Since the days of Henry David Thoreau, environmentalism has been a noble field, exalting the land and water that our society too casually pollutes and disregards. Engineers who enter the environmental field can expect a work day that brings them in close contact with the earthtaking soil samples and testing air quality are two common assignments.
If you're interested in getting your hands dirty, however, don't expect to be romping through bogs everyday. Communication skills place high, as in any discipline. Writing ability assures that a professional can translate what's learned in the field into concise, readable reports; verbal skills allow effective team coordination.
And the nature of environmental work dictates a team platform. The industry draws on many disciplines to clean toxic sites or to perform city planningall within the purview of government regulations. Because of that, numerous people, each able to focus on a specific concern, are called upon to contribute. "Environmental engineering applies so many basic scienceschemistry, biology, geology," says Jeanne Riley, a project engineer with Camp Dresser & McKee environmental consultants. "We work with all kinds of sub-contractors who have specialized skills, like lead or asbestos removal. We also work with drilling companies and labs. There's a lot of coordination of other parties who are involved in a project."
That stimulating environment makes for a dynamic career path. "I'm not focused on just one project," says Erin Allen, of ABB Environmental Services. "Our company has a large, on-going contract, which provides a variety of opportunities for me."
Name: Erin AllenTitle: Engineer, Government Division
Company: ABB Environmental Services
Education: B.S., geological engineering, University of Missouri-Rolla
Job Description: Conduct environmental assessments and perform some remedial design work.
How I Knew Environmental Engineering Was the Field for Me: "When I finished high school I didn't know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to major in mathematics and enrolled at Rolla, which is primarily a technical school. After being exposed to engineering disciplines, I decided engineering would be better for me and environmental seemed like a good match, because I'm interested in the earth's resources and processes."
What the Job Is Like: "It's definitely not a 9-to-5 job. Some days are long, and about 50% of my time is spent in the field. When I'm out on a site, I'm doing mostly field work such as environmental assessments and oversight of construction projects."
On Sexism in the Workplace: "I have experienced some [gender bias] initially on projects, because they are male-dominated sites, but there's so much pressure on people to come into the '90s and be more accepting of others. I feel people are genuinely willing to work with me."
Biggest Surprise About Working: "The dynamics of the professional workplace. There's no way for school to prepare you for how many meetings and teleconferences there will be. I felt as though once I had my education, I would just go use it, but there's so much more to learn."
Non-technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "Communication and teamwork. My education prepared me well for that. We had to do a lot of presentations and a lot of team projects."
The Best Piece of Advice Someone Ever Gave Me: "One professor told me, 'Your degree is only the beginning of your education.' It didn't hit home when I was still in school, but there is so much more to learn, both technically and non-technically."
The Worst Piece of Advice Someone Ever Gave Me: "I had people tell me to go to grad school right after graduating. I wouldn't have known what to specialize in without being out in the field, though. I needed to have a job first, to figure out what my focused interests would be."
Advice to Future Environmental Engineers: "It's good to keep current on the ever-changing industry. Learn as much as you can about regulations and guidelines that drive your industry. That's sometimes something that you don't get exposed to enough in school. There are so many regulatory agencies, like the EPA. And ABB expects people to understand the guidelines that they're performing within."
What the Future Might Hold for Me: "I want to maintain a technical track, possibly getting more into design work. Some people want to pursue management, but I love having a mix of office and field work. It's nice to have the mix, because you need the field experience to fully realize what's going on."
Name: Jeanne Riley
Title: Project Engineer
Company: Camp Dresser & McKee
Education: B.S., M.S., civil engineering, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
- Perform on-site sampling of potential hazardous waste areas
- Preparation of reports and recommendations based on findings
Current Projects: Boston Central Artery Tunnel Project, which involves replacing a main highway in Boston with a tunnel. "We're sampling soil, sediment, ground water and underground storage tanks in the area, to determine areas where there are potential hazards and write specifications to tell contractors how to handle those materials."
What I Like About Environmental Engineering: "One day I'm in the field in a hard hat and boots, and the next day I'm in the office, writing a report on what I did or coming up with drawings.""I spend about 40% of my time in the field, and 60% in the office, and I love it that way. It's good to see how investigations are done and how remedial installations are put in. CDM tries to put young engineers in the field, and by doing the sampling yourself, or overseeing contractors, when it's your turn to do different reports or designs or specifications, you have seen it and it gives you a better perspective."
Biggest Problems Encountered: "Finding a balance between meeting regulatory requirements and meeting client budgets. Clients aren't always thrilled to be paying for environmental [needs], like complying with regulations, so the job often involves finding innovative ways to solve their problems."
On the Importance of a Master's Degree: "Everybody in this field has their master's degree. Environmental engineering is very broad and civil engineering is even more so. Getting my master's focused me much more on environmental and geotechnical [issues], industrial waste and air treatment. Then I focused even more on hazardous waste treatment."
Non-technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "Verbal and written communication with many other parties is something I do everyday. I'm always on the phone making sure that everyone knows what needs to be done, how a project will be scheduled, and how it will be executed.
"There's also some client contact, especially when you're in the field. You may be the only person the client sees, so you have to make sure you can communicate to them what you're doing."
The Best Piece of Advice Someone Ever Gave Me: "Diversify. Companies don't need a specialist at entry-level. They're looking for somebody who can do different things. At some point, you will specialize, but you will be more marketable [early in your career] as a generalist, able to work in different areas."
Advice to Future Environmental Engineers: "To students, I would advise taking the Engineer-in-Training test while in school. It really helps to have it out of the way. It's tough to study for it once you're out of school because it covers so many things you don't use in your job."
What the Future Might Hold for Me: "I see myself moving into project management. I enjoy learning about budgeting and management of resources, and dealing with clients more than being a technical expert.
"I don't see myself ever being in the office full timeyou learn so much in the fieldbut at some point, I will be more valuable in the office than in the field."