2000 Salary survey

Aug 01, 2000

The only thing the respondents to Environmental Protection magazine's 2000 salary survey seemed to agree on is that compensation in the environmental industry is inadequate. The reasons given for this inadequacy, however, varied greatly.

The trend toward mergers and downsizing in the environmental industry was a culprit chosen by many of the respondents. This, combined with the natural maturation of the field and the entrenched attitude of many managers that environmental compliance is a waste of time and money, has resulted in lower salaries for many workers, according to many of our survey's respondents.

"More and more companies are merging and downsizing causing a glut of displaced environmental personnel. As the job market becomes increasingly saturated, many top-notch professionals are willing to work for much less than their real value," said a project manager from Lake Elsinore, Calif.

"Maturing of industry, mergers and downsizing efforts have more people pursuing fewer jobs," agreed a professional engineer from Overland Park, Kan. "Most companies that are not primarily in the environmental field see environmental compliance as only a costly burden."

As a result, more companies seem to be consolidating several compliance jobs into one, overall position. "The trend is toward combining environmental and health/safety specialists to cut out a position — which can lead to more work for the same or marginally more pay," a plant level manager from Laurinburg, N.C. said. More work for the same pay was a common complaint among respondents. "As we are forced to do more with less, my salary has been the same for several years," said Charles Hursh, an environmental and safety manager in Pa. "More responsibility, more work, higher expectations - same pay. After 16 years in this field, some days I consider making a change."

"Economic pressures are requiring the environmental professional to be a jack of all trades," a regulatory compliance specialist in El Segundo, Calif. observed. "We are constantly being asked to do more with less. With the complexity of new environmental regulations and the lack of time available to understand the gaps between state and federal requirements, the environmental professional (and his management) is at risk for fines and jail time for missing reporting requirements and deadlines."

Not everyone sees the consolidation as a necessarily bad trend, however. An Arlington, Va., corporate level manager said, "I believe there are exciting opportunities to combine law and environmental management to be industry consultants (in-house counsel or environmental managers) as regulations will only tighten in coming years."

Consulting and outsourcing

Many projects are now being given to outside consultants. However, according to our respondents, because of the many consultants available due to industry cutbacks, salary in this profession is also slack. "I think that the consulting field has an abundance of professionals and this may impact the salary trends in the lower direction. Supply and demand," commented a Sacramento, Calif. division level manager.

"Salaries are not increasing as fast in the environmental consulting field as other technical fields due to the increased competition of the environmental consulting business for a smaller number of projects," an Englewood, Colo. project manager said.

Still, some seem to feel consulting is the better job choice. "The consulting firm that I work for pays less and has less generous benefits (particularly vacation and sick time) than our industrial clients. However, this office is quick to reward hard work with additional opportunities for growth and with modest financial rewards. I enjoy the variety in projects, clients and industries that come with working for a consulting firm," said a professional engineer in Houston. "I get the impression that most of our client contacts are overworked and spread too thin, which is why they turn to us for help."

An Irvine, Calif. consultant concurred, saying, "Continual pressure on outsourcing and downsizing makes it better for professionals to be consultants. Once one gains the experience and reputation, consulting is the best way to do good work and control your own destiny."

Industry job growth

Survey respondents were divided on the prospect of job growth in the environmental industry. While some felt the environment, and thus the environmental profession, is becoming an issue of greater social importance, others said state and federal regulations were becoming less strict, leading to the eventual evisceration of the industry.

"Current trends that will factor into environmental professionals' salaries include enforcement, and the lack thereof, on the parts of the regulatory community to compel cleanup, among other things," Scott Buwalda, PG, a West Palm Beach, Fla. division level manager and geologist said. "Without the county regulatory activity in the southeastern Florida area, we would all be doing just Phase I and II ESAs, with little, if any, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act clean closures, dry cleaner assessment and remediation and petroleum underground storage tank closures."

"With the passage of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act came strong regulations that caused a great environmental awareness and much improvement in the quality of our air and water," said Eric Braly, a senior environmental specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. "Due to the relatively great success of that early fervor, there currently seems to be a trend toward a general easing of regulatory requirements. This trend may signal a 'return swing of the pendulum' which would not bode well for the salaries of environmental professionals. The fact that regulations become more lax also dictates that fewer environmental professionals will be needed in industry as well as government," he said.

On the more positive side, Lynda Craine, a general supervisor of environmental health at a Newport, Mich. power plant, said, "I think that companies are starting to see the importance of environmental issues. This leads to greater respect of the environmental professionals on staff, thus greater salaries." A regulatory compliance specialist in San Marcos, Calif. agreed, saying, "Salaries will continually increase as the need for these positions continue to grow. The amount of information and the ever-changing regulation will fuel the need for persons specializing in the environmental field, not as a secondary job function."

