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In 2001, American Society of Safety Engineers officials announced that they were "troubled that the number of students pursuing degrees in occupational safety, health and environmental management has dropped significantly. . ."
"We need to do more to safeguard the future of the safety profession," said Kathy Seabrook, an ASSE vice president at the time.
So how serious is this shortage?
It's a "crisis," says Dr. Daniel Boatright, director of the Institute for Environmental Management, University of Oklahoma. "The EHS generation following us (baby boomers) is much less dedicated to the idea of professional growth."
Others are less alarmed. "I know a number of young people who I expect to step up and become strong leaders in EHS," says Earl Blair, CSP, associate professor of safety management at Indiana University. "Many will surpass the work of today's leaders."
And some just aren't sure what to make of the current situation. Safety pros seem to be holding their own in this topsy-turvy economy, says Rick Pollack, CSP, president and CEO of Comprehensive Loss Management, Inc. "But are the younger pros even in the game? I simply don't know."
In this edition of ISHN's e-newsletter, we look at succession in the environmental health and safety ranks. Who's next?
WHERE'D EVERYONE GO?
It's a question worth asking. Consider these developments:
So the EHS profession is maturing. A wave of retirements approaches. Decision-making slots in federal agencies and corporate offices will be vacant. But a transfusion of new blood is uncertain. Where are the "donors"? Many of the best and brightest college grads are not donating their talents to careers in EHS.
QUANTITY & QUALITY
"Who's Next?" covers more than the basic question of quantity - Will supply meet demand in EHS? What about quality? Where are tomorrow's EHS leaders and innovators?
Current OSHA chief John Henshaw was all of 40 years old when he presided over the American Industrial Hygiene Association back in 1990. How many 40-year-olds are in EHS leadership seats today?
How many board members of ASSE, AIHA, and the National Safety Council, or members of strategic planning committees in these organizations, are in their early 40s or younger?
What about thought leaders? How many EHS books and magazine articles are being published by young authors? How many keynote speakers at the national ASSE, AIHA, and NSC meetings are from the post-boomer crowd?
Scan the magazines, book titles, conference programs - there's not much new blood circulating. "Younger EHS professionals have less concern for or interest in positions of responsibility and leadership," says Boatright. "As I travel, speak and interact with the EHS world, it seems to be predominated by 50ish-plus folks. A lot of the same faces are saying the same things at meeting after meeting."
Here's another perspective: Tom Grumbles, the current national president of AIHA, was in his early 30s when he became president of the association's Gulf Coast Chapter in Texas. He always peppered the old guard leaders with the question, "How do I get where you are?", he recalls.
Now he's old school himself, and the questions he fields from young pros are not eager, but wary: "Why do you want to do it?" (run for elected office) "Where do you get the time to do it?"
WHO ARE YOU?
The tone of those questions fits with much that's been written about Generation X, or America's thirteenth generation since the 1776 revolution. Throwing blanket generalizations over the 80 million Americans born between 1961 to 1981 will never cover all of them, but here goes:
How do these traits translate in the EHS world? Well, street-smart young pros who see the writing on the wall - limited promotion opportunities, limited salary prospects - will be quicker to move on to greener pastures.
Here are two examples of what up-and-comers see coming: Between 2002-2012, the overall EHS population is predicted to decline between 2-10 percent (due to manufacturing's decline and regulatory stagnation, among other factors), according to Richard Fiore of Search Consultants International.
Meanwhile, consultant Richard MacLean advises in his GreenBiz.com column: "If your current title contains the word 'environment'. . . purge it from your title if you want to be taken seriously by business executives. If you want to substantially advance your income, security, and influence, do not look to the traditional, higher-level EHS roles of the past," says MacLean.
Hmm. . . that management track at Aeropostale or Fossil (hot retailers), Select Medical or Bio-Rad Laboratories or Amsurg (fast-growing healthcare companies), ITT Educational Services or Career Education or Strayer Education (alternative education rising stars) doesn't look bad. . .
Here's another twist: Independent-minded, tech savvy young pros could be less interested in belonging to old-style association "communities". Who has time for a dinner meeting that drags on? Just email the chapter newsletter and download the Powerpoint guest lecture.
Alexis De Tocqueville wrote in 1839: "Americans. . . are forever forming associations." But that was long before you could get your certification points through distance learning. Before many local sections of AIHA and ASSE saw meeting attendance plummet from 100 to 30 or 40, or worse.
"I worry about fragmentation and depersonalization of the profession," says Grumbles. "So much can be done electronically now."
As for climbing the ladder to the top leadership rungs, pragmatic young EHS pros might indeed wonder, Is it worth it? Technology has taken abuse of elected officials to new heights (or depths). Grumbles talks about the "nameless, faceless" attacks on Internet list-servs.
