Career Opportunities

Labor Market Demand for Environmental Studies Majors

(See Kevin Doyle, Sam Heizmann, and Tanya Stubbs, The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999).

Environmental Studies majors are in high demand nationwide. Hundreds of thousands of environmental professionals work for government agencies, from well-known players such as the National Park Service to the smallest local water district. Although overall growth in government employment has slowed, the public sector continues to be a dominant employer and a prime mover in the development of new policy directions for environmental problem solving. Federal Government. The federal government is, by far, the largest single employer in the environmental career world. In late 1997, over 230,000 people worked for federal environmental and conservation agencies, according to a survey carried out by the Environmental Careers Organization (ECO). (See <>). The environmental agencies of the federal government employ (or fund) large numbers of professionals in certain fields.

Individual agencies change with new political climates and major legislation or executive orders. Generally, however, federal agencies are recasting their role in the direction of developing broad regulatory guidelines, conducting research, providing technical assistance and education to others, turning over authority to the states, and overseeing enforcement by state and local entities.

State Government. Although the federal government is large, nearly twice as many people work on environmental issues at the state level; 4,587,000 Americans worked for state government in 1996 (including 1,219,000 part-time employees), and roughly 10 percent of state employment involves environmental work (broadly defined), producing an environmental workforce of 459,000 workers. Included are employees at state colleges and universities.

The federal government is changing its role, from one of detailed management to broad goal setting, assistance, and oversight. This often means a transfer of authority to the states. Some even argue that ownership and management of many federal lands and forests might be given over to state governments. Unfortunately, transfer of responsibility is rarely accompanied by increased revenues. In addition, state legislatures may be trying to shrink their permanent workforces by transferring work to private contractors and local government.

In addition to increased responsibility for former federal programs, state governments create programs of their own that deal with citizenry concerns. State governments lead the way, for example, in the creation of laws to promote recycling and the protection of watersheds.

The structure of state environmental work is roughly the same throughout the United States. Although the names vary, most states have agencies in the following areas:

  • Environmental protection
  • Food and agriculture
  • Parks and recreation
  • Water resources
  • Public health
  • Community and economic development
  • Coastal zone management (if applicable)
  • Emergency services
  • Energy services
  • Planning (if state land planning is in force)

Local Government. There are over 70,500 local governments in the United States, employing 5,948,000 people in 1996. Estimating the number of environmental workers at the local level is difficult. The ECO estimates that roughly 8 percent of local government employees do environmental and conservation work, or 475,840 people.

Local government is a big part of the future of environmentalism in this country. As Congress and the state legislatures shrink the government workforce while trying to increase environmental quality, more of the actual work is pushed to the local level. Local experiments are among the most creative in the environmental world.

Schools. There are at least 14,400 school systems in the United States, employing 3,476,000 full-time and 1,107,000 part-time workers. Allowing for custodians, principals, bus drivers, administrators, secretaries, and so forth, the lion's share of this 4.6 million workforce is, of course, teachers.

Arguably, there is no "environmental" work more important than the education of our children. In many ways, it's the foundation upon which everything else rests. To everyone reading this book who chooses a teaching career and improves the nation's ecological literacy and commitment to citizenship, a hearty congratulations.

Private Sector. Private sector environmental employment is found in a growing number of "green" businesses aimed at ecologically savvy consumers. More than ever before, the private sector is a source of job and entrepreneurial opportunities for those who care about the environment.

The Environmental Business Journal estimates that there are over 113,000 "revenue producing organizations" in the environmental industry. These businesses and agencies supported nearly 1.3 million jobs on revenues of $189 billion in 1997. California, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, and Florida are among the leading states for environmental industry employment.

From 1970 to 1988, the environmental industry grew rapidly. In the 1970s, growth was 9-11 percent annually. The 1980s saw even better growth, with around 10 percent in the early 1980s and more than 12 percent from 1985 to 1988, peaking in 1988 at 15 percent. Throughout the 1990s, growth has been flat to moderate, ranging from a low of 2 percent to a high of about 6 percent. Clearly, the industry has matured, although new growth spikes cannot be ruled out.

Consulting field is an important barometer of environmental employment. Consulting firms are usually the first to unearth new trends and service needs.

A major opportunity for private sector environmental employers lies overseas. The global market for environmental products and services is estimated at nearly $400 billion dollars annually, roughly 37 percent of which is in the United States. Overall growth in the U.S. at the end of the 1990s has, however, been extremely small. In contrast, other parts of the world are projected to experience an exploding demand for environmental work. Asia (not including Japan) is projected to grow at more than 15 percent annually (assuming recovery from the 1998 economic problems). Latin America will grow at 12 percent, and Africa at 10 percent. Although American industry faces heavy pressure from German, French, British, and Japanese firms, U.S. firms are competitive in most areas.

Regardless of these challenges, the environmental industry remains a great place for environmental professionals to build a satisfying career, especially for those with an entrepreneurial bent and a desire for fast-paced work environments that are focused on results.

Other Private Employers. Beyond the environmental industry, the private sector is full of career opportunities. Although formal statistics are not available, here are a few of the places you will find environmental work being done.

Regulated Companies. Corporate environmental managers have noted considerable changes in their responsibilities in the last few years. The most challenging has been the attempt to integrate environmental concerns into the basic operations of the business; that is solving environmental problems through the mutual work of professionals in operations, product design, process manufacturing, finance and accounting, legal, and so forth. Environmental departments are no longer considered lonely backwaters that constantly bring bad news requiring expenditures that bring no financial returns.

