Finding Green in the Green Movement

By Miller, Julie A. | Techniques, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Finding Green in the Green Movement

Miller, Julie A., Techniques

In an industry beginning to feel the effects of deregulation, technicians with two-year degrees have a hot ticket to environmental careers

The environmental industry didn't really exist before 1970, but it now accounts for more than a million jobs and $180 billion in annual revenue. Born of federal legislation designed to clean up pollution, "green" jobs were among the fastest-growing for almost two decades. The growth has slowed significantly in the past few years, the employment outlook has become more competitive and some segments of the industry have fallen on hard times. But people with the right training and career goals--and sometimes with only a couple of years of postsecondary education--can still find opportunity in environmentalism.

"The environmental field was growing at 16 percent a year for a time. A lot of people came in thinking that would go on forever. Well, it can't," says Kevin Doyle, national director of program development for the Environmental Careers Organization.

However, jobs overall in the environmental field are still growing at about 2 percent a year, according to Environmental Business International, a research and consulting company that publishes the Environmental Business journal. And some areas are growing while others are shrinking.

"It's not an industry in decline so much as an industry in transition," says Grant Ferrier, president of Environmental Business International.

The modern environmental movement began gathering steam in the late 1960s. Decades of industrial growth had produced enough pollution to raise public awareness and indignation, which was fueled by high-profile incidents like oil spills and Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching fire. And that critical mass of public sentiment fit well with the peace-and-granola philosophy that was so prevalent among the Baby Boom generation and such a strong influence on popular culture.

The same year, President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the preparation of impact statements on major federal actions affecting the environment; the legislation that created the Environmental Protection Agency; and the original Clean Air Act. Most of the other major federal environmental laws--including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act--were enacted in the next six years. The final major statute, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, popularly known as the Superfund law, was passed in 1980.

Legislating jobs

Some professions that are thought of as "environmental" existed before this watershed period. Someone had to operate landfills, chlorinate drinking water and run sewage treatment plants. But a huge array of "green" jobs sprang directly from the new laws.

"Environmental jobs have traditionally been created either by new regulations or changing regulations," Doyle said. "Congress has just passed the Clean Air Act or expanded [the number of] Superfund sites or a state government has decided the state will achieve 40 percent recycling by 1990. That government activity shows up in consulting firms or the environmental department of Dow Chemical or the City of Worcester's recycling department."

Many of these new environmental professionals were hired by the federal government and state governments. Industry began hiring their own environmentalists to keep them in compliance with the laws. Consulting firms sprang up to provide an outside source of expertise for both the public and private sectors. Many of these workers had engineering or toxicology backgrounds; others came from fields as diverse as geology, economics and medicine. New opportunities in the public health field opened up for epidemiologists, analysts and managers with training in environmental health.

[Illegible] also are environmental specialist on such fields as journalism, law, public relations, fundraising, executive recruiting, lobbying, public policy analysis and accounting. …

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