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Professionals comment on working in Hydrogeology and Environmental Geology

Jessica Donovan, ENVIRON
Philip E. LaMoreaux, LaMoreaux and Associates
Russell G. Slayback, Leggette Brashears & Graham, Inc.
David A. Stephenson, South Pass Resources, Inc.


Jessica Donovan
ENVIRON
Emeryville, California

Following a decade of rapid growth in the 1980s, the environmental industry is in a period of transition. When I first entered the job market in 1977 with a master's degree in geology, environmental consulting did not exist as such. With the passage of federal legislation, such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1980 and Superfund, the "command and control" era of environmental regulation began in the U.S.

As companies responded to comply with the new regulations, demand was high for front-end site investigations to assess existing land disposal areas, surface impoundments, underground tanks, and other hazardous-waste management facilities. This work drew heavily on traditional geoscience skills to obtain and interpret subsurface data to identify what contaminants may have been released and how they were distributed in subsurface media. Soil and rock samples were collected by drilling and other methods to piece together the stratigraphic framework through which ground water flowed. Methods developed to characterize high-permeability water-supply aquifers were adapted to the low-permeability conditions where many of the contaminated sites were situated.

Currently, the U.S. market for environmental work is maturing, evolving from front-end site investigations to remediation and engineering solutions. At the same time, the regulatory climate is evolving (sometimes sporadically) from a rigid command-and-control structure to a more flexible risk-based approach. Finally, international initiatives such as ISO 14000 are driving the integration of environmental activities into the business process itself. This will likely result in greater focus on considering environmental effects during product development, waste minimization, resource recovery, and pollution prevention.

Given the rapidly changing nature of the industry, it is difficult to predict future employment with any accuracy. However, the following trends are evident:

  • The size of the U.S. market has stabilized (i.e., you will no longer see the dramatic growth, proliferation of new firms, and attendant hiring of the 1980s);
  • This is a period of merger and consolidation for environmental consulting and remediation firms, resulting in an increasingly bimodal distribution between very large multi-service companies and smaller specialized niche firms;
  • There is still investigation work to be done, particularly by large firms with DOD and DOE contracts;
  • There appears to be an increasing focus on basic resources (water supply) and associated infrastructure.
With this context, there will continue to be a need for geoscientists. The multidisciplinary nature of the earth sciences and the study of natural systems are fundamental to environmental assessment. Understanding the geochemistry of inorganic compounds and how speciation affects biological availability and potential for environmental migration is becoming increasingly important in developing risk-based remediation goals. Research in areas such as chemical-transport mechanisms (e.g., chemical interactions with mineral surfaces), improved modeling of contaminated soil and ground-water systems, and the role of microbes in the subsurface has led to innovations in remediation technology. However, applying the best technology at a particular site requires a sound understanding of site hydrogeology.

For a student interested in a career in the environmental industry, a broad background in the geosciences will continue to be important. This includes a strong grounding in the basic sciences, particularly chemistry, along with math, statistics, and computer science. Recommended courses include stratigraphy, structural geology, mineralogy, hydrogeology, geochemistry of natural systems, and a good field class. I can't overemphasize the importance of excellent written and verbal communication skills, since a large part of your job will be to communicate technical results to company managers, regulators and the public. Given that international work is becoming increasingly important, foreign language skills are an asset as well.

An excellent resource for obtaining additional information is the AGI member societies, which welcome student members. Most have newsletters; if you can attend meetings, it is a great way to meet people working in your field of interest.

In the current climate of change, combining geoscience training with other disciplines such as engineering, or a technical degree coupled with an MBA, provides the greatest flexibility.

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Philip E. LaMoreaux
LaMoreaux and Associates
Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Many young people become interested in rocks, fossils, minerals, and geology at a very young age. The American Geological Institute (AGI) has a number of publications directed at kindling this interest. Also, there are abundant commercial booklets and collections on this subject for sale. The "birth" of a geologist can begin at an early age.

