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Environmental Consulting Careers: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Environmental Consulting Career

Trying to find an environmental science career? One path is as an environmental consultant.

It isn’t something you can just do at the drop of a hat.

In fact, there’s really a couple of things you MUST know before you sign the dotted line.

Let’s pull back the curtain and reveal some of the hidden secrets (good and bad) of environmental consulting.

What are the 7 things you need to know before entering environmental consulting? Ready?

1. The Good: A balance of field and office work

Geotechnical Engineer

Entry-level consultants do most of the fieldwork. Your fieldwork ratio depends on the season, location, and background.

Working in the field gives a chance to bring physicality and fitness to your work. And when you spend time outside, you can bank vacation time or receive overtime pay.

As you start climbing the career ladder, you often do more office work. At a certain point, you become too much of a risk to get hurt, unless you are coordinating the field effort.

So as you do more desk work you either are landing projects for the company or you develop a skill set that keeps you in the office more.

After all, fieldwork can be really expensive and can be physically demanding. Therefore, the older you are, the higher your hourly rate is, and the less physical ability you will have on-site.

2. The Bad: It isn’t for the faint of heart

Environmental consultancy is not for everyone. But the rewards can be bountiful. As an environmental consultant, you will ensure clients comply with regulations.

For example, are complying with air regulations, managing wastewater, and disposal of solid wastes? Alternatively, are clients harming wetlands or hurting endangered animals, birds, insects, or fauna?

Overall, the main purpose of environmental consultants is that they provide guidance relating to managing environmental risks to human health and the environment.

As such, environmental consultants come from a variety of backgrounds. For example, environmental consultants are hydrogeologists, ecologists, anthropologists, civil engineers, etc.

3. The Ugly: You bill your time to projects

Geotechnical Engineer

In consultancy, the first thing you have to understand is that your time is billable. On top of that, you often work with limited budgets managing your time and your client’s time as efficiently as possible.

As a consultant, your job is to get your client out of trouble and save them money. For example, when a client has a contaminated site, they hire you to assess, clean them up, and report on it.

The budget is allocated for each task that you have to work on. If you aren’t able to bill your time in 15-minute increments, you don’t have a job.

However, if you take a full-time position with a company doing lots of fieldwork you usually have lots of billable hours since you’re always in the field.

Nothing to bill to? Well, you can bank the hours and take leave without pay when work gets slow. It’s completely dependent on how many billable hours the company has.

4. Work for the government if you don’t want time cards

Considering everything, studies have shown that private sector employees are more satisfied with their jobs. For example, opportunities for training, direct supervision and cooperation are some of the stand-outs in the private sector.

But if you don’t like billing out your time, work for the government. For instance, some government organizations have time cards in place. But when you compare time allocation and budgeting, the government often has more flexibility.

Because there are often existing standards to follow, you can accomplish your goal. From these protocols that are already in place, it makes your time and job more manageable.

5. “Making a difference” isn’t in your job description

After graduation, you’ll probably want to land a job where you can make a positive difference to the environment. The startling truth is that “making a difference” is not the job description of an environment consultant.

Your very existence impacts the environment by documenting local conditions prior to human impacts, evaluating human impacts, or cleaning up human impacts.

You are a scientist or engineer collecting data, developing a solution, and writing reports. You enforce environmental regulations. There are rare opportunities for you to change the world.

6. Your clients are everyone

Environmental Consulting Salary Pyramid

Environmental science is a broad field with a range of career paths and possibilities.

Environmental consultancy is the industry that provides advice relating to managing environmental risks to human health and the environment. As such, environmental consultants come from a variety of backgrounds: hydrogeology, environmental science, environmental health, civil engineering, etc.

There aren’t always well-defined boundaries between environmental consultants, biologists or geologists who are working in this area. Your clients are everyone – gasoline service stands, mining start-ups, construction, manufacturing, energy and gas.

Instead of doing the environmental inspections yourself, government points out their deficiencies. As such, this will put environmental companies on the correct path to compliance.

7. What environmental consultants eat for breakfast

Here are more pro tips for environmental consultants.

  • Learn GIS or CAD and a programming language (Python, R and VBA are useful).
  • Learn about databases and how to work within them.
  • Understand corporate dynamics before you make serious, life-changing decisions.
  • Statistics is often a good complementary skill for reporting and establishing sample size.
  • If you want to move up the ladder fast, get a master’s degree.

Do you have any tips to obtain an environmental science career? Let us know with a comment below.

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3 Comments

  1. This is not a good field rocbr in. The pay is extremely poor, especially for field staff. Near minimum wage to start, AND you are required to have a Bachelors degree at minimum. You have to drive a lot, lots of traveling. What’s the point? Just work at a warehouse stocking shelves, less stressful and probably better pay.

    Author is right about billable time. If your timesheet is majority non billable hours, you get let go. Simple as.

    Its a cess pool of an industry, really. My advice to students is to avoid studying in this field and seek other options. You shouldn’t have to go to university just to do manual labor.

  2. I found it interesting how you said that new consultants work in the field and can get a lot of vacation time from it. I always kind of felt bad for environmental consultants because they are going from place to place all the time. But if it means they get other benefits then I don’t mind much.

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