The Environmental Health Workforce-NEHA's Workforce Development Committee
Roberts, Welford C., Journal of Environmental Health
When I ran for second vice president of NEHA, one of my platform items was "workforce development." Subsequently, I volunteered to chair the NEHA workforce development committee, which I have been privileged to do for the past several years. Workforce development is very important to the overall health, vitality, and longevity of our profession. NEHA has to be committed to identify and address issues that affect the environmental health workforce. Soon, I will turn over the chairmanship to another NEHA board member, but I will continue to support NEHA workforce development efforts. In this column I will present the progress of the NEHA workforce development committee and the proposed approach that it has identified to address environmental health workforce development needs and issues.
As I began to explore environmental health workforce development, a few issues immediately became evident. One issue is the source of our future environmental health workforce, i.e., the "pipeline." I served on eight Crumbine Consumer Protection Award juries and have reviewed 30 or more applications. It was not uncommon to see descriptions of environmental health and food safety programs throughout the nation taking innovative approaches to acquire people to work in food safety and other environmental health programs. One example is that they would hire individuals with little or no environmental health academic education, but usually with some type of science background, and provide them with a variety of short courses and on-the-job training to teach them what they needed to know in order to function in environmental health.
Thus, we need to increase the number of college students who major in environmental health at institutions with accredited environmental health programs. Our colleagues in academia, the Association for Environmental Health Academic Programs (AEHAP), and the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council (EHAC) are doing a very good job in my opinion to increase the number of students coming into the major. In fact, at our last NEHA board meeting, the AEHAP/EHAC executive director reported that student enrollment in environmental health programs is increasing nationally. While this trend is encouraging, even with the increase, there are vast areas of the U.S. that do not have colleges or universities with environmental health programs. A question that I still have is, how will such a trend of increasing students satisfy the need for trained environmental health professionals nationally? This takes me to my next workforce development issue.
We need to know the number of people who are employed in environmental health positions. If we do not know this, then how will we know when we have sufficient numbers of environmental health majors to fill workforce needs? During my research, I never was able to find a definitive number. The most recent survey that I reviewed focused on the public health workforce and was conducted in 2007 by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO). They estimated that within the public health workforce, there were about 9,000 environmental health workers. This number, however, only reflected people associated with state health departments. This survey did not identify environmental health workers in programs that are outside of health departments, e.g., a department of environment, department of environmental quality, or similarly named organization. Also, those in the federal sector, private industry, academia, and the uniformed services were not counted. Thus, there is a current need for a comprehensive enumeration of the environmental health workforce. The survey did, however, identify major areas of concern for the public health workforce, including the environmental health workforce, e.g., an aging workforce, a continuing worker shortage, and barriers in overcoming the crisis (budget constraints, noncompetitive wages, lack of visibility of the profession, etc. …