High-school courses for future geoscientists should include algebra, calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology. English and communication capability, typing, computer, and public speaking should also be included. One should also develop hobbies such as collecting rocks and minerals and, if possible, get a summer job with a state or federal agency or a geoscience consulting firm.

Undergraduate courses at a university should include a good basic arts-and-science program, preferably at a smaller institution with emphasis on mathematics (including calculus), physics, and chemistry. Future hydrogeologists or environmental scientists must pursue course work in physical and structural geology, historical geology, sedimentation and stratigraphy, geomorphology, hydrogeology, and/or environmental geology. A geologic field-camp course is a must.

Graduate training requires identification of an area of specialization. Most graduate schools have flexible entrance requirements; however, graduate-level course work in hydrogeology requires a substantial amount of specific training in geology, stratigraphy, structure, and depositional environments directed toward a detailed description of aquifer characteristics. Continued advanced work in mathematics, particularly calculus, is beneficial. Courses should also be included in geophysics and geochemistry, and in gaining a solid background in engineering principles related to instrumentation, monitoring, data recording, modeling of aquifer characteristics, flow, and pollutant transport. Graduate training should also include practical experience, such as summer work with a state or federal agency or a consulting firm doing research on environmental problems.

In the future, hydrogeology and environmental geology will provide extensive employment opportunities in all aspects of environmental work: waste management of hazardous, toxic and radioactive materials; litigation; underground storage; environmental audits; environmental-impact studies; catastrophic subsidence; landslides; and water-supply development and management.

The employment demand for professionals in this area has already been heightened by the Drinking Water Standards Act, RCRA, CERCLA, and a whole new body of state laws and regulations governing the environment. These regulations will affect many facets of private, agricultural, commercial, and industrial activities. There will also be research and regulatory employment opportunities through tangential state-and-federal government programs.

A broad spectrum of employment will develop at local, state, and federal levels. Examples are programs in the U.S. Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, State Health Departments, State Geological Surveys, Departments of Natural Resources, Departments of Environmental Management, and all corollary activities in industry and the consulting field. Major employment opportunities exist with newly created divisions of environmental management in oil and gas, mining, water-resources development, research institutions, consulting companies and in the academic community.

Geoscientists will be able to contribute to many different levels of society. Great opportunities exist in the environmental area where there is need for vigorous professionals to solve problems and issues related to industrial and resource development. Increasing world population, expanding environmental pressures, and the need to recover more resources, (minerals, water, and energy) ensure that the demand for earth scientists will continue for a long time. Unless these reserves of competent professionals are forthcoming, our nation and the world will face a critical situation.

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Russell G. Slayback
Leggette Brashears & Graham, Inc.
Trumbull, Connecticut

I entered the hydrogeologic consulting field in 1960 largely by accident. After an excellent undergraduate program of some 63 semester hours of geology at Rensselaer and a tour of active duty in the Air National Guard, I found the oil and gas business in one of its periodic downsizing cycles. I scrambled to find any job I could in the geologic field and was lucky to be an acceptable candidate to the first consulting firm in the nation to specialize in ground-water geology, before the term "hydrogeology" had been coined. My career has taken me to major project sites in 21 states, several Canadian provinces and territories, two Caribbean islands and several projects in Yemen. Looking back, I consider myself lucky that the oil business wasn't hiring in 1960, although I might have been richer than I am now.

Hydrogeologic consulting began in the era following World War II and came of age as a profession with the environmental quality concerns that developed in the early 1970s, coinciding with the first Earth Day in 1970. Early consulting hydrogeologists focused most of their attention on the search for, development of, and permitting for water-supply wells for public water supply and for industrial expansion. Water quality was a minimal concern, generally dealing only with natural inorganic ions that might affect taste or cause problems with an industrial process. Oh, how their world has changed!

Since the 1970s, hydrogeologic consulting practices have been dominated by human-generated environmental pollution involving an amazing range of inorganic, organic, biological and radiological contaminants. A modern consulting hydrogeologist must combine a sound understanding of geology and ground-water hydrology, with a thorough grounding in chemistry, physics and biology. To function properly as a consultant, today's hydrogeologist must also have a good understanding of environmental law and in-depth knowledge of federal and state environmental regulations  a formidable challenge in the face of an explosion of new regulations every year. Above all, a consulting hydrogeologist must have convincing communications skills both for written reports and for oral presentations.

