Since I was 20 years old, I had been curious to what it would be like to work in the environmental industry. Sixteen years after that I worked for several years as an air-quality consultant, and I will share this experience with you.
Why I Did It
The environmental industry was attractive to me for a number of reasons. First, I wanted to have a positive impact on the world – to be a “do gooder”. Second, I wanted to do something where I could apply the skills I already had. My Ph.D. was in the area of atmospheric (mesospheric) physics, and I thought it would be a short jump to air-quality with my understanding of gas phase chemistry, chemical fate, and transport. Third, I have an entrepreneurial spirit, and I thought that working in this field could be a gateway to starting my own business. Finally, I had designed a “next generation” environmental monitor, and wanted to understand the market so I could try to sell my design.
Getting the Job
To prepare for this career I did a number of things. From a previous job, I had experience designing spectroscopic instrumentation for air-quality measurements. Being on the periphery of the environmental industry, I had volunteered to serve on the board of directors of the local professional organization for pollution professionals (Air & Waste Management Association). I also took a certification as an environmental professional through the Institute for Professional Environmental Practice. Generally speaking, the industry was a bit resistant to “outsiders”. In hindsight, the best background for air-quality professionals is meteorology.
I was able to get a position as an air-quality consultant through the network I had established working with pollution professionals. I was surprised that opportunities were confined to specific geographic regions. Although pollution professionals are everywhere, the “flavor” of the work is very dependent on the location. Air-quality people are only needed where there are bad air pollution problems, like California or Houston. Water quality, solid waste, and hazardous waste professionals are more versatile.
Nature of the Business
The consulting industry is quite volatile. I worked in a branch (2 person) office in Canada, with the main company (100 people) office about 500 miles away on the west coast. In a 2 person office, you have to do everything: facilities, marketing, IT, garbage collection, engineering, purchasing, maintenance, field work – you name it. While I liked this, we literally had no business for the first 6 week I was there. As a consultant we did our own marketing, and I spent roughly 6 weeks on the phone. Cold calling to drum up business was not fun for me.
I soon found out consultants can get economic whiplash. When times are bad, companies don’t want to lay people off, so the first to go are … consultants. When times are good, companies are reluctant to hire so they can avoid layoffs later, so the people in most demand are … consultants. After this initial 6 weeks, the oil and gas sector hit a boom and we got record business for the next 2 years. Due to the fact our company didn’t want to turn down business (you never know when it won’t be there), we worked a LOT of nights and weekends. Eventually the 2 person office became a 5 person office, but for a while 2 people were doing the work of 5 …
What the Work Was Like
Generally speaking, this position didn’t require a lot of innovation – it was quite routine due to the fact you were doing things around Government regulations and you had to do things in a “tried & true” way. Although there were some big projects, most of our projects were 2 weeks in duration, requiring around 3-5 days of effort. Efficient work, customer management, and good project management skills are required to make your work profitable. You can’t predict business more than about 3 weeks in advance, so it is important to have a relaxed temperament.
The technical work was a lot of modeling and field work. For the modeling, commercial probabilistic models were used to generate a report – our deliverable. The report would be sent to the Customer (then the Government) and would define conditions pollutants could be released without harming the environment. Field work usually consisted of installing temporary meteorology stations – usually near a gas well in the middle of nowhere, and performing observation of the weather and emission activities. Often you were on site much longer than you planned with a bunch of tough oil workers. This was actually pretty fun (even the women enjoyed it), I found for me it helped to have a repertoire of off-color jokes to break the ice.
Aside from working as a consultant, a big company that has a large potential impact on the environment may hire you (i.e.: an oil & gas company, mine, or utility company), or you could work for the government with this background.
- This type of career could be used to create your own service based business with little capital.
- In a small office you got a lot of experience doing a little of everything.
- At some level, there was always a demand for this type of work due to regulatory requirements.
- There was social interaction with some Customers.
- While consultants bill a large hourly rate, the sporadic work and required overhead work effectively means you aren’t highly paid.
- You can’t bill a customer for training, so you are using “personal time” to get up to speed.
- There is not much room for innovation – expect to do more or less routine tasks
- As a consultant, expect to spend a lot of time looking for work, and a lot of nights and weekends working when you can get the business.
- Environmental work doesn’t add value for your Customer; it is something they are forced to do by the Government. Realize that your presence is more of an irritant than a help to your Customer.