Walter C. Barber

The following is a summary of remarks made by Walter C. Barber to attendees at the AGI conference on careers in the geosciences held in Houston on February 28, 1999.  The purpose of the discussion was to review career opportunities and skill requirements for careers in the environmental field.


My remarks today will focus on skill requirements and career opportunities in the environmental field.  I have been working in the field for almost 30 years as a Federal regulatory official, a corporate environmental manager and as president of an environmental services company.

AGIís data indicate that about  20,000 people or about 20% of geoscience professionals are employed in environmentally related positions.  Of these about 25% work for government agencies, 25% for industrial corporations and about 50% for professional services companies. In my former company, Groundwater Technology, about 1/3 of our employees were geoscientists.  Our peak employment in 1992 was about 1800 people and we had about 600 geoscientists or 2-3% of the total.

Most of the positions for geoscientists in the environmental field were created in the past 20 years. Public concern about contaminated soil and groundwater reached its peak in the early 1980ís and resulted in the creation of the remediation industry. Jobs were created for government officials, for environmental managers in oil companies and other industries and for environmental service suppliers. Fortuitously, many of these jobs were created just as the oil industry was reducing the number of geoscientists it employed.

The fact is that in 1999, most of the significant risks to public health and the environment associated with soil and groundwater contaminated as a result of improper waste storage and disposal have been eliminated or significantly reduced.   The things we saw on the TV and in the newspapers  in the late 1970ís and early 1980ís Ė leaking tanks and drums and ponds of liquids and sludge are virtually all gone. In fact, most were gone by 1990 Ė ten years after the enactment of the Superfund legislation.

We are not going to create problems like these again. Industry has changed  business practices and now watches waste disposal much more carefully.  Government has adopted stringent regulations regarding waste management and disposal practices. These regulations require careful monitoring and measurement of waste generation, transport and disposal.

The rate of problem generation is now and will continue to be a small fraction of what it was in the past. Remember that in the past 20 years, we have cleaned up the contamination resulting from 100 years of casual and improper disposal practices.  As a result, the demand for geoscientists in the environmental remediation industry is declining and will continue to decline.

Geoscientists will have to develop new skills to adopt themselves to future markets.  Likely targets are water supply and minerals extraction in the developing world where most of the severe water shortages will appear and where most of the previously untapped mineral deposits are being discovered.

Government has been involved in the geosciences for a long time. Water supply has been a long standing concern of government as have erosion control, mining  and mine waste disposal, other geoscience issues. However, these did not drive the environmental movement of the 1960ís and 1970ís. What brought the big change was intense, visible urban contamination of air and surface water combined with new evidence that many common chemicals and pesticides may pose a threat to public health.

Toward the end of this environmental awakening, the Love Canal problem burst onto the scene in 1978.  This and other abandoned waste storage and disposal sites created a terrific political opportunity for those who saw the need for more stringent control of waste disposal practices. The then Administrator of EPA, Doug Costle, used the opportunity to lobby to get the Superfund legislation passed. Every Congressman had an abandoned waste site in their district. Since abandoned waste sites did not have employees who voted or made political contributions, it was common for politicians to ďstump the dumpsĒ proclaiming grave risks to children in neighboring areas and calling for more stringent laws and regulations.

The result was a tidal wave of legislation and regulations from both Federal and state governments. The most significant and influential being the Superfund statute - which brought with it the novel concept of joint and several liability for prior waste disposal practices. This was a fearful prospect for the boards of directors and executives of major industrial companies and as a result, they scrambled to get sites closed or to separate themselves from the liability. They hired people who in turn hired service companies to help them characterize their problems, design solutions, obtain permits and ultimately to remediate sites.

Geoscientists were in demand. Throughout the 1980ís, a geoscientist simply needed a degree to get a good paying job.  The professional service market and the companies in it grew at a rate of 20% per year throughout the decade hiring and promoting thousands of people along the way. Our company went from revenues of just a few million dollars per year in 1980 to $100 million in 1989 and $200 million in 1992 with corresponding increases in staffing to a peak of almost 2,000 in that 12 year period.