Law Firms. Environmental law is firmly ensconced as a specialty, both in law schools and in most law firms. The sheer bulk of case law on environmental concerns, and the risk of not knowing it, are so large (and change so fast) that legal employment will remain strong well into the next century. Competition, however, will certainly increase. Environmental law is a popular specialty for today's law students, even as demand has dropped somewhat.

The Financial and Insurance Industries. "Investment banking is social policy," says Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Investment banking is more important to environmentalists, objectively, than nine out of ten things Congress is going to do."

In a similar vein, environmental writer Bill McKibben asks, "What does it mean that alone among the Earth¹s great pools of money and power, insurance companies are beginning to take the idea of global climate change quite seriously?" Environmental work is growing in both of these industries, as well as at accounting firms, business consulting outfits, and related companies.

Other Industries. Environmental employment is found in many other places throughout the private economy, including the health care industry, agriculture, media and entertainment, pharmaceuticals, and transportation. For dozens of examples of environmental work throughout the economy, see Green at Work by Susan Cohn (Island Press 1995), which is a great book that explores opportunities for people of all backgrounds who want to protect the environment while they pursue a business career.

Nonprofit Organizations. No one knows how many environmental nonprofit groups there are in the United States. Estimates range as low as 4,000 and as high as 10,000 or more. There has been a large (and welcome) growth in small, local, grassroots groups in the last ten years. Many of these groups, however, have no staff. The number of nonprofit groups of interest to career seekers drops precipitously if one eliminates all volunteer groups. For example, the 1998-99 EnviroDirectory for New England lists about 200 environmental and conservation nonprofits in the six-state region, and it covers almost all of the well-known groups.

Although no comprehensive census has been done, we do know that there are:

  • Over 1,200 land trusts;
  • Over 2,000 water-related groups;
  • 1,450 nature centers;
  • Hundreds of chapters of national and regional groups, such as Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Izaak Walton League, and so forth;
  • More than 200 environmental justice groups;
  • Thousands of small neighborhood and community groups devoted to environmental improvement;
  • Hundreds of animal rescue and rehabilitation groups;
  • 90 aquariums; and
  • Over 1,000 student groups on college campuses.

The list can go on to include church projects, garden clubs, scout troops, rails-to-trails organizations, summer camps, museums, and more.

The structure of staffed nonprofit organizations, wherever they are, is remarkably similar. Usually, there is an executive director who manages the organization, as well as an administrative assistant. In many cases, that's the whole staff. Larger organizations will also have a fundraising and membership department, program staff for major activities, finance and accounting personnel, education and communications people, lobbyists and attorneys, a volunteer coordinator, and project coordinators for grant-funded initiatives. Core staff are supplemented by interns and volunteers.

The largest environmental nonprofit group is certainly The Nature Conservancy, which employs over 2,500 people all over the world, as well as many seasonal employees and interns. Most groups are considerably smaller.

Thirty of the better-known groups in the nonprofit world include: American Farmland Trust, American Forests, American Lung Association, American Rivers, Appalachian Mountain Club, Audubon Society, Clean Water Action, Conservation Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, Earth Island Institute, EcoTrust, Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Izaak Walton League, Land Trust Alliance, League of Conservation Voters, National Parks and Conservation Association, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen, Public Interest Research Group, Rails to Trails Conservancy, Resources for the Future, Sierra Club, Trust for Public Land, Wilderness Society, World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund, and Worldwatch Institute.

Taken together, these thirty influential groups employ perhaps 4,000 people, probably less. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), for instance, is one of the best-known environmental groups in the world. The paid staff at EDF numbers 160 people, and it is a big environmental group. It's not surprising that full-time staff positions at well-known environmental nonprofits are among the most competitive of all environmental career offerings.

The environmental nonprofit world is headquartered in a few major cities. Certainly, Washington, D.C., is the geographic center of nonprofit environmentalism. Many of the groups above have a heavy concentration of staff people in the nation's capital, as well as its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, and Seattle are also popular centers for large nonprofits.

Nonprofit work in the late 1990s has a few consistent trends. First, management standards have increased. Boards are demanding that directors and managers have (or get) strong management and leadership skills. Passion and commitment are not enough. Second, revenue-generating ability is crucial. A lot of people can come up with good ideas, but fewer can make them pay through fee-for-service programs, membership, sales of supporting goods and materials, and fundraising. Those who can are in demand. Third, nonprofits are learning to work together. Funders (and the public) are asking that nonprofit managers learn to form effective alliances and collaborations. Fifth, nonprofit environmental groups are learning to diversify, creating an environmental movement that appeals to all Americans, regardless of class, race, and ethnicity. Finally, environmentalism is returning to the grassroots with the understanding that a concerned, involved, informed, and politically savvy citizenry is essential for environmental success.

Academia. There are more than 2,400 four-year colleges and over 1,400 two-year colleges in the United States. Almost all of them have programs that help prepare people for environmental and conservation fields, from basic biology, earth science, chemistry, and geography programs to the best-known graduate schools, such as the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources.

The story of environmental employment at colleges, universities, and research institutes is complex. On the one hand, environmental majors at the undergraduate level are extremely popular. Dozens of interdisciplinary environmental studies and environmental science degree programs have been created in the last few years, many of them in response to student demand as much as educational need. Within disciplines such as biology, chemistry, geography, earth science, political science, toxicology, and engineering, "environmental" foci are popular selections. In professional schools for journalism, law, and policy, the environmental track is a desirable one. Finally, large numbers of environmental technology (technician) programs have sprung up at community colleges and vocational schools.

In summary, government and business leaders indicate the type of graduate they are looking for in recruitment parallels the anticipated graduates from our Environmental Studies program. Additionally, the Environmental Studies degree would prepare students for admission and success in professional and graduate programs.

See also The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century (English)