It’s probably rare that pros stick with the same employer forever but upward mobility is highly limited now. This leaves no other option other than to jump ship or be frozen at your current level and salary,” a senior health and safety manager for a large corporation tells ISHN.

“When I started in the profession in 1975, there were substantial health and safety, industrial hygiene and occupational medical staffs in the major corporations,” Dr. Frank Mirer tells ISHN. “The drive to outsource industrial hygiene to consultants has been relentless. One medical director said with some pride that he had gotten rid of all the directly employed plant physicians, substituting short-term contract docs.

“This trend is part of the general hollowing out of corporations, including outsourcing and off shoring.”

Welcome to today’s gig economy as safety and health professionals live it. For many pros, it’s nothing new.

“In my 40-year career I have worked for 20 different organizations and lived with my family in about 24 different housing locations,” says consultant Mike Williamsen.

“Nearly 25 years ago an email circulated around my company that stated the new corporate contract is as follows: ‘We will provide you with great learning opportunities, keep you challenged and engaged, but we cannot offer lifetime employment.’ This has been the mantra of corporate America for nearly 30 years. Safety and health professionals have listened well,” says consultant David Sarkus.

“As a consultant, I live and breathe in a gig economy,” says trainer Linda Tapp.

No doubt long-term employment with one company and loyalty bonds are not what they used to be for many professionals. In the past 25 years, employment in safety has changed dramatically. Corporate downsizing in the 1990s and sustained cost pressures have resulted in greater use of safety consultants and less reliance on large corporate staffs.

There’s also the sometimes incidental nature of safety jobs that leads to gigging. Says Williamsen: “A Fortune 50 company had me in charge of a struggling manufacturing organization when they had a fatality. Suddenly, without increase in title or pay, I was also in charge of corporate safety for the 10,000 field people. We had a very sick safety culture. I hired Dr. Dan Petersen and within three years the major problems were resolved. The company’s job evaluation culture of ‘What have you done for me lately” became ‘You have done a good job here, but I can’t see what else there is for you to do here in the future’.”

Back in the day

The largest growth in the profession took place from the mid ’70s to the late ’80s. This coincided with heavy OSHA standards-setting. The late ’80s and ’90s saw globalization take off and many lingering hazards moved off-shore. “In pre-OSHA days and early OSHA days there were plenty of us who were lifers with large companies,” says Dr. Henry Lick, retired director of industrial hygiene for Ford Motor Company.” You did your time under a mentor some place and then moved on if you could to a large company where you stayed until retirement or an opportunity came to lead a large program some place.”

Says another IH: “Rarely today do you find the 30-year guys. Fortune 500 companies once had 100 EHS guys at HQ, all IH was internal, companies didn’t do much outsourcing. That changed dramatically when these companies tried to save money through reengineering, rightsizing, downsizing. That was it. One chemical company went from 100 EHS corporate staff way down to a handful.  You just didn’t need all that support stuff.”

Tight times                            

So where does that leave many pros today? Times remain tight. Only 27 percent of pros surveyed by Triumvirate Environment in its 2016 “The State of EHS” anticipate EHS department growth in 2016. More than two-thirds of professionals feel their department is currently understaffed. Ninety percent of respondents anticipate contracting budgets and hiring practices will remain the same this year.

“With the economic downturns that have occurred in just the last 15 years and long-term effects with slow economic response/growth, safety organizations are still the early groups that get hit with layoffs and last to rehire,” says a pro with a major media company

Employment realities

At least three scenarios are at work in 2016:

• Many baby boomer EHs pros (51 to 69 years old) have taken early retirements but continue to work as independent contractors moving from project to project that are tactical in nature; many of these jobs are with former employers. One pharmaceutical company currently employs a contracted, part-time safety strategic advisor and a number of other contracted safety specialists at R&D centers.

