What would you do if you lost your job today? The economy stinks. EHS jobs are out there but maybe not in your local area. 

My good friend Mike, CIH and CSP, with more than 30 years diversified experience, recently landed a new EHS job — about 150 miles from his home. He took the job when his short stint as an independent consultant didn’t pan out. In his new job, Mike decided rather than uproot his wife and kids, he will rent an apartment near where he now works and commute home on the weekends. He will continue to commute for about a year until his last child graduates from high school; then his wife will join him.

I met another Mike, P.E. and CIH, about a year ago on an audit project. Mike the P.E. was an independent consultant. When we went out for dinner he confided that EHS work has been very slow. If not for his talent of buying and fixing old homes and renting property, he’d have gone bust.

Pat, another good friend of mine, with an MS degree, CSP and more than 20 years diversified EHS experience, recently left her independent consultant role that she held for about a couple of years. She’s now working for an employer. Prospects for consulting work looked good initially, but work seemed to dry up as the economy went down.

Then there’s Jeff, MS degree and CIH, who lives in my community. When he lost his job a few years back he, too, became an independent consultant. He offered his CIH services for about $50 per hour during the last year or two. This is not a sustainable fee. Even if he landed a full-time consulting gig at that rate by the time he pays all his expenses, he’d be better off taking a mid-level EHS position with an employer. I heard he recently did take such a job.

Also in my community are Lynn and Rich. Both have an MS degree and once held the CIH. Both tried the independent consultant route. Lynn now is a quality manager at a local company and Rich helps his wife sell real estate.

How am I making it?

So how I am making it? Most important: I have a wife who works with benefits. I also had a fat piggy bank. Over the past few years I dipped into that bank to the tune of about $100K to maintain my lifestyle while consulting income dribbled in. I don’t look at the use of this money as stealing from my future retirement income, that I plan for about a decade away, but as an investment in my belief that good days as an independent EHS consultant lie ahead. Consulting income is feast or famine. I had many years of feast. I just didn’t think the famine would last this long.

Truth be told

Why am I telling you all this? Truth told, getting gigs as an independent EHS consultant is much more dependent on being at the right place at the right time than having any special skills. I have the Entrepreneur apps on my smart phone and read them daily. Build a website. Join professional and social network sites. The new big thing in consulting — get your business on Google+. Bottom line: as an independent consultant you have to spend more time raking hay (i.e. billable hours) before trying to make it rain.

Join our network

Another trend is independent EHS consultants joining “our network.” Here’s the catch.  Some group will tell you they have more work than they can handle. All they ask is that they add your credentials to their network and when a consulting gig shows up that matches your skills, you get the work and they get a piece of the action. 

That may be true

I think I’ve got strong credentials, very broad experience and some unique skills. Doesn’t it seem strange that in the three plus years I’ve been listed with networks there is yet to be a match between a consulting gig and my skills? Look at it this way. Send me your credentials and experience and I will fatten up how my consulting practice looks. If I get any extra work, I will send it your way.

Working for the man

It wasn’t that long ago when the economy was booming that “free agent nation” was the place to be. Independent consulting with the prospect of being your own boss and eventually building a one-man (or woman) shop into business that employs many others was a lure that was hard to ignore. What should we call things today? Working for the man appears back in vogue. 

Are you scared yet?

You shouldn’t be scared by all that I am telling you. By all means, if you lose your job working for the man then consider being an independent EHS consultant. Is this a contrary position to what I’ve said above? Not really. Just make sure you open your eyes to pitfalls.

You may have heard that great businesses and innovation happen during bleak economic times. One reason is that people push harder to succeed. A downside for others may be an upside to you. Mike (#1), Pat, Jeff, Lynn, Rich — and others that I did not mention — all live in my community. As they bail and I hold on, my prospects for getting local work improves. It is always darkest before the dawn. You may be getting in at the right time (or maybe not).

My advice on being an independent EHS consultant from 2008 stills holds true.

  • Maintain cash reserves to carry you through periods of famine.
  • Have a spouse who works and has health benefits.
  • Expand your network of friends and peers.
  • Keep a positive outlook.
  • Keep yourself healthy and safe.
  • When in doubt, ask for help.

Also, although EHS generalists are sought by employers, to stand out in the independent EHS consultant crowd, you need a special skill.