Help me start my environmental consulting career!
May 16, 2011 11:12 AM   Subscribe

Help me start my environmental consulting career!

I have a Masters in botany, and have been trying for years to do “good work”: restoration, monitoring, conservation related activities, etc. In the area in which I live (Pacific Northwest, US) the job market is very competitive, even in good times, so it’s been difficult to get anything beyond seasonal work. Over a year ago I finally landed in a permanent job in my field that pays relatively well, but has a long commute, no benefits, and I’m miserable there (terrible bosses, no intellectual stimulation, and stressful!) I’m several years out of school and just want a career so I can get on with the home-buying, kids, etc. and at this point am “over” trying to do good work (that’s what volunteering is for, right?). I would like something varied, interesting, with benefits and opportunity for career advancement. The obvious solution: environmental consulting!

The good news: Through a family connection I recently obtained a part-time position, secret-moonlighting-style, for a large multi-national engineering/consulting firm that has an environmental management arm that they are trying to grow in our region. However, I am “hourly as-needed”, and right now they are not needing me very much. If I didn’t have a full time job, I could get included in other projects and gain more experience, but since I don’t want to give up the full time job (husband’s in school, I’m main breadwinner), I can only get work on the projects that I can bring home, do on the weekends, etc. Since my hiring in March I’ve done one wetland delineation, which was a blast but work has dried up since (some other projects have fallen through or been delayed).

So here are my questions:
1) I have seen other on-call consulting positions, and I’m wondering if one can cobble together something resembling full-time work by working multiple on-call positions at one time. Assuming the jobs can be scheduled flexibly (my new company has worked around my schedule so far), is this scenario possible? I imagine there are some conflicts of interest (maybe competing for the same contracts?) that may prohibit this plan. Does anyone do this?

2) How does one break into this field without much of the required experience? I have gobs of botanical survey experience, also some wildlife survey experience, and have great research, writing and statistical skills. On the minus side, I’m missing the permitting and regulatory knowledge they don’t really teach in school but is usually needed in this work. I’ve applied for many of these kinds of positions and have only ever gotten one interview, so clearly I’m lacking something.

Successful environmental consultants, tell me your stories!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Caveat: I'm not a successful environmental consultant, I'm a regulator, so I don't have an answer to your first question. Having wetland delineation experience will be great, that's frequently a need. In order to get more work, I'd recommend becoming familiar with the regs that drive the market. Is the sort of work you'd like to do driven by wetlands regs? Clean-up regs?

Can you views reports that have been done through your part-time job to learn more about the permitting and regs? Are their short courses you could take that would beef up your resume? There are often other continuing education credits to be had (explaining the regs, risk assessment, or getting Hazwopper certification) that would make you a more attractive hire. Good luck! Not only is there after-work, but environmental consultants even sometimes get to do work, too.
posted by ldthomps at 11:54 AM on May 16, 2011

My caveat is that I sometimes hire environmental consultants, but I am not one myself.

no intellectual stimulation, and stressful

That sounds like a good description of a lot of consulting jobs, plus the prospect of being downsized when things get tough. A lot of former consultants are looking for agency jobs right now, though that will reverse if the economy gets better.

I don't see a lot of sharing of freelancers, though that could be happening behind the scenes. Most permit experience seems to be ojt plus workshops offered by the regulators, though I am sure people study this in school, too.

Watch out for perceptions of conflict of interest -- it seems to be a very insular field, lots of personalities, and people are extremely sensitive about poaching jobs and ideas.
posted by Forktine at 1:07 PM on May 16, 2011

When it comes to breaking into environmental consulting, especially something common like wetland/terrestrial resources, displaying some business acumen is huge. Right off the bat you'll be doing field surveys and technical work, but as your career (hopefully) progresses you'll need to find and bid projects, manage people, and show that you can figure out how to do things profitably. Conveying you're capable of this in your resume and interviews is important, especially if you already have a MS.

Most environmental consulting firms make money on a time/materials basis, meaning only when the employees are performing billable functions for a client do they bring in revenue. So, having someone with a Masters working part time as they need you and not ever having to pay you when there's no work (no "overhead") is ideal for them. You should try to get your current part time gig to turn into a full time offer by giving them a reason to justify a certain amount of overhead. If you know they want to expand in the region, tell them you're willing to do whatever it takes to develop contacts (ie property developers), establish relationships with regulators, and learn the permitting process.
posted by nowoutside at 1:19 PM on May 16, 2011

From a scrap metal standpoint (my industry), where environmental compliance & regulations are always on people's minds.... try contacting the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI)... at They can probably point you in the right direction.

posted by foodybat at 1:29 PM on May 16, 2011

I am an environmental consultant. I'm not in your area, but my firm does work in your area, and has a regular contractor and an associated office in your area (although we do very little wetlands work -- sorry!).

If you definitely want to get into environmental consulting, I'd suggest continuing to apply for entry-level or mid-level jobs in the field. Hiring was really slow for a while there, but it's been picking up quite a bit in the past few months, especially in due diligence. I'd also suggest looking for positions that include, but don't focus on, wetlands. I suspect there are more places looking for entry-level due diligence hires who'd be happy to find someone with additional wetlands background than there are places looking for full-time wetlands folks.

In terms of on-call or contractor work, it's pretty challenging to try to cobble together a full-time load of environmental consulting work if you haven't worked in-house, especially if you're specialized. We have a lot of part-time contractors who work for us, but all of them were in-house for us or another firm. It's not unheard of for the contractor to do just the field work and let the consultants write the report, do the regulatory analysis, etc., but it's rare -- at least at my company, we're looking for people who can deliver a finished product.

I would suggest not getting too tied to consulting as a perfect job opportunity. It depends somewhat on the company, but consulting can be extremely stressful, and it's rarely kid-friendly, especially if your company requires a lot of travel. Entry-level salaries may actually be worse than in the non-profit sector, although they do generally include benefits.

A year or two as an entry-level consultant can be an awesome learning experience, and it'd be a good way to see if it's a fit for you -- and if it isn't, you can take that experience somewhere else.

I also like nowoutside's plan, although it might be a challenging sell without previous experience in-house at a consulting firm.
posted by pie ninja at 1:37 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am an academic type scientist, not a consultant, but many of the listservs I'm on have ads for short courses of all types that might be useful to you in gaining some regulatory knowledge. When I was a moderator on an environmental jobs listserv in another lifetime that was always the advice people got: to get their HAZWOPER certifications, take a wetland delineation class, get certified for your jurisdiction in erosion and sediment control inspection, etc. Now I see even more cool stuff offered by groups like the Center for Watershed Protection.

I don't know how you would work taking short courses in with 2 jobs and a family, but it might help you make your resume more attractive for the kind of jobs you're interested in.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:01 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

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