Colleges and universities have responded to the environmental-industry explosion by providing thousands of new graduates in hydrogeology, environmental engineering and many of the specialty fields that contribute to environmental investigations, such as chemistry, biology, toxicology, computer modeling. Finding qualified staff to do all of the available consulting work and especially finding experienced project managers was a tough challenge for environmental consulting firms in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the late 1980s supply caught up to demand, and the 1990s brought a national slowdown and reassessment of environmental priorities that is still in progress.

Degree programs in environmental geology or environmental hydrogeology are becoming more common, particularly at the master's-degree level. Most employers of environmental hydrogeologists like to see a well-rounded classical geological education with a summer field camp and field labs at the bachelor's level, buttressed by strong computer training, a minimum of one course in hydrogeology, and evidence of solid writing skills. The most common deficiency employers see in new graduates is poor writing skills. For a master's program, a rigorous curriculum in quantitative hydrogeology, organic and physical chemistry, digital modeling, and environmental problem-solving are beneficial, and electing to do a master's thesis is considered good training for the real world.

Price competition in the environmental consulting market has reopened employment opportunities for bachelor's-degree graduates, but better positions and better opportunities for advancement still lie with master's-degree candidates. The employment picture for Ph.D. graduates is weak in the environmental field of the 1990s, largely because of the intense price competition; most Ph.D. employment opportunities are with very large multidisciplinary firms with secure federal contracts.

The hydrogeology/environmental consulting field tends to attract people who are committed to improving our environment in practical and cost-effective ways. Women are increasingly entering the environmental field, and many are in highly responsible positions. Ethnic-minority job candidates are increasing, with Asians in the lead but relatively few Hispanics, Blacks or Native Americans entering the field. Job prospects for qualified ethnic-minority candidates are strong because of federal and state contracting laws requiring equal-employment opportunity and affirmative-action programs.

Consulting jobs in the environmental field offer an opportunity to spend a good deal of one's early working life outdoors, supervising field investigations or site remediations, and the inevitable monitoring of remedial-system performance. As with any field-oriented career, as a person becomes more senior, desk work becomes more frequent, but many practitioners find ways to keep some field work in their job description. Environmental consulting has become more multidisciplinary as creative ways to evaluate and remediate environmental problems have developed. The environmental hydrogeologist has learned to work hand-in-hand with environmental engineers and other technical professionals, spends an inordinate amount of time working with lawyers for clients, and has become skilled in conveying scientific information to a concerned but lay public.

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David A. Stephenson
South Pass Resources, Inc.
Scottsdale, Arizona

The geologist as consultant - whether as a sole proprietor or as an employee of a multi-national consulting firm - can work on environmental projects ranging from evaluating the seismicity of a potential dam site to developing a dewatering plan for a mine; from identification of the extent of soil/ground-water contamination from a landfill to evaluation of sites for nuclear-waste disposal. Consulting firms are retained by clients that include local, state and federal government agencies; private companies; the mining and petroleum industries; attorneys; research institutes - any entity that might have environmental problems or that would need geoscience, engineering, bioscience or similar expertise.

A sole-practitioner consulting geologist usually promotes a specialty, for example, geochemistry, mineral resource evaluation, or hydrogeology. For the purpose of this essay, my focus will be on larger environmental consulting firms that offer a broad spectrum of geoscience, engineering, bioscience and other capabilities and, therefore, that require a variety of technical employees.

Until very recently, geoscientists have enjoyed an abundance of employment opportunities in environmental consulting, particularly in those firms specializing in the hydrogeologic aspects of soil and ground-water contamination. However, during the past one to two years, the emphasis in consulting has shifted to remediation and the consequent hiring of remedial and chemical engineers. Nevertheless, employment opportunities in environmental consulting will continue for geoscientists who (1) have the flexibility resulting from a broad education in the geosciences and related disciplines; (2) are aware of the developments, needs and demands of the environmental consulting industry; and (3) are diligent in their approach to the consulting job market.

