ISHN

The workforce numbers game

Miscalculating supply and demand in the EHS field

February 2, 2012
Last month I discussed the current market for occupational safety and health jobs, and how the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) recently released National Assessment of the Occupational Safety and Health Workforce1 miscalculated supply and demand figures. This month I want to examine NIOSH’s method of assessment.

Assessment findings

 NIOSH interviews reveal employers expect to hire 25,078 OS&H professionals — including 17,801 safety professionals and 2,310 industrial hygienists  — during the next five years (2011 – 2015).

 Employers expect 10% (2,872) safety professionals and 4% (294) industrial hygienists to retire within the next year (2011 – 2012).

 The OSH workforce is graying, with 48% safety professionals and 40% industrial hygienists over 50 years old.

Key assessment findings from educational providers of safety and industrial hygiene programs include:

 During the next five years, OSH programs are expected to graduate 8,843 safety professionals (1,768/year) and 1,483 industrial hygienists (296/year).

 

Current vs. future workforce — employer demand-side

Tallying the number of occupational safety and industrial hygiene professionals in the workforce is a slippery task. According to the assessment’s employers surveyed, as of December 2010 there were 28,722 safety professionals and 7,348 industrial hygienists for a total of 36,070.

NIOSH used the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) database (May 2008) for Occupational Health and Safety Specialists (OCC 29-9011) to identify eligible employers to participate in the survey. The BLS definition of OHS specialists fits comfortably with the traditional description of safety professional and industrial hygienist.

One troubling aspect of the OES database is the inclusion of “Environmental Protection Officers” within the occupational description for OH&S Specialist at http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes299011.htm#%281%29. Indeed, this inclusion exaggerates the overall employment number totals for OHS Specialists.

In May 2010, the OES identified 38,900 OHS Specialists in the assessment’s chosen top 29-industry/government sectors; however, the assessment reveals in December 2010 there were 36,070 OSH professionals for a delta of 2,830 fewer OSH professionals. Indeed, BLS probably draws its data from other sources, but one could surmise there was a 7.28% decline in OSH professionals between May 2010 and December 2010 within these top 29-industry/government sectors.

Using the assessment’s December 2010 total current population of 36,070 safety and industrial hygiene professionals and the total expected new hires or replacements of 20,111 safety and industrial hygiene professionals in the next five years, it is a stretch to think that employers will turn over 55.76% of their safety and industrial hygiene workforce in the next five years. In fact, it would be historically unprecedented.

Another curious aspect of the assessment’s data is the employers’ estimate of the percentage of safety professionals (10% or 2,872) and industrial hygienists (4% or 735) retiring or leaving the OSH professions in the next year. This may be a coincidence, but 10% of safety professionals and 4% of industrial hygienists are 60 or older.

Based on our current economic circumstances, I would speculate most, if not all, OSH professionals 60 or older are doing whatever they can to retain their positions. Even if they are retiring or being asked to retire, they are being hired back as contractors, which precludes the employers’ need to hire new OSH personnel at least for the foreseeable future.

Based on the expected new hires of 20,111 professionals and the assumed retirements of 18,035 professionals, we have a delta of 2,076 more professionals being hired, then retiring or leaving the OSH professions in the next five years.

Wishful projecting?

In the 40+ years I have practiced these professions, I have never heard of a private-sector employer hiring more safety and industrial hygiene professionals than needed, and even if they need to hire, they are reluctant to do so.

According to the assessment, 1,722 “establishments” were identified as potentially eligible for the employer survey. Even though the assessment implies “21 establishments/employers” completed 470 employer surveys and partially completed 69 employer surveys, nowhere in the assessment is there a list of the 1,722 establishments, 21 employers, or even their industry sectors.

If this pathetically limited number of “employers” with multiple “establishments” completed or partially completed the employer survey, how could this population sample be anywhere close to representing the authors’ chosen top-29 industry sectors?

Methodology

Telephone screeners contacted establishments to determine whether they directly employed at least one OSH professional, and if so, to identify and invite the person most knowledgeable about OSH activity at the establishment to respond to the web survey.

It takes a leap-of-faith to assume that a person who is “knowledgeable of the OSH activities” automatically translates into knowing how many OSH professionals at his or her establishment (i.e., location) will be hired in the next five years or even which non-technical core competencies he or she thinks will be required or expected.

Current vs. future graduates — provider supply-side

The assessment notes 1,979 safety and 317 industrial hygiene graduates are expected to graduate in 2011 for a total of 2,296 graduates. Between 2011 and 2015, providers expect to graduate 8,843 safety and 1,438 industrial hygiene students. Based on the time frame of the projected students graduating over the next four years, since 2011 is essentially over, it is assumed all 10,281 students are currently enrolled or about to graduate in safety or industrial hygiene programs. Since 2,296 students are graduating in 2011, providers expect to graduate 7,985 students over the next four years.

Returning to the BLS’s OES database, between 2008 and 2010, the total number of employed OHS Specialists grew from 51,800 to 57,520, an increase of 5,720 or 2,860/year. Recall, the BLS’s definition of the OHS Specialists occupation aligns with traditional safety and industrial hygiene occupations with the expressed inclusion of “Environmental Protection Officers.” 

As most of us in the field know, environmental professionals typically outnumber safety and industrial hygiene professionals at locations where they are employed by a minimum of a 2 to 1 ratio. Consequently, the 2,860/year OHS total growth number in all likelihood is on the extreme high side.

Closing remarks

In closing, with respect to the overall assessment, one has to wonder, did the authors ever step back from the study, take a deep breath, and ask the question, “Do these numbers really make any sense?”

 

References

1 McAdams, M.T., J.J. Kerwin, V. Olivo, and H.A. Goksel. October 3, 2011. National Assessment of the Occupational Health and Safety Workforce. Westat. Rockville, MD.