Environmental professions at federal and state agencies require experience, a certain level of education, or a combination of both. Some state and county environmental positions require certifications specific to the state of employment. The pay scale for a federal job at agencies such as the Forestry Service, USDA, and EPA is based on experience and education. The more advanced the degree, the higher the potential salary. One cannot enter a specialized position solely on experience, but must rely on advance studies to enter the field. Those looking to enter the environmental field without a Bachelor’s degree will be limited to aide positions that start at lower, hourly pay.
How To Start Your Environmental Career:
A great way to enter a federal agency is to apply for the Pathways Program for Students & Graduates to Federal jobs, a program that provides training and career development opportunities for individuals first entering Federal service. Many agencies that focus on environmental issues, such as the USDA, Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture participate in this program.
The Pathways program has three options to consider. First, the internship program allows current students to gain experience by providing paid opportunities to students to work in agencies while still in school. The second option, the Recent Graduates Program, is for individuals who are fresh out of completing their education program. To be eligible, applicants must have graduated within the past two years. And third, the Presidential Management Fellowship is for individuals who have completed specialized, advanced degrees and wish to transition into federal work. All three options may lead to being hired in a permanent position for the agency in which the individual worked.
Environmental Salary Expectations:
Most environmental positions at the state and federal level require a bachelor’s of science degree with coursework in biology, chemistry, statistics, and physics. As individuals advance their study, they become qualified for higher paying positions. The government utilizes a General Schedule (GS) classification and pay system that begins at GS-1 and goes as high as GS-15. Each agency classifies the grade of each job based on level of difficulty, responsibility, and qualifications. Individuals with a high school diploma and no additional relevant experience may qualify for GS-2 positions and may expect an hourly rate of pay between $10-$15 an hour. Those with a Bachelor’s degree begin around the GS-5 position and can expect a starting salary between $30,000 and $50,000. Those with a Master’s degree begin near a GS-9 position, and begin between $50,000 and $70,000. Individuals with a PhD can expect a salary in the six figures.
Environmental Health and Safety Specialists:
Environmental Health and Safety Specialists are utilized at the state and county level. An EHS Specialist conducts research or investigations into identifying and eliminating sources of pollutants in the environment that can affect the health of a population. Knowledge in various scientific disciplines is used to collect, study, and report on data taken from measurements of air, food, soil, and/or water. These positions require either completion of a Bachelor’s degree in public health or a Master’s in Public Health at an accredited school of public health. In addition to the education component, one must be certified by the state of employment by passing an examination. Individuals are placed into a pool of applicants and ranked by qualification. This system is more rigid, relying strictly on qualifications instead of a face-to-face interview. In addition to work experience and education, environmental employers look for individuals who are passionate about the industry through their hobbies or volunteer efforts.
As a physical science, biological science, or forestry science technician in the Forestry Service for the Department of Agriculture, work can take place in challenging, outdoor settings. Having camping, hiking, and backpacking experience in the great outdoors is a plus to many environmental employers. Many environmental jobs are not the typical 9 to 5 desk job. One may spend extended time in the backcountry and it may be necessary to perform one’s job in inclement conditions.
Anyone interested in pursuing a career in the environmental field can begin by volunteering at local organizations. There are numerous non-profits that focus on environmental issues. Non-profits are a great way to network and gain experience. One can volunteer at the Forestry Service and transition into a seasonal position and work one’s way into a full time ranger without requiring an advanced degree. However, once one enters data-driven fields in the agencies, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Agency, advanced degrees may be required for employment. Environmental positions are an option for anyone, regardless of the level of education one has completed. To those first beginning in the field, get out there and volunteer! Begin connecting with others passionate about the environment. Perhaps you will decide to pursue more specialized education, or perhaps not. Environmental work can be rewarding whether one is a forest ranger without a specialized degree or a botanist with a PhD.