Others pros work with short-term EHS placement agencies. About two-thirds of all workers age 65+ will work past retirement or never retire out of necessity, according to a survey by Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

• Many millennials (20 to 35 years old) and Gen Xers (36 to 51) will find long-term gigs harder to land. “Most likely in today’s environment they will never see a funded pension retirement,” says Lick. “This results in them having the first allegiance to themselves.  They have to job hop more than those who went before them.”

• Entry-level pros should be realistic. “When I was running an IH internship, many of these students did not have a true sense of their intrinsic net worth,” says IH Aaron Chen.  “Many of these students believed they would be paid close to if not exceeding six figures right out of their program.  They got a very tough and rude awakening.

 “I had a masters student come into my program with his ego already blowing his head up.  He came the first week to work in a three-piece suit and wingtip shoes.  I asked him what he thought he was going to do in a chemical plant and he explained he was going to supervise IH techs and show them about IH. I had to tell him that he was not going to be supervising anyone for a long time. I asked this guy to come to work the next day and be prepared to learn and get dirty.”

Bottom line: “What most of us experienced as work over the past 40+ years is going to dramatically change over the coming decades,” says consultant Phil LaDuke. “Let’s face it, labor is the most expensive cost to running a profitable business.  So whatever employers can do to minimize this cost they will do it regardless of anyone’s moral opinion of their decisions.”

Skill sets of giggers

ISHN asked professionals what it takes to survive and thrive in the new normal of less stable employment:

• “One or our clients ranks affiliates (contractors). Some they won’t work with, others they will send worldwide. They want quality reporting, tech expertise, communication, customization, and meeting client needs,” says one consultant.

• “Look for the 800-pound gorilla clients. This is called ‘the sumo advantage.’ Hook your star to these guys. Provide the technical services. These clients have thousands of employees, they’re doing request for proposals for tens of thousands of dollars, and they can catapult you into whole different area. They can do your marketing and be your flag bearer.”

• “Be able to communicate verbally and written, topped off with interpersonal skills and the ability to read a situation. Health, safety, and environmental hazards can be quite frightening and the ability to fully explain and communicate to management, workers and the public is a trait of the successful professional.  There is no better example of this than the Flint Michigan story.”

• “Relationship/people skills, willingness to travel, and experience/knowledge in knowing how to hit the ground running when starting a new job.”

• “The younger generation generally appears more restless as well as adventurous.  Long-term employment doesn’t provide this whereas national/global consulting jobs do.”

• “The health and safety job cycle is getting shorter because health and safety pros have not been able to establish health and safety to be of strategic significance in their enterprise. Companies would hire and retain full time pros if those pros had solid leadership skills in addition to their strong professional skills.  Pros need the skill sets to lead health and safety into the enterprise and not just set up disparate programs outside of the overarching management system of the enterprise.

“Another way we have failed is by trying to develop a strong safety culture in the enterprise.  Achieving a strong safety culture in the enterprise is not the way to establish H&S to be of strategic importance.”

• “Pros need to realize that none of us possess the magic elixir that can be applied to any and all given situations to fix a safety or health problem. This fixation on applying one solution to all situations (such as behavior-based safety) has been the most detrimental aspect of safety and health work since the creation of OSHA. It is the reason we have not progressed as a profession as far as we could have over the past 40+ years. 

“Remember, the job is not about you, it is about what you can do to educate and encourage others to work in a manner that allows them to go home every night after their shift and thoroughly enjoy their families.”

• “People going after entry-level positions that pay $40K are demanding $80K fresh out of school. I don’t know where they are getting the idea that they are worth literally twice what they are, but they do indeed believe it. I don’t see a reluctance to hire young people permanently, what I see is deluded academics filling students heads with nonsense about what they can expect to make (and do) fresh out of school.”

• “Do your best on the job you have. Invest in whatever 401K-type plan your current company has. Invest wisely.”

• “Make sure your family is prominent in your life.”

• “Be prepared for the next surprise job change which could be with or without your current employer.”

• “Get mentally comfortable with the possibility that younger generations, by the time they retire, might work up to 13-15 different companies and experience three or four totally different jobs. This kind of career ride looks to be part of the nation’s employment reality and the reality of many global companies.”