1999 Salary Survey

Aug 01, 1999

More quotes from our readers

"Too many dogs chasing too few bones." One reader's gloomy characterization of the environmental job market was echoed by many of our survey respondents. The environmental industry has matured; a spate of mergers and acquisitions has led to layoffs and a glutted job market; government cleanup funds have shrunk. But do the facts really justify such a pessimistic view of today's environmental job market?

There can be no question that the "half-empty" camp can provide plenty of arguments to back up its position. A flood of mergers and acquisitions - with concomitant layoffs, especially in middle management - has dramatically increased competition in many sectors of the environmental job market.

"Mergers and acquisitions and relaxed regulatory enforcement are decimating jobs in all but very large consulting firms," said Russell Powers, a consultant in southern California. According to Scott Maris, a regulatory compliance specialist in Wayne, Mich., "In the hazardous waste sector of the environmental market, industry consolidation has reduced the number of corporate level environmental positions ... It has created a sense that the days are numbered for many in this sector of the environmental market."

A competitive market, coupled with the maturation of the environmental industry, has impacted private sector salaries. A regulatory compliance specialist in Dayton, Ohio, noted, "Salaries appear to be stagnant, with mostly cost-of-living increases." A project manager in Fresno, Calif., concurred. "I see environmental professionals' salaries flattening out in response to a more mature environmental market. The trend in salaries will be upward but at a very gentle rise."

Government employees face the same trend. "State regulatory environmental engineering salaries have been flat, with only 1 to 3 percent raises in the last four years. In general, environmental engineering is undervalued compared to other engineering fields," said Jack Saltes, an engineer and regulatory compliance specialist in Dodgeville, Wis.

Employees are not the only ones feeling the pinch. One owner of a commercial full-service environmental laboratory commented, "Environmental labs need to be more profitable to yield salary increases. If we're not showing a profit, how can we give raises or bonuses?"

Due to downward pressure on salaries in some sectors of the environmental industry, highly qualified individuals are finding it difficult to find jobs that pay them what they are worth. Many professionals are lured away by the promise of higher pay in other fields. A project manager who works in manufacturing in Conroe, Texas, lamented, "Our environmental group is losing the most computer-literate employees to that industry, due to the disparity in pay. Plant level environmental managers are moving to engineering and consulting firms for the same reason."

Jeffrey Bertacchi, a trainer who works for the government in Columbus, Ohio, noted, "I find that many municipalities are reducing both staff and salaries in an attempt to be more competitive with the private sector. While this bodes well for the rate payer, I find it more difficult to get competent, able individuals to enter the environmental field."

In order to remain within the environmental industry, and still realize significant salary increases, environmental professionals often find it necessary to change jobs. "People tend to move from place to place because companies tend to give low salaries. So you have to go through several companies before you finally get to where you should be," said a health and safety supervisor in Holden, Mass. "The only way to get a 30 to 40 percent increase is to jump."

Another way to boost salary is by concentrating on areas of the industry that are growing, creating opportunities for versatile individuals willing to adapt their skills to new situations. The hottest fields for employment at the moment include brownfields redevelopment, industrial and municipal wastewater treatment, instrumentation sales and military environmental work.

A cost center
One reason many environmental professionals' compensation is limited is that their department is often viewed as a resouce-draining "cost center" by management. One project manager in Sacramento, Calif., wrote, "Environmental concerns impact our lives daily, but it is not a profit-making business. Therefore, professionals in these field are under-compensated."

To save costs, many firms are employing workers on an hourly basis, or outsourcing many responsibilities previously handled in-house. Some companies are also relying on bonuses rather than salary increases to reward workers. "Companies are pursuing ways to limit base salaries (which are used to compute benefits) and are favoring lump sum bonuses," commented a regulatory compliance specialist in Columbus, Ohio.

Management at industrial facilities often does not view the role of environmental specialist as vital to the business. "Many compliance functions are seen as frills, not necessities, until there's a problem with a regulator. If the company has a history of few or no 'regulator problems,' the compliance professional may be viewed as a frill as well," wrote a regulatory compliance specialist at a Knoxville, Tenn., laboratory.