High-School Preparation: High-school students should take a broad array of courses in science and mathematics. In addition to any geology courses offered in their school, other courses should include algebra, calculus, chemistry, physics, and biology. Of particular value at this age level is developing effective written and verbal communication skills  through writing classes, speech courses, debate clubs, and foreign languages. High-school students are urged to identify summer-work opportunities in geology (for example, with the U.S. Park Service or with a consulting firm), to take geoscience classes through community colleges or continuing-education courses offered in your community, or to participate in geology field trips offered locally.

College Preparation: Besides a strong geology curriculum, key college courses are mathematics (including advanced calculus and statistics), chemistry (including organic chemistry), physics, English and report writing, business and economics, and computer science. Optimal geology courses include physical/historical geology, mineralogy/petrology, sedimentation/stratigraphy, geomorphology/Quaternary geology, hydrogeology, and field-course experience (including exposure to drilling techniques and description of well cuttings).

With such a broad, flexible education, the geosciences graduate can pursue an entry-level (field geologist) position within an environmental consulting firm. If, however, a graduate degree is the goal, the courses identified above should also provide the flexibility to meet the entry requirements of most graduate schools.

Graduate and Post-Graduate Training: To elect graduate school is to identify an area of specialization, which stipulates numerous required courses. However, graduate courses in geophysics, geochemistry, economic geology, hydrogeology, and surficial processes are highly valued in environmental consulting. Whenever possible, include courses such as soil mechanics, foundation engineering, biosciences, and the socio-legal-economic disciplines. And, most importantly, gain as much experience in the field as possible.

The Key to Success in Consulting Firms: Success in the consulting industry requires not only strong technical skills (the ability to observe, record, and interpret geologic data accurately), but also business and marketing savvy, the ability to communicate effectively your findings (both verbally and in writing), project management capabilities (organizational skills), and the ability to work as part of an interdisciplinary team.

In other words, you cannot rely on just technical training in the geological sciences to be a successful employee or consultant. Project management requires a combination of organizational and communication skills. Organizational skills (time management, budget management, people management, file management) should evolve throughout your academic life. Communication (writing and speaking) skills must be learned, and high-school and college courses will refine those skills. Employees of environmental consulting firms must be able to communicate with the client, with government-agency staff, with contractors (drillers, laboratory technicians, surveyors), and with colleagues. Most frequently, the client will be an attorney, engineer, or business person - not a geologist.

The final area, marketing, is not an activity in which most geologists are prepared. These skills are not taught in geoscience departments. To learn the skills involved in marketing (cold calls on a potential client) and selling (landing a contract), experience has to be gained on the job. New consulting employees are urged to develop relationships with more senior staff and to "go-to-school" with them.

The Resume: The first and most important step in the job search is a properly prepared resume and cover letter. For the resume, stick to the facts and do not proclaim accomplishments (or degrees), registrations, certifications that you have not yet earned. A misrepresented resume (qualifications) can lead to legal difficulties both for your employer and ultimately for you. Do not attempt to impress a potential employer with phrases such as "Are you looking for a motivated, capable geologist?" Take the time to ensure that your letter is addressed to a specific person (whose name is spelled correctly!). Sign your letter! My experience is that resumes and letters hurriedly sent in a "shotgun" approach, once opened, survive just long enough to allow gravity to lead it to a wastebasket. You enhance your chances for consideration by making a potential employer believe that you have a genuine interest in working for that specific company.

So why work for an environmental consulting firm? The consulting industry has become an exciting option within the choices for geoscience graduates. Environmental consulting offers great salaries, project diversity, rapid advancement and, frequently, opportunities for profit sharing and/or ownership. It is not unusual to become a project manager within the first 3 to 4 years and to enter a senior-level position within 6 to 10 years or sooner, depending on your education and experience. And finally, the opportunities to be a sole-proprietor consultant, or the owner of your own firm, with all the freedoms of self-employment, are an option for the experienced consultant.

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