Careers in Environmental Consulting

Author:  Emma Loewe

Institution:  Duke University

Environmental consulting is an emerging profession dedicated to improving industrial sustainability and waste management. Jobs in this field may appeal to those interested in environmental policy, field analysis and toxicology.

Increasingly stringent legislation on chemical releases is forcing businesses to become more environmentally aware. EPA regulations concerning lead, mercury and greenhouse gas emissions have increased demand for environmental consultants. These specialists test various aspects of a company’s environmental impact in order to identify potential problems or breaches in government regulations. They then work with company employees to theorize and implement affordable and sustainable solutions. Amy Dickie, a consultant at California Environmental Associates, explains how difficult it can be to mediate these tensions between big business and the environment.

“So many environmental problems come down to pressure on natural resources from a growing population that is consuming at higher and higher levels. That dynamic is inherently unsustainable and it is difficult to see how it can be resolved without trauma of some kind,” she says.

Most consulting firms attempt to increase global sustainability by offering a wide range of services across scientific sectors. It is therefore a job that appeals to people with diverse interests and backgrounds. Common categories of assessment include hazardous material, microbial and air quality testing. Consultants conduct these checks for a variety of clients including construction companies, federal public agencies, civil engineers and car manufacturers.

Examples of cases include a construction company seeking environmental consultants to ensure that their projects are in line with district handling and recycling regulations. If an airport were looking to increase flight paths and extend tarmacs to neighboring land, consultants would work to assess the environmental feasibility of the expansion. Housing development companies would turn to consultants if they were looking to make their newest properties more energy efficient. In each of these scenarios, consultants would be expected to carry out research on how these clients can most effectively achieve their objectives, present their findings in a clear, concise presentation and continue to communicate with company employees until their goals are met.

Daily functions of the profession include monitoring current environmental legislature, recording field data, predicting environmental threats and effectively communicating ideas to clients. Necessary fundamental skills include proficiency in writing, research and data analysis. However, the job also requires a variety of less quantitative traits. Dickie explains that personal motivation plays just as large a part in this line of work.  

“An important skill set is the ability to keep the big picture in mind, to be able to hone in quickly on what the key issues are and what really matters, to be able to see patterns, and to keep an open and critical mind. A general willingness to work hard and receive feedback is invaluable,” she says.

Verne Tsang, Quality Assurance Officer for New York Environmental, adds that oral communication skills are also essential.

“Interpersonal and communication skills are important. You need to be able to distill very technical information to a lay person – after all, you were hired as the technical expert,” Tsang claims.

Undergraduate fields of study related to the environment, biology or engineering are useful for consulting jobs. Background knowledge on economics and policy is also beneficial. Tsang stresses that a familiarity with the most current technologies is another key.

“Pick up technical software skills – especially the various computer aided design programs available. They are useful almost everywhere,” she says.

Some environmental firms seek candidates with both undergraduate and master’s degrees in related fields. The pursuit of higher education shows that an applicant is focused and well versed in a particular area of study. Graduate school also solidifies analytical, quantitative and project management skills necessary for daily job function.

After completing their degree, aspiring environmental consultants should look to secure a start-up job in a related arena. Most environmental firms seek candidates who have at least 2-5 years of preliminary employment in the science field.  Positions that require lab work and analyzing samples provide valuable experience, as do research jobs in environmental policy offices. Dickie claims that starting with an unpaid internship or part-time position makes candidates far more marketable to employers.

“Anything that provides you with real world experience will put you in the field rather than in the sidelines, and from there your opportunities will multiply,” she says.  

Environmental consulting provides the opportunity to combine science, research and communications fields into an exciting and rewarding career. These consultants direct real-world applications of sustainability techniques, placing them at the forefront of lasting environmental progress.