The same attitude seems to prevail in the safety field. One safety specialist in New Holland, Penn., said, "I think that safety professionals are not seen as a needed entity in the manufacturing sector. Therefore, we cannot command the salaries that we truly deserve. I'm considering a career change."

Another engineer employed in manufacturing in Williston, S.C., commented, "I don't think environmental issues and their complexity are fully understood by upper management. As such, management discounts my environmental duties as something a lesser-skilled person could do, and therefore a lesser salary should be the order of the day."

To save money, many companies are downsizing seasoned staff in established programs and replacing them with recent graduates. One environmental and safety specialist in Montgomery, Ala., wrote that it's "hard to compete with people who are willing to accept less compensation! The industry is willing to take a chance on less practical or field experience."

Doing more with less
Environmental personnel are held accountable by upper management and regulators, but are not always given the funding and support to ensure compliance with increasingly complex regulatory requirements. In addition, professionals employed by in-house environmental departments are finding themselves burdened with many extra responsibilities.

In today's competitive market, environmental professionals are finding the need to become generalists who can provide support in many different areas. Having a broad knowledge base is becoming critical as the environmental, health and safety fields are merging into one. For better or for worse, the trend is to integrate many different duties into one job.

Wearing many hats
"Environmental functions are being rolled into other job titles and roles. Environmental managers have taken on quality, maintenance, health and safety roles. Often, these additional responsibilities are not backed up with training or compensation," said Jenelle Reick, a regulatory compliance specialist in Milwaukee.

Many professionals expressed their frustration with what they see as an inevitable decline in quality as these fields merge. A facilities engineer in Clyde, N.Y., wrote, "I'm handicapped in my profession because I do both maintenance and environmental jobs." Nick Thielen, an environmental engineer in Minneapolis, commented, "What upper management fails to value is technical experts. They see environmental as safety spelled differently. As someone who has seen both, they are very different."

However, not all environmental professionals are unhappy with this trend. Robert Trapani, who works in marine transportation in San Francisco, wrote, "As a safety officer and trainer, I am responsible for environmental duties. I see the safety officer wearing many hats: i.e., trainer, supervisor and environmental manager. I like the work; it's challenging."

Adapt to survive
Some professionals, like Trapani, are taking an upbeat approach to adapting to a changing market. "Broad experience and good communication skills are the key to higher salaries," wrote David Bean, a project manager in Charleston, W.V. To survive, environmental professionals must become versatile and willing to expand their area of expertise.

"An individual with environmental but not safety experience (or vice versa) will probably not command the salary nor find new employment as easily," said Roberta Reed, an environmental health and safety engineer in Irvine, Calif. "We need to be generalists with a broad knowledge in many areas, utilizing consultants for more complicated issues."

Change - the only constant?
Other factors impact salaries. The industry, being regulation-driven, is heavily dependent on shifts in political climate. "I see salary as being directly proportional to the environmental stance taken by politics," said Joe Habib, an engineer in Port Washington, N.Y. Another reader wrote, "Should Al Gore be elected president, expect some draconian (and unnecessary) environmental bills to pass that will increase demand for environmental professionals."

Certain U.S. regions may also experience more growth than others. States taking a tough stance on environmental issues, such as California, create jobs for environmental professionals. Similarly, with utility deregulation on the horizon, demand for specialists in that field is expected to increase, driving up salaries.

However, the greatest challenge for environmental professionals is justifying their existence in a business climate dominated by deference to the bottom line. Demonstrating that being environmentally proactive not only complies with the law, but also can generate cost savings, can raise an environmental specialist's profile in his or her organization. "Cost savings from environmentalism will be at the forefront of most industry priorities," wrote Jim Parrish, a consultant in Springfield, Ohio.

Environmental professionals can save companies significant money through waste minimization projects and by reducing the risk of fines and lawsuits. Cost savings can translate into higher salaries.

"The biggest impact on an environmental professional's salary is a candidate's past experience and ability to generate cost savings," said one health and safety supervisor in Maysville, Ky. "Nothing adds more than proof of what an environmental professional can save a company's bottom line." Roger Johnson, a plant level staffer in Detroit, advised that to improve your salary "you have to be active at a process level - not end of pipe."

Another reader summed up the new mantra for environmental specialists seeking better financial remuneration: "A move toward integrating business values into the environmental arena will reward environmental managers that make this transition."

