employment change. Employment of environmental scientists and specialists is expected to increase by 28 percent between 2008 and 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations. Job growth should be strongest in private-sector consulting firms. Growth in employment will be spurred largely by the increasing demands placed on the environment by population growth and increasing awareness of the problems caused by environmental degradation. Further demand should result from the need to comply with complex environmental laws and regulations, particularly those regarding ground-water decontamination and clean air.

Much job growth will result from a continued need to monitor the quality of the environment, to interpret the impact of human actions on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and to develop strategies for restoring ecosystems. In addition, environmental scientists will be needed to help planners develop and construct buildings, transportation corridors, and utilities that protect water resources and reflect efficient and beneficial land use.

Many environmental scientists and specialists work in consulting. Consulting firms have hired these scientists to help businesses and government address issues related to underground tanks, land disposal areas, and other hazardous-waste-management facilities. Currently, environmental consulting is evolving from investigations to creating remediation and engineering solutions. At the same time, the regulatory climate is moving from a rigid structure to a more flexible risk-based approach. These factors, coupled with new Federal and State initiatives that integrate environmental activities into the business process itself, will result in a greater focus on waste minimization, resource recovery, pollution prevention, and the consideration of environmental effects during product development. This shift in focus to preventive management will provide many new opportunities for environmental scientists in consulting roles.

Job prospects. In addition to job openings due to growth, there will be additional demand for new environmental scientists to replace those who retire, advance to management positions, or change careers. Job prospects for environmental scientists will be good, particularly for jobs in State and local government.

During periods of economic recession, layoffs of environmental scientists and specialists may occur in consulting firms, particularly when there is a slowdown in new construction; layoffs are much less likely in government.

Earnings

Median annual wages of environmental scientists and specialists were $59,750 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $45,340 and $78,980. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,310, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $102,610.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, beginning salary offers in July 2009 for graduates with bachelor's degrees in an environmental science averaged $39,160 a year.

Sources of Additional Information

Information on training and career opportunities for environmental scientists and specialists is available from:

Information on obtaining Environmental Scientist positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or  (703) 724–1850  or TDD (978) 461–8404 and   (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.

Sources:

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition; and
  • Office of Personnel Management, Position Classification Standards.

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