Environmental companies struggle to find qualified workers


January 08, 1991|By Grant Ferrier | Grant Ferrier,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

One of the more unsettling factors facing a manager in an environmental service company today is the shortage of qualified people to fill vacancies. While the ability of private sector companies to expand and increase profits is clearly being hampered by this personnel crisis, in the long run the taxpaying public may be the biggest loser.

Higher salaries tend to ensure that the private sector gets the pick of the bunch in whatever field, and government agencies have long lost personnel to the private sector, often after investing heavily in training.

Regulatory agencies tend to invest more in training than private environmental companies, according to Dr. Jacalyn Spiszman, a project manager for the Toxic Substance Control Program of the California Department of Health Services (DHS).

"It's hard to say no," said Spiszman, who has seen many colleagues cross over into the private sector. "After six years with the agency, a manager could go to Chemical Waste Management and earn triple their government salary . . . It's a real serious problem for the agencies."

State salaries top out after five years, says Spiszman, who has published the guidebook "Careers in Hazardous Waste Management." On the California DHS engineering ladder, the top entry-level monthly salary without a master's degree is $2,600. An associate engineer earns $3,700; a supervisory engineer, $4,300, and a unit chief has a ceiling of $4,700.

According to the 1988 Salary Survey prepared by Wayne Associates Inc. of Virginia Beach, Va., in conjunction with the 1988 Superfund Conference, federal agencies pay slightly lower than state agencies at entry- and mid-level positions. However, supervisory and upper-level managers are marginally better compensated at the federal level.

Private sector salaries are comparable to both at the entry level but have significantly higher ceilings and employees usually have more potential for accelerated advancement. The ongoing crunch for environmental personnel is fueling the escalation in salaries in the private sector. Higher salaries paid by companies are obviously picking up the pace of flight from government agencies.

With 1,300 employees, the Washington State Department of Ecology is the 11th largest state agency in the United States. Natural resources, wildlife and other ecology-related affairs fall under sister agencies.

In spite of year-round nationwide recruiting efforts, which include informal public relations by staff, the department still has vacancies. In fact, "it has almost reached the point where we see the need for a permanent in-house recruiter dedicated exclusively to hiring the notoriously hard-to-get environmental engineers and environmental scientists," says personnel manager Larry Keller.

The personnel department has tabulated employment statistics for a 2.5-year hiring period. Keller believes retention is a qualitative rather than a quantitative problem. "If I lose a person with five to six years experience, I'm losing a lot of knowledge," and there's no one with equal experience who's going to walk through the door as a replacement, Keller says. In general, the department managed well during its two-year growth spurt only because of meticulous planning, he adds.

From July 1987 to June 1989, the department hired 480 people and lost 128; in the six months beginning July 1989, 123 were hired and 45 left.

Choice has also become a luxury. Salaries are 22.5 percent to 30 percent behind the prevailing private sector rates, Keller says, so "We probably can't compete for the best." For example, the department currently has six vacancies for registered engineers and only seven potential candidates to fill the posts.

The loss of qualified government personnel is, some believe, putting the public at risk. For instance, Monsanto Chemical Co. has been involved at more than 50 Superfund hazardous waste cleanup sites nationwide. Willard Varnardo, director of remedial projects, says that the success of a Superfund project depends on the skills of the agency project manager and that the Environmental Protection Agency is hampered by the lack of experience at this key position. One site involving Monsanto has had 11 project managers in four years, turnover which has led to seemingly interminable delays, Varnardo says.

The importance of experienced project managers cannot be underestimated in the minds of both the private and public sector. As the pace of environmental cleanups accelerates, these people will be increasingly in demand. The competition for technical talent has just begun.

Grant Ferrier is editor of the Environmental Business Journal, San Diego, Calif.

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