Beyond the bottom line
While the business world pursues the almighty dollar, the role of the environmental professional is to help balance the desire for profit with the need for responsible stewardship of natural resources. A certain level of idealism is inherent in this industry, and like many professions of this nature, compensation does not always take a purely monetary form. Sometimes it is the intangible rewards that keep environmental professionals in the field, by making them feel they are making a valuable contribution to the society of today and tomorrow.

Diane Bailey, an air planner who works for the area council in Houston, expressed the dilemma many environmental professionals face. "It's one hell of a hard choice to work for government or non-profit and get paid a whole lot less for the same work. But hopefully the work is more satisfying!"

"Because our profession is not always seen as one that adds to productivity, the salaries may not increase at the same rate as others. We may continue in the profession because we enjoy the work, not the monetary gain," wrote Glenn Soyer, Des Moines, Iowa.

The tradeoff between material and intangible rewards need not plague environmental professionals who learn to combine regulatory compliance with attention to the bottom line. By integrating the two, both environmental professionals and their employers can come out ahead.

Two hundred and ninety-five environmental professionals returned the salary survey published in our March 1999 issue. Some respondents gave an expected salary or bonus range instead of exact figures; for tabulation purposes, the mean was used. Several categories received fewer than 10 responses. This should not be considered a statistically valid survey, but rather an informal representation of EP's readership.

More quotes from our readers
"The trend is a continuation of the same: Do more with less. Salaries of environmental professionals seem to be growing at a similar rate as salaries of other professionals in my industrial sector. The big difference is that there is growing pressure to accomplish the same amount of work with fewer people."
- Division level staffer, Coffeyville, Kan.

"Even in the management area, the more with less philosophy that many of us pioneered is beginning to affect us negatively."
- Chuck McDonald, division level manager, Vancouver, Wash.

"If the PRPs potentially responsible parties in Superfund cases don't pay their in-house people, they'll have to pay the consultants even more!"
- Project manager, Conroe, Texas

"ISO 14000 EMS will become more dominant in 1999. In addition, there will be more regulatory requirements placed on industry that will require additional internal and external resources. However, the current EH&S managers will bear this extra burden but most likely will receive no additional help, education or increase in compensation."
- William D. Judd, EH&S manager, Woburn, Mass.

"My female counterparts are underrated and underpaid."
- Mike Webb, regulatory compliance specialist, Kimball, Neb.

"There are fewer high-level jobs, and managers with 25 years of experience are too high-priced compared to younger people."
- Corporate level manager in her 50s, Lawrenceville, N.J.

"The more experience you have, the more difficult it is to get a better job."
- Joe Candee, engineer, Cleveland

"As a result of the spectacular advances in the financial markets the last 10 years, a lot of 'mature' environmental professionals with hefty 401(k) retirement accounts will take early retirement options and be employed as part-time independent contractors and consultants."
- Project manager in his 50s

"With implementation of the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), professionals will need to become more knowledgeable about product safety, toxicology and regulatory procedures."
- Regulatory compliance specialist/health and safety supervisor, Cherry Hill, N.J.

"The effect of privatization is changing the function and character of government-type utilities, affecting the benefits and goals of professionals in this field."
- Regulatory compliance specialist, Orlando, Fla.

"Recruitment of competent and qualified staff is much more difficult due to competition from outside the industry."
- Project manager, San Bernadino, Calif.

"A lot of people - with no experience - are continuing to flood the EH&S field. As a result, job announcements in EH&S receive hundreds of resumes and drive down salaries. In addition, entry-level professionals appear to be less and less qualified and trained: We must train them and then work to retain them."
- Walter Leclerc III, division level manager, Sunnyvale, Calif.

"Being a generalist helps when clients need a single point-of-contact for dealing with issues."
- Division level manager, Rockville, Md.

"Graduate programs in environmental management like Illinois Institute of Technology's in Chicago will become the minimum credential for career professionals."
- Bob O'Neill, CHMM, engineer, Broadview, Ill.

Check out Environmental Protection's online Employment Resources section for job and industry association links, as well as an employment discussion forum for posting resumes or job descriptions, at www.eponline.com/employment.html.

Please see our August print edition for detailed information on salary statistics.

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