Careers in Environmental Engineering

Article excerpt

Environmental engineers are hot. Take a look at the Sunday "help wanted" ads in any major newspaper and you will see a long list of ads for environmental engineers at consulting firms, manufacturers, and government agencies. Recruiters serving the environmental industry report a steady need for talented environmental engineers, even in today's climate of cutbacks, restructuring and general wariness. U.S. News and World Report confirmed this demand when it selected environmental engineering as one of the twenty "hot jobs" in the nation (October 22, 1993).

"Engineers with an environmental focus are at the top of our recruitment agenda," says John R. Cook, Jr., president and founder of The Environmental Careers Organization.

The field of environmental engineering is both easy and difficult to define. It includes not only those who graduate with a degree specifically called "environmental" engineering (offered by 62 undergraduate institutions), but also many graduates of civil engineering departments (over 200 institutions) and a large number of chemical, process, mechanical, transportation, and electrical engineers as well. A working definition of environmental engineers may simply be "engineers who are creating environmental solutions."

Odom Fanning, for instance, author of Opportunities in Environmental Careers (VGM, 1991) points out that the environmental engineer is responsible for "providing engineering leadership to programs of hazardous waste control, noise abatement, public safety, resource conservation, toxic substances control, regional planning and land use, and literally hundreds of others." These duties, Fanning points out, are in addition to traditional environmental engineering duties such as the construction of wastewater treatment plants and sanitary engineering tasks.

"Engineering careers in environmental protection are wonderfully diverse. That's one of the most exciting things about them," says Mariella Puerto, director of the Diversity Initiatives at the Environmental Careers Organization.

"I think the secret is out about environmental engineering," says Puerto. "There has been a steady increase in the number of people of color pursuing this direction over the last few years. We still have a long way to go, however."

The growth of the environmental engineering field is part of the overall growth in environmental careers, a field which includes not only engineers and scientists, but a wide variety of social sciences, arts, and humanities professionals, as well. According to Environmental Business International (EBI), a San Diego research and publishing firm, the environmental industry is expected to grow at nearly six percent per year during the next five years. However, other observers believe this figure to be conservative.

Over the last eight years, the environmental industry has gone on a roller coaster ride that included a spectacular 16 percent per year growth from 1986-88, a 14 percent increase in 1989, 10 percent in 1990, and slower growth in the early 1990s. Companies in environmental areas such as "environmental energy sources," air pollution control, environmental consulting, hazardous waste management, and "resource recovery" are leading the way in an industry that generated over $150 billion in revenues last year.

As rapid as the growth of the private sector "environmental industry" has been, it has been matched by a significant increase in local, state, and federal government employment. The combined impact of government and private spending has created a collection of environmental programs that employ as many as 2,000,000 Americans and will involve expenditures of over a trillion dollars by the end of the century. In both the private and public sectors, the creation of new and expanded environmental initiatives has meant an increase in the demand for environmental engineers.

The U.S. Department of Energy alone expects to spend $40 billion on environmental problems from 1993 to 1997 and has predicted serious concerns about where the thousands of environmental engineers the effort we'll need will come from. …