Environmental Consulting


In Canada the environmental consulting industry has many facets. They range from university faculty doing part-time consulting to scientists working for environmental science companies. Consultants can also be scientists working for environmental engineering firms and legal, accounting, and management consulting firms through to individuals with science training working for a range of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In addition, a large number of individuals with training in the environmental sciences and engineering are being employed full time by an increasing number of the larger corporations and government agencies on national and provincial bases. This broad cross-section simply reflects the fact that the environment and the underlying science are becoming more important factors in the decisions that corporations and governments must make on a day-to-day basis.

Employment in these areas has seen its ups and downs over the past number of years with significant scientific staff reductions in governments in the interests of fiscal constraint. On the other hand, Canadian universities will be experiencing a strong upswing in hiring due principally to the large number of retirements that will happen over the next decade. Looking ahead, Canadian society will be faced with more and more important environmental questions that must be answered if Canada is to be truly competitive as a country in the global marketplace. If these questions are to be adequately answered, there must be a real growth in the number of environmental science careers over the next decade and specifically in the segment of the environmental consulting sector that can carry out targeted applied research.

This fact has been recognized nationally and the federal government has put several programs into place in order to encourage growth in this sector of the economy. With respect to tax policy, the Canadian Customs and Revenue Agency has a Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax credit whereby Canadian corporations are given research tax credits for qualifying work carried out in Canada. In addition to this program, the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada funds an industrial postdoctoral research fellowship program, whereby qualifying postdoctoral fellows and sponsoring corporations compete nationally for support in funding of specific research projects focused on the transitioning of university-based research into Canadian industry. These policies and programs are not aimed strictly at the environmental consulting sector, but many companies in this sector that are carrying out research programs participate in them, and knowledge of them can certainly assist in landing that all-important first job.

For scientists starting their careers in the environmental consulting sector, there are a number of organizations that provide a range of networking opportunities. Individuals can belong to a number of broadly based organizations such as the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists or more discipline-focused organizations such as the American Fisheries Society. Many environmental consulting firms belong to national organizations such as the Canadian Environmental Industry Association and or its provincial chapters. All of these organizations welcome volunteer help, which provides unlimited opportunity for networking among a scientist's peers. Membership by itself is not enough, however. Members must become actively involved and this can take from 1 to 3 days per month of dedicated time. The key point here is for members to find something they are interested in and become involved. The development of a successful career in the environmental consulting industry in Canada is not a job--it is more of a lifestyle.

Scientists employed in the private sector environmental consulting industry soon learn that science is only one facet of their job descriptions. Of equal importance are sales and communications skills. Contracts to carry out environmental science, or indeed routine data collection studies, do not just land on one's desk. Projects must be competitively bid on, with the typical "bidders' list" being between five to 10 companies long and many more bidders participating in government requirements for which less pre-qualification is done. To be successful, bids must be responsive, creative, cost effective, and communicated to the prospective client in a clear and concise manner. For scientists entering this field, there is generally a 1- to 2-year ramp-up stage, after which new employees are expected to be fully functioning members of their respective project teams, able to write smaller proposals on their own and meaningfully assist in larger, more complex ones.

Just as important as individuals' outside sales skills is their ability to "sell" themselves internally. Every project manager requires team individuals who can focus on the job at hand (and not get involved in "interesting tangents" except on their own time), complete the task on time and within the specified budget (which is invariably too small), and communicate the work they have done in a clear and concise written and visual fashion. Environmental scientists who can do this well will be in high demand both within the firm by project managers and outside the firm by a broad range of clients. If not, they would be wise to begin exploring other opportunities, as the competitive nature of the industry will soon force them out. Typically a healthy business in the environmental science industry will have a 3-month backlog of work and beyond that not know where the next job or pay check is coming from. Some personality types thrive in this type of environment while others find it disconcerting and want the "security" of employment in a larger institution. In the environmental consulting sector, the job security rests within the scientist and the team he or she is working with. A successful scientist in the environmental consulting sector will average two to three unsolicited job offers a year from clients and competitors and this in itself provides a high degree of "internal" job security.

Employers looking for scientists in this area are thus looking for individuals with these skills and aptitudes. When approaching prospective employers, new graduates in the environmental sciences should ensure that the aptitudes they possess in these areas are appropriately highlighted. Persistence is also an important asset but not to the point of annoyance when pursuing a particular opportunity. Within our company, we do not often look to fulfill a particular position but rather look to hire individuals with a relevant set of scientific skills and, just as important, the personal attributes needed to blossom in a career in environmental consulting.

In the environmental science consulting sector, there does not seem to be any "typical day." Days may be highly focused on meeting the inevitable project or proposal deadline or dealing with any number of small crises that arise as a consequence of some unexpected experimental or field result, a public or regulatory meeting being scheduled, or the recognition or just concern about where the next project is coming from. The projects worked on may be local or in some far-flung corner of the globe along with all of the challenges that working in another language and culture bring. There is also the inevitable frustration that initially plagues scientists, that science does not drive decisions in the way that one may expect. In many cases science takes a back seat to broader policy or short-term financial, public perception, or political decisions. From a scientific standpoint, many of these realizations can be initially frustrating, but with experience and an appreciation of the multidisciplinary nature of environmental science, one learns that this is a societal system we are working within and the science underlying many decisions is an important but not always determining factor in making the final decision.

A career in environmental consulting over the next few decades will offer a number of exciting career opportunities for those individuals with the appropriate background, aptitude, and temperament to thrive in the lifestyle that the career offers.

Author's Bio

When completing my Ph.D. at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada in the early 1970s, I was extremely fortunate to have had a supervisor who was due for a sabbatical in Australia. This left me under the supervision of a postdoctoral fellow and with a great deal of freedom to pursue a number of interests that were tangents to the main thrust of my research. Whereas my research focused on the fate of allochthonous organic matter (principally tree leaves) in streams, my tangential interests wandered into the isotope lab next door where I learned to use bomb fallout tritium as a groundwater tracer and 18O/16O isotope ratios to trace seasonal snowmelt water and the organic carbon it carries through shallow groundwater discharging into streams. This in turn led to some joint work with other graduate students in the civil and chemical engineering departments (the forerunners of today's environmental engineering courses). Graduate students could sit in on courses in other departments with no fees. Many of us took advantage of this, sitting in on business, finance, economics, contaminant hydrogeology, statistics, and experimental design courses as a break from the "routine" of our research projects. These were interesting and exciting times where there seemed to be no end to learning.

While in graduate school, I found the time to explore the consulting world, doing some small environmental baseline contracts for a number of engineering firms. This gave me a taste of the consulting industry, put a few dollars in my jeans, and provided good content for a resume upon graduation.

In hindsight, this turned out to be excellent training for a career in the private sector, in the environmental science consulting community. Such a career demands both an in-depth science foundation in a given specialty as well as a broad range of general knowledge so that any specific discipline can be put in a wider societal and environmental context. Having had that broad educational background in addition to in-depth training in a particular area as well as specific consulting experience made me more valuable to future employers.

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