Environmental Science Career Field

Environmental Science Career Field Structure

Environmental CareersThe number of environmental jobs in the United States is thought to be between one and 4.5 million, with most estimates falling around the two million mark. Environmental needs are so pervasive, affecting so many different types of industries, municipalities, and wilderness areas, that the environmental industry really is found everywhere. Based upon the Environmental Career Organization’s (ECO) general breakdown of environmental jobs, the following is a loose overview of the structure of the industry.


Whether the objective is to save a wildlife habitat, put a transportation system in place, or guide a booming city’s expansion, environmental planners focus on developing a detailed scheme upfront to help make sure the objective is met. They became very important with the passage of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act and its rule that any federal project requires an environmental impact statement—that is, the people carrying out the project have to research and document the effect of the project on the environment. Though most environmentalists do some planning, official planners tend to view a situation more widely and address several problems with one plan. They may concentrate on a specific geographic area or a specific environmental issue, such as air quality.

Environmental planners may have backgrounds in environmental science, land management, or law. They rely on a network of experts, including researchers and scientists who report on air, water, and soil quality and wildlife conservation and management. Planners also use environmental lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations specialists to help get plans approved.

Environmental planning also includes education and communication. Teachers, from preschool to college level, and wildlife guides share the task of communicating information about the environment to others. Jobs in this category include everything from college professors who instruct tomorrow’s scientists and engineers, to tour guides who take groups through Yellowstone or the Everglades, as well as corporate communications workers who inform the public about a company’s activities that might impact the environment. Because of their bias, their information may or may not be the most reliable. Currently, an urgent task is to help educate people about landfills and other touchy, but critical, subjects so that communities can make informed decisions about them.

Solid Waste Management

This is the largest of the environmental fields. Chemists, engineers, recycling coordinators, recycling experts, and others in this field seek to cut down on the amount and danger of solid wastes, popularly known as garbage. Once, people just put their garbage in dumps; then they started burning it; then they used landfills. Now, solid waste managers are trying to reduce the amount of garbage generated in the first place (source reduction), lower the toxicity of garbage that goes into landfills, and find new uses for garbage (such as turning waste into energy). They also seek ways to burn garbage more efficiently, without releasing toxic substances into the air. Individual communities and businesses employ these professionals to help them handle their solid waste. In addition, special companies devoted solely to collecting, separating, transporting, and disposing of others’ solid waste have become a big business.

Increasing public concern about the amount and kind of solid waste accumulation has created opportunities in green businesses. These business are concerned with making products that do not harm the environment during manufacturing or use, and packaging is either biodegradable or recyclable. Other businesses concentrate on turning nonbiodegradable material into new products. For example, old tires can be used to make floor mats, asphalt surfaces, carpet padding, playground equipment, bumpers, and guardrails. Plastics can be turned into siding, lumber, wire and cables, carpeting, and clothing. There are numerous jobs associated with the design, manufacture and marketing of green products, although there is some debate about whether these should be called environmental careers.

Hazardous Waste Management

Hazardous wastes present another, different problem: this is garbage that’s potentially lethal to human health or the environment and must be disposed of in special ways. The ECO says millions of tons of such substances are produced each year. While the chemical industry produces by far the most hazardous waste—up to 70 percent of it—there are many other sources as well, from nuclear reactors to dry cleaners. Biologists, chemists, engineers, geologists, hydrogeologists, and many others are employed in this field. Specialists include radioactive waste managers, who deal with the various waste materials produced by nuclear energy production and nuclear-powered equipment manufacturing, and industrial health/hygienists, who focus on the health effects of exposure to hazardous waste. Opportunities are found with local, state, and federal environmental agencies; on in-house staffs of companies that generate hazardous waste; with consultants or disposal companies; and with emergency response companies, which specialize in dealing with hazardous waste emergencies like chemical spills.

Air Quality Management

Air quality engineers, air quality planners, analytical chemists, and toxicologists are just some of the people in this field, which is devoted to the abatement and prevention of air pollution. Under this broad category, people might work on acid rain, ozone depletion, or greenhouse gases. Even more specifically, they might analyze the root causes of these problems. Some study the effects of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, particulates, or mercury, all of which are substances emitted into the air when fuels or trash are burned. Others study how much sulfur dioxide is emitted in a coal-burning process. Some design, implement, and monitor the effectiveness of scrubbers, which are devices that clean emissions before they’re released into the atmosphere. Others monitor the effects of a certain quantity of sulfur dioxide on the human respiratory system or on animal and plant life.

Water Quality Management

This area focuses on getting polluted water back to the desired quality level, whether for drinking, swimming, fishing, power, irrigation, or other uses. Work involves rivers, lakes, canals, and other surface water, as well as the water below the ground, known as groundwater. A key area is the recovery and treatment of wastewater for reuse; this is the biggest area of focus within the water quality management category. Other areas of interest are the preservation of wetlands, which are home to certain fish and wildlife, and the reduction of the damaging effects of floods and droughts. Wetlands ecologists, fish and wildlife scientists, and botanists are just some of the professionals working on wetlands problems.

Land and Water Conservation

In addition to conserving wilderness areas, this category includes work to ensure better use of land and water for any purpose, so both can sustain many different types of plants and animals. There are specific laws for conservation of federal- and state-owned land and water, including the National Forest System. Local governments develop their own plans for any land or water in the area not owned by the state or federal government. Special projects in this field include reconstructing destroyed ecosystems. The federal government employs the most people in this category, in such agencies as the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service.

Fishery and Wildlife Management

This area focuses not only on making sure there are enough of certain species of fish and animals to meet human needs but on taking steps to ensure the health of the whole surrounding ecosystem that supports these species. Wildlife biologists and fishery biologists are key players in this field. Professionals in this category work on wetlands restoration, saving endangered species, cleaning up contaminants, and other projects. Private fisheries and other private companies, plus many U.S. agencies like the Forest Service, employ people in this category.

Parks and Outdoor Recreation

Rangers, forest firefighters, geologists, landscape architects, and many others fall into this category. So do park managers, resource managers, researchers, and maintenance personnel. While the National Park Service employs some of these professionals, it doesn’t use many. These professionals are found in greater numbers working for other U.S. agencies, or for state, county, or city parks, zoos, and other facilities. One intriguing area in this category is the re-greening of city neighborhoods, which involves bringing open park spaces back into urban areas.


The majority of work in this field involves ensuring healthy forests for use in lumber, paper, and other manufacturing. Smaller percentages of employees work for federal, state, or local governments as foresters, helping to conserve and expand forests. Even smaller percentages work for consulting firms, educational organizations, or nonprofit organizations. Issues in this field include saving endangered species, conserving forest wetlands, and combating pollution. Urban forestry also is increasingly drawing interest; the number of trees within urban areas is dropping, and cities are using foresters to help regain the numbers.

Again, it’s important to note that many environmental problems are interrelated and work may crisscross between categories. For example, biologists discovered that a major section of the Florida Everglades was contaminated by mercury. After that initial discovery, it took other scientists to figure out how the mercury got there and where it came from. They discovered that incinerated mercury had been carried into the surface water by rain. What started out as solid waste was burned and caused air pollution, which in turn led to the formation of acid rain, which polluted the water in the Everglades.

Federal and state regulatory officials play an important role in the environmental industry. One of their key tasks is to go to the original source or sources of the problem, such as commercial incinerators, and determine whether the emissions are within legal limits. If not, the offending company might be fined or given a certain amount of time to comply with the regulations. The regulator checks later to determine whether the problem has been fixed. He or she also might testify against the polluter in court.