CORVALLIS - A looming national shortage of environmental health and safety professionals has spurred creation of a state task force and is pushing authorities to look for ways to ease the dilemma.
"This crisis has been the subject of many national meetings," said Annette Rossignol, Oregon State University professor of public health. The university's College of Health and Human Science's Department of Public Health offers the only undergraduate degree in the Oregon University System in environmental health and safety that is accredited by the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Council, Rossignol said. "Half of the environmental health and safety professionals will be retiring in the next five years and we will be facing a very serious shortage," she said.
The profession focuses on identifying and reducing environmental and safety risks in both public and private sector organizations. The science-based curriculum covers a wide array of topics, including water and air quality and toxicology, said Catherine Neumann, OSU associate professor of public health.
"In this field there's opportunity all over the place," said Dennis Barlow, a 1995 OSU environmental health and safety graduate and now a safety and insurance manager for Watsonville-Calif.-based Granite Construction.
"OSU's program provides a good hiring base for industry," Barlow said. "We're very active in recruiting out of Oregon State." Federal, state and local governments hire a large number of health and safety workers, and there are also numerous spots in priv ate industry in careers such as occupational health and safety, Barlow added.
Most jobs require four-year degrees in environmental health and safety or related fields, Neumann said, with about half of the graduates working for government agencies, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. A significant factor exacerbating the shortage is a 40 percent drop in student enrollment in the 24 nationally accredited environmental health and environmental health and safety academic programs between 1995 and 1999, analysts said.
One reason given for the lower enrollments is that most programs lack visibility on university campuses and among high school counselors and science teachers, OSU educators said.
Many students pursuing the career say that once they find out about the profession, they are impressed with the depth of opportunities in the field. "I am so happy that I made the decision to pursue this field," said Michelle Templin, an OSU senior and a 1997 graduate of Lake Oswego High School. "I feel that I have many opportunities before me. When I look through the job ads for environmental health and safety, there are jobs everywhere for all kinds of different types of companies. There are jobs in the business, government, enforcement, and research areas."
Templin agrees that finding information about careers in the field can be tough.
"I found this major by accident. I transferred to OSU during my junior year from Portland State. After thumbing through the OSU Bulletin, I found EHS, which matched my interests in preventative health, science, and the environment."
Templin's enthusiasm about job opportunities seems well founded.
Job growth within the field should hover around 20 percent through 2010, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. A study commissioned by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and conducted by the Institute of Medicine, "Saf e Work in the 21st Century: Education and Training Needs for the Next Decade's Occupational Safety and Health Personnel," concluded that the future need for occupational safety and health professionals will exceed current supply well into the 21st century .
At OSU, the environmental health and safety program has a student placement record of 100 percent with requests for professional student internship opportunities exceeding the current number of students enrolled in the program.
The average starting salary of a new graduate of the program is $35,000 per year, Neumann said.
Within Oregon, a taskforce, comprised of members from the Oregon Health Division, OSU, the Department of Environmental Quality, and directors of environmental health programs in county health departments, was convened this year to address the shortage.
The shortfall will be acute given the projected vacancies at the county health department level, but the shortages also will occur within supervisor positions, Rossignol said. The taskforce estimates 50 entry-level environmental health specialist position s will be available within the next five years in Oregon alone.