RON PORTELLI RECALLS when his university-bound daughter asked him where she should study environmental science. Despite a long environmental career, Portelli was surprised to realize he didn’t know the answer. Such was the separation between universities and the environment industry.

Over 10 years have passed since that incident, and a lot has changed with environmental education in Canada – much of it in recent years as concern about the planet’s health has burgeoned along with our greenhouse gas emissions. An education in environmental studies is the ticket to employment now. “It’s an employees’ market out there,” says Faramarz Bogzaran, who is the president and CEO of the Vancouver consulting firm Seacor Environmental Inc. “I never thought I’d say this, but we need to hire people in Saskatchewan and I can’t find them.”

Environmental programs at Canadian universities are under pressure to produce. Anders Sandberg, associate dean of Environmental Studies at York University, says that whereas York has a “modest surge” in undergraduate enrolment, and its PhD program has always been oversubscribed, it’s demand at the master’s level that has mushroomed. “We filled all 150 master’s positions two months earlier than last year and with the highest GPA (Grade Point Average),” remarks Sandberg. “It’s the second largest graduate program at York.”

But robust enrolment doesn’t mean that students are actually graduating from environmental programs, nor does it guarantee they pick up the skills employers want. Grant Trump, CEO of ECO (Environmental Careers Organization) Canada, a government-funded council that manages human resources in the environment sector, says his organization’s research indicates that whereas registration may be increasing in environmental studies, only 50 per cent of students complete some programs.

Trump says most high school students fail to understand what an environmental career involves, partially because few teachers have the knowledge to impart. So a portion of ECO Canada’s resources is targeted at improving high school environmental curricula, particularly in Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba. If high school graduates understand the opportunities, they can better prepare themselves to attend university. This may serve as a a reality check for starry-eyed students who enrol in environmental programs because they want to save the planet. It’s not that a desire to improve the environment isn’t a worthy goal, but Trump points out that it’s not uncommon for Grade 12 students to fail to have prerequisite courses – calculus, for example – for a particular environmental or science program.

The 2005-2006 Study of Environmental Practitioners in Canada found that 56 per cent of survey respondents (environmental practitioners) indicated that a desire to improve the environment was the most important factor affecting their decision to work in the sector. A US study completed by Key Education Resources found that, of the more than 400 members of the college class of 2011 they polled, 18 per cent indicated that their number one social concern was the environment, whereas only 11 per cent pointed to the job market, which was the key concern of their parents when they were entering university.

As admirable as it may be for students to aspire to such altruistic goals, the failure to understand what’s involved in an environmental career, says Trump, partially accounts for the high level of student attrition. He adds, “Environmental employment is multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral.” As a result, it’s challenging, both to explain to students what to expect and to design university programs that address what employers want.

And, indeed, what employers want from environmental graduates is not always the highest priority within a university setting. York’s Sandberg says job preparation is part of what they do in his faculty, but he adds, “We remain committed to a liberal arts education.” York’s Environmental Studies program is strongly based on the social rather than natural sciences and it’s geared more at developing critical thinking and analytical skills than hard technical capabilities in students. They do, however, offer field courses which, says Sandberg, “is a way for students and faculty to address the need for real world skills.”

Seacor’s Bogzaran substantiates this situation. “Most universities are still working on the theoretical areas and are not so strong on the practical side,” he says. Seacor’s solution is to put new hires through a training program for the first three to six months. Bogzaran would like it if graduates had a better blend of practical and theoretical knowledge.

Because of the wealth of environmental opportunities, students are getting jobs even if they don’t have all the skills employers would like. But many graduates don’t believe that finding a job is easy.

Cassandra Polyzou has an undergraduate degree in Environment and Resource Studies from the University of Waterloo. She quickly picked up a job as a program assistant with Ontario’s Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, but believes she “lucked out” to find something so good so fast. “I know a lot of people who don’t have full-time work for at least a year,” she says. Polyzou notes that while she hardly uses any of her textbook skills, her education has helped her since she knows how to find environmental resources and understands the principles of environmental management.

Colette Spagnuolo, with an undergraduate degree from York and a master’s from Waterloo, is an acting manager with the Environment Division of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in Nunavut. Like Polyzou, Spagnuolo says she is using what she learned: “My education provided me with the broad range of scientific knowledge necessary in the field of environmental impact assessment, as well as the theoretical knowledge that is necessary, such as the principles of sustainable development, the ecosystem approach and systems theory.” Spagnuolo picked up her government job three months after graduating.

That both these women are pleased with their jobs is consistent with the majority of Canada’s environmental practitioners. According to the survey, 72 per cent report being very satisfied with their employment. Nonetheless, turnover is high. Almost three-quarters of respondents had left their previous job within five years of being hired and 43 per cent had stayed put for two years or less.

Hanging on to employees is almost an obsession for Bogzaran. “The best recruitment,” he says, “is retention of current staff.” Employees with 10 or more years experience are the hardest to attract and keep, so Seacor finds itself offering perks to good employees including compensation plans, full benefits, education development, parking spaces (ironically) and more. Portelli, who is vice president with the environmental consulting firm Gartner Lee Limited in Markham, Ontario, says in Alberta they’ve gone through hundreds of candidates trying to find the right person. Portelli is also concerned that the situation will only get worse because so many baby boomers like himself are nearing retirement. “There’s a bit of a cliff out there,” he says.

Both Seacor and Gartner Lee have had five years of sensational growth (over 20 per cent per year). They’ve hired dozens, even hundreds of new employees, making it a tight market. But, observes Bogzaran, companies like his are beginning to feel the pinch. He explains that whereas a lawyer or accountant might charge $400 to $600 per hour, environmental professionals seem to hit a ceiling at about $300 per hour. So with employees costing 30 per cent more than they did five years ago (according to Bogzaran), margins are suffering.

Trump says that competition for good employers isn’t the only reason that employees change jobs. He says “credential creep” is also a problem. In other words, today’s master’s degree is yesterday’s baccalaureate. He says employees with master’s degrees oftentimes find themselves doing field work, become dissatisfied and leave. For this reason, it’s imperative that employers align their employees’ goals with opportunities within the company.

ECO Canada posts 300 new jobs per month on its career site, and anyone who receives the daily job listings from GoodWork Canada knows that opportunities abound. Founder Peter Blanchard says GoodWork’s job listings have doubled since 2005. Furthermore, Trump predicts that at least in the near term, the squeeze will get even tighter since, by his estimate, cleaning up contaminated sites, just one of Environment Canada’s promises, will create 14,000 more jobs over the next three years.

Bogzaran says there already is a marked shortage of hydrogeologists, risk assessors and toxicologists. It appears that this isn’t about to change anytime soon.

Nicola Ross is the former Editor of Alternatives Journal, and is a member of the editorial board.

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