Environmental Consulting Firms: A Profile

by Charles A. Andrews, SSP&A

Environmental consulting firms hire more geoscience graduates than any other industrial sector. In 2000, about 35% of the geoscience undergraduates that did not continue their education accepted employment in environmental consulting firms. For those with higher degrees, the percentage accepting employment in environmental consulting firms was lower: about 28% of those completing MS degrees, and about 3% of those completing Ph.D. degrees. Environmental consulting is big business; in 2000 the total revenues of the top 200 environmental consulting firms was nearly $29 billion. The annual growth rate in this sector was modest in 2000, about 4% increase over 1999. Employment in this sector is projected to continue to grow, but at a slower rate in the near term.

Federal, state and local governments are the source of over 60% of the revenues of environmental consulting firms. Recent growth in the sector has occurred as the result of flush governmental coffers funding infrastructure improvements, water-management studies, and cleanups at Federal facilities. The expected decline in government surpluses over the near term is expected to result in a reduction of government contracting. Spending by the industrial sector is primarily driven by governmental regulations, and growth in spending in this sector in the past few years has been driven by the redevelopment of old industrial sites.

Excellent opportunities are available for geoscientists in environmental consulting firms at all education and skill levels. Expertise in the geosciences is utilized in a large variety of projects that deal with issues such as geologic hazards, waste management, groundwater management, surface-water management, and erosion and sedimentation. A skilled geoscientist in an environmental consulting firm can have the opportunity to deal with a wide variety of geologic issues on an annual basis.

Environmental consulting firms generally seek to hire employees that like to solve problems. Key skills for a geoscientist to be successful as an environmental consultant are good field observation skills, a sound grasp of geologic processes, the ability to quantitatively describe geologic processes, and good communication skills.

Environmental consulting firms vary greatly in size; the largest firms have over 15,000 employees. Geoscientists comprise less than five percent of the total staff at the largest firms, but at a number of small specialty firms geologists comprise over 50% of the staff. The nature of geoscience investigations conducted by environmental consulting firms varies greatly from firm to firm, and prospective employees should carefully assess the type of geoscience studies conducted by a given firm. Geoscience investigation at many firms are superficial in nature, but some firms--especially small-specialty firms--conduct top-notch geoscience research. As a result, opportunities are available for generalists and specialists.

The long-term prospect for employment in the environmental consulting sector is excellent. Society's desire to improve environmental quality, to better understand and manage geologic hazards, and the need to manage limited water resources will create a robust long-term demand for geoscientists in environmental consulting firms.