"'Green investors' will force companies to manufacture their products in an environmentally efficient manner," said a College Station, Texas consultant. "Professionals who are poised to provide solutions that are both environmentally and economically attractive will be rewarded."

The environmental industry in the 21st century

"The environmental field is part of the 'old economy' and is not participating in the current boom economy driven by financial services and technology companies. Therefore, working in the old economy, we should continue to expect single digit raises, while those participating in new economy ventures will continue to see their salaries grow quickly. It's a bit of a depressing outlook," lamented a New York project manager.

These "new economy" companies (as well as other, better paying engineering positions) are attractive lures to the computer-savvy environmental professional. "More demand for engineers in other fields (transportation, computer) is making it more difficult to fill out an entry level position in the environmental field," said a Philadelphia, Penn. professional engineer.

"Engineering positions in our area go unfilled for months because all qualified engineers are snapped up by the dotcoms," a Menlo Park, Calif. division level staff member confirmed. "We have to hire 'specialists' and scientists' with less technical know-how for compliance issues." However, this trend may prove beneficial in the long run to those in the environmental industry. "Salaries are becoming much more competitive among technical staff in the environmental field due the tight job market. So many people are leaving environmental work to work for internet/high tech companies that we have to compensate more to convince the good people to stay," a Denver, Colo. project manager said.

If a company cannot convince, or is not interested in convincing, the more qualified (and higher-paid) professionals to stay at their current positions, high turnover and under-qualified job applicants can be the result. "Annual legislative decisions to award merit-based salary increases in the range of 0.5 percent to 4 percent create lots of turnover. A regulatory agency is a jumping ground to better-paying jobs inside or out of the agency. My program's turnover is high at around 25 percent, observed during one and a half years in my current position. Until the legislature equates state employees with their private consultant counterparts, turnover will probably remain high. Supposedly, the private sector and the public sector salaries are slowly approaching each other, or just maybe the private sector employee is getting paid less now?" said a Phoenix, Ariz. scientist.

"An increasing number of non-science, non-engineering majors (i.e. engineering management) entering the field, particularly within regulatory agencies, has caused a deterioration in overall professionalism, as well as salary decline," complained a Houston, Texas consultant.

"I see salaries dropping or leveling out because the trend is to hire less skilled individuals to manage compliance. There are less engineers and more associates degrees," a regulatory compliance specialist in Grand Island, Neb. concluded. An Atlanta corporate level staff member said, "Over the past several years, as the larger consulting firms down-sized (especially the ones with large government-type contracts), the trend was to lay off or cap salaries of 'seasoned' professionals and hire cheaper, inexperienced labor."

This emphasis by industry on short-term financial savings could prove disastrous, however. "Salaries have appeared to stagnate until corporations again see an increase in liability due to the sacrifice of experienced professionals/specialists for lower-paid entry level personnel or generalists," a Decatur, Ill. regulatory compliance specialist observed. Karen Struif, an environmental scientist with an environmental consulting firm in Rolling Meadows, Ill., agreed. "The company spends less money on salaries; however it faces a greater long term risk in regard to litigation," she said.

Steps to securing better salary

There is no one way to ensure higher compensation (although several respondents did propose the idea of an environmental professionals' union), but knowledge of the latest regulations can make an employee integral to a company's success. Keeping current on certifications is one way to do this. "The more certifications, the better the money," said Sean Barnes, a Middletown, NJ consultant. Pursuing a higher degree is another. "I am doing the job of three people and getting paid $5,000 less than I would with a higher degree, despite my 11 years of experience in the field," said a regulatory compliance specialist from Charlottsville, Va.

"Become an Internet expert," a Boston regulatory compliance specialist suggested. "Business to business applications in the environmental field will dominate the industry in the very near future." Several respondents also mentioned the importance of being knowledgeable about ISO 14000 certification requirements.

Finally, it may be up to the individual environmental professional to demonstrate to management that environmental compliance is not merely a necessary evil or a drain on company profits. Selling or reusing a process's byproduct, instituting a quality management involvement program or investigating the possibilities of emission reduction credits can save, or even make a company tens of thousands of dollars. "Environmental professionals have the capacity to save a corporation more money in one week than he or she will earn in one year," a Spindale, NC regulatory compliance specialist said.


Eight hundred and sixty eight environmental professionals responded to this salary survey, published both in the print and online versions of Environmental Protection magazine. For calculation purposes, the average was used in obtaining the above figures. This should not be considered a statistically valid survey, but rather an informal representation of our readership.

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This article appeared in Environmental Protection magazine, August 2000, Vol. 11, No. 8, p.16.