Where's the EHS profession heading?

December 31, 2001
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Many of us who have been in the environmental health and safety trenches for the past 30 years are reaching that point in our careers where we have begun to think about retiring. And a loss of talent combined with lackluster hiring of EHS professionals has us concerned about the future.

A wave of retirements is coming in the next three to five years, the likes of which we have never seen in the past. Plus, each of us knows at least one or two EHS professionals who either lost their jobs, took advantage of early retirement options or left the field entirely in the 1990s, a period in which vast numbers of employees had to face the economic realities of downsizing, outsourcing and organizational restructuring.

Many of the remaining EHS professionals are now inundated with work. In today's competitive marketplace, staffing levels are essentially static and budgets are remaining constant. Significant progress in solving many safety and health concerns has led industry and government managers to feel quite content about safety and health issues - even though we know that much more demanding challenges are on the horizon, if not already in our backyards.

Some professionals are vigorously seeking advancement opportunities in non-EHS fields. This "talent migration" will certainly yield benefits as EHS professionals take their knowledge with them, but the profession will lose dedicated leaders and their wealth of experience needed to mentor the new EHS professionals.

Will replacements be qualified?

The supply of trained EHS professionals is diminishing significantly. Universities across the country are experiencing declining enrollments in occupational safety and health programs, according to Dr. Dan Boatright, professor of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Oklahoma College of Public Health. Compounding the issue of declining enrollments, my experience in teaching has found many students to be foreign nationals who prefer to practice their EHS skills in their country of origin after graduation.

In addition to the dwindling supply of trained EHS professionals, the EHS models that have been used in the past are undergoing major transformations to meet the demands of the future. The skill set for the 21st century EHS professional goes beyond the technical aspects of the practice to include knowing how to implement EHS programs within the context of ongoing business strategic planning and decision-making processes.

So what?

All professions are facing apprehension and disenchantment as the demand for their services swing with the ups and downs of the economy and the marketplace. So what's the problem?

In the past, safety replacements have typically come from line organizations and occupational health replacements have come from recent graduates or experienced professionals recruited from other companies. The concern is that business management, unfamiliar with the intricacies of the technical demands of the profession today, may thrust inexperienced staff into positions that they are not qualified to fill. Learning on the job is fine, but just as a brain surgeon needs an appropriate level of training or someone could get hurt, there needs to be a level of supervision and experience involved.

There are other dilemmas: the isolation of EHS professionals from mainstream decision-making, the growing awareness of known and yet to be known EHS concerns needing to be addressed, and the pressure on EHS professionals to assume multi-tasks.

A unique partnership

To better understand these issues and discover solutions, a systematic examination of the current state of the EHS professions is needed. Fortunately, one is underway in the form of a unique partnership between the Center for Environmental Innovation (CEI), a university-based, nonprofit research center, and the prestigious Wharton School in Pennsylvania.

Many of the nation's largest professional organizations are becoming involved with the initiative, including the Air and Waste Management Association, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the American Society for Safety Engineers, the Environmental Law Institute, the National Association for Environmental Management, the National Association of Environmental Professionals, the National Environmental Health Association, and the Water Environment Federation.

A two-phased approach will be used to conduct the investigation. Initially, a general survey of EHS professionals coupled with focus group sessions hosted at the Wharton School will involve gathering data on the underlying project hypothesis that the EHS professions may be in a tough position to adequately address emerging issues. The survey and the focus groups sessions will attempt to shed light on:

  • Current state-of-the-health of the EHS professions;
  • Essential practices to avoid losing EHS professionals; and,
  • Key changes and challenges confronting the professions going forward.

The second phase will focus on developing guidelines and best practices for organizations to utilize in maintaining and sustaining their EHS professional workforce. For example:

  • Steps being taken to address the coming wave of EHS professional retirements;
  • Current best practices to develop an EHS professional workforce;
  • Member needs from their professional organizations; and,
  • Management's perspectives, expectations, and approaches to communicating and reinforcing the value for the EHS function.


Early feedback

The "Pulse of the Professions" team has published similar articles on this topic in other EHS publications, and the feedback has been swift, opinionated, illuminating, and helpful. Many agree enthusiastically with the hypothesis that something may be amiss with the professions and have volunteered to help. Others, equally as strong in their opinions, have emphatically stated that nothing is wrong and that we hardly have our pulse on the professions.

The project team does not claim to know what is really going on in our professions, nor does anyone else. We have our personal opinions, of course, but factually at this stage we only know that there are major disconnects, significant enough to potentially interfere with forward progress. The reality of what is going on in our professions cannot be defined by the personal experiences of a few, but the collective wisdom of the many.

The objective of the project is to introduce a broad perspective on the dynamic times in which we find ourselves. Please take this study seriously, but do not take it personally.

If you (or your organization) are interested in supporting the CEI-Wharton School research investigation, contact me directly at leemann1@earthlink.net, or visit the Center for Environmental Innovation's Web site at www.Enviro-Innovate.org.

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