"We're outta here" is the message that greets a visitor to the Gen X Coalition (founded in 1996 to give a political voice to the generation) Web site. "What I've learned is you try to do something good, then you have to deal with the crazies. . . We have just gotten too much crap from people. . . So to all the idiots that took great pains to criticize destructively, 'You win.'"
Why bother. . .
CALLING ALL CONSULTANTS
Forget about Gen X stereotypes. Blame the leadership gridlock that locks out younger pros on consultants.
That, in essence, is Dr. Scott Geller's explanation for why the same names keep appearing over and over at safety conferences. Geller, professor of psychology at Virginia Tech and founding partner of Safety Performance Solutions, has been on the safety speaking circuit for more than two decades, and faithfully listens to audiotapes of other speakers. He has a good handle on what's being said, and who's saying it.
Ever the behavorist, Geller asks: What are the consequences for a speaker to prepare a presentation, write the paper, fill out the forms, and travel to a safety conference? "The only people who perceive enough positive consequences for such a venture are the consultants."
In more ways than one, consultants are a force to be reckoned with in the EHS field.
Their numbers are swelling. AIHA's current membership has as many consultants as private industry representatives. Consultants often constitute the majority of attendees at local chapter meetings, looking to network and find business. In 2002, the presidents of both AIHA and ASSE were consultants. In the June 2003 issue of Professional Safety, each of the four main feature articles were penned or co-authored by consultants or academics (most with consulting experience). On the first day of technical sessions at the National Safety Congress this September, more than two dozen consultants will be speaking.
Who's next? The next generation of EHS thought leaders could come to us through the consulting channel. Here are two reasons:
1) Corporate cost-cutting and outsourcing of non-essential service functions will continue to swell their ranks; and
2) Characteristics of consulting appeal to young EHS pros.
Think about it. Consulting is where you find many entry-level jobs in today's EHS market.
Plus, consulting can be a flexible, possibly lucrative attraction to apolitical young pros not interested in playing corporate games.
"Being out in the field is a heck of a lot more fun than sitting in one of those stuffy offices going to a lot of meetings," says one Gen Xer.
The rise of consulting also parallels the erosion of corporate loyalty. Consulting is an outlet for mobile, young pros who feel more committed to their profession than any employer.
And make no mistake, the commitment is still there with younger pros. The passion to make a difference, to sacrifice big bucks for beliefs stirred by a sense of caring, is still there. And it always will be. What's different today is how that passion and commitment will be channeled - through industry jobs or consulting?
A NEW PIPELINE
In time, young EHS pros coming through the ever-widening consulting pipeline will have the flexibility (no corporate constraints) and motivation (Geller's consequences) to write books and magazine articles, run for association offices, and get out on the lecture tour. Heck, the day is coming when OSHA will be run by an EHS pro who spent most of his or her career in consulting.
And it's a good bet that tomorrow's EHS leaders will be more business and marketing savvy, more global in their outlook, and less patient with old hierarchies, all due to their more entrepreneurial background - and all traits that will help shake up and move the EHS field ahead.
Says Tom Grumbles: "The future will be noticeably different. But is that bad?"
A profession, and its leadership ranks, dominated by consultants is not without its skeptics. Scott Geller is one of them. "I have said for years that a discipline cannot thrive on consultants' knowledge," he asserts.
Consultants, naturally, are swayed by the old profit motive. Their sustained influence on corporate values and behavior is problematic. And consultants who spend their time certifying management systems, putting out fires, or taking the stand as expert witnesses will have little time to be the innovators.
Who's next? Trends in current business strategy and professional demographics point to the growing army of consultants dominating the EHS landscape. The quantity will be there to meet demand. The challenge will be to ensure quality.
To be sure, a percentage of safety and health pros will always reside in corporate offices. Just not as many as in the past. Not when increasingly popular management systems "operationalize" safety and make employees "owners" of many traditional safety roles like inspections and training. And not when many up-and-comers are turned off to corporate politics and instability.
Here's a challenge for the next generation: Figure out how consultants, whose numbers will only grow, can best sustain workplace safety improvements from the outside looking in.
And what happens when a generation of EHS professionals raised on consulting begins to settle down, tires of the chase for billable hours, and makes the turn to middle age? Who's next, then?
We'll always be asking the question.
Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.
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WE NEED YOU!Are you a safety and health pro or a manufacturer or provider of occupational safety and health products or services who enjoys writing?
Shakespeare need not apply, but ISHN is looking for authors to publish short articles (1,000 words) in our monthly issues.
Topics include: safety success stories, close calls and personal experiences, training tips, use of software, engineering controls (machine guards, lockout-tagout), gas detection and air monitoring, confined space safety, personal protective equipment, and OSHA compliance issues.
If any of these topics interest you - or if you have other ideas - e-mail editor Dave Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org
We will also consider articles you've already written but not submitted to any safety magazine.