Unfortunately, since the opportunity was limited by a finite number of sites and finite mass of contamination and a finite reservoir of public interest and concern (willingness to pay), the growth rate could not be sustained. The remediation industry as a whole had grown from virtually nothing in 1980  to $10 billion per year in the early 1990ís before it began its decline. The public outcry and emotion of the early 1980ís began to dissipate and regulators began to take more reasoned approaches to setting cleanup requirements.  Treatment began to be replaced by less costly containment and trace amounts of contamination were allowed to dissipate naturally.  Companies delayed remediation and reduced spending.

More importantly for geoscientists, the study phase of many projects drew to a close and the projects moved into the construction phase creating and increased demand for engineers and constructors and a decreased demand for geoscientists.

The professional services companies saw this shift coming and began to diversify into construction services for into related fields such as wastewater or infrastructure engineering. Recognizing that remediation was a one cycle market, they redirected their marketing and hiring away from contaminated site characterization and toward design and construction, substituting engineers for geoscientists on their staffs.

Compounding the problem has been significant market pressure for lower costs.  For professional services firms to become more efficient they must work their people harder.  This pressure tends to force out expenditures and time for the retraining of geoscientists to enable them to participate in new market areas. Further, it causes companies to replace the more expensive geoscientists they hired 10 or 15 years ago with less expensive, less experienced people.  This leaves the mid-career environmental geoscientist in a difficult situation just as they become faced with the family demands for increased security and income  that many of us saw when we were about 15 years into our careers.

As a result, what a decade ago looked like great careers have frequently stalled at a time where the affected individual may have another 30 years to work. Given their unrelenting drive for efficiency and cost reduction, neither industry nor the service companies can be expected to respond to this situation with investments in training.  The geoscientists will have to take this responsibility themselves and will have to rely of the academic community to develop and deliver basic and advance education opportunities which prepare them do deal with the demands of changing markets.

For students now in or about to enter the university system, it is important that they develop transferable skills in areas such as project management, communication , and business management so they can contribute to successful projects and business enterprises in a variety of market situations.

There will continue to be environmental issues and many people will find successful and rewarding careers working on solutions to environmental problems. It is an important public interest area, but the issues have changed and will continue to change. For example, global warming and its impacts on shorelines, weather patterns and agriculture will present numerous opportunities for geoscientists. However, these opportunities will emerge slowly as the problem becomes better defined and as impacts begin to be seen.  It remains unclear what the ultimate significance of the issue will prove to be.  Unfortunately, the career opportunities will develop slowly over the next decade or two and will not provide near term relief for those adversely affected by the current decline in remediation opportunities.

An alternative direction might be remediation type opportunities in other parts of the world where the regulations and markets are less well developed than here in the United States.  Unfortunately, the most significant opportunities are probably in eastern Europe where the problems exist, but the political will and financial resources do not. The developing world does not have the long history of industrial production and waste disposal that we have here and in Europe and again the developing countries have more pressing demands on their financial resources.

The best international opportunities will lie in the areas of water supply and minerals development.  To participate in these markets our geoscientists will have to compete with those of other countries and will have to become more tolerant of international travel and extended overseas assignments if they are going to succeed.

As noted above, skill areas which should be better developed include project management, business management and communication.  Universities could teach project management skills by changing the way assignments are given and evaluated.  Team assignments with a division of work and measurable individual contributions would help.  Requirements for the early submission of schedules, budgets and interim submissions would better parallel the real world conduct of projects and would lay the foundations for successful participation on project teams.

Communication skills are essential for success.  Students must learn how to prepare and present their work to a variety of audiences.  In the environmental field these will include government officials, public interest groups and frequently clients.  Writing skills are critical, but must be accompanied by presentation skills.  Again, these can be developed and reinforced as part of the courses in the geosciences and need not be separate classes in speech or writing.  Industry cannot and will not take the time to teach the fundamentals. It will help people advance their skills through on the job training and selected supplemental course work, but will not teach fundamentals.

In summary, there will be career opportunities for geoscientists in the environmental field.  However, there will be fewer jobs in the remediation of contaminated soil and groundwater.  Successful geoscientists will be flexible, mobile and will develop a pattern of lifelong learning to enable them to move into new fields and markets as they emerge. Key, transferable skills will include project